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Moulscomb makeover

13 May 15 Willmott Dixon is in the fit-out stages of a refurbishment project for the University of Brighton that has involved completely remodelling the interior of a building without evacuating the occupants. Margo Cole reports.

The transformation of the Cockcroft Building is the first refurbishment of a major building ever carried out by the University of Brighton
The transformation of the Cockcroft Building is the first refurbishment of a major building ever carried out by the University of Brighton

The Moulscomb campus of the University of Brighton occupies a commanding position on the top of a hill to the north of the city centre. Views from the campus are spectacular, with the sea in one direction and the South Downs in the other. But the university itself is also something of a landmark – particularly its iconic Cockcroft Building.

This 10-storey, 15,400m2 building is one of the largest in the university’s estate and houses teaching rooms, laboratories, workshops, offices, students’ union and restaurant facilities. It was built in the 1960s, for what was then Brighton College of Technology, and is a striking example of the architecture of the day: a rectangular block built in a bold combination of white painted concrete, brick infill panels and Crittall windows. The structure certainly has its fans, although the university acknowledges that its design does divide opinion, describing it as a “Marmite building”. However, even the most enthusiastic supporter of its modernist style would accept that, after 50 years of use, the Cockcroft Building is no longer ideal as a modern teaching and learning environment. A few years ago, the university looked at the possibility of replacing just the mechanical and electrical services that were past their service life. But it soon realised that the level of disruption this would cause made it costeffective to undertake a more extensive refurbishment of the building at the same time – the first refurbishment of a major building ever carried out by the university. It appointed Fraser Brown MacKenna Architects to lead a multidisciplinary team that initially undertook a feasibility study and then developed a full design for the refurbishment. In August 2012 the university awarded a £19m contract to Willmott Dixon to carry out the refurbishment – a figure that has since gone up to £23m as the scope of the work has increased.

Willmott Dixon is demolishing all internal walls
Willmott Dixon is demolishing all internal walls

In essence, the contract involves completely demolishing all the existing internal walls on floors two to eight, and creating new, state-ofthe- art teaching, learning and administration spaces in their place. These include a new lecture theatre, laboratories for a range of different sciences and completely new offices. It also includes replacing all the mechanical, electrical and public health services; installing new plant rooms at roof level; putting in three new lifts; and replacing all the windows and insulating the walls as part of a range of improvements to make the building more energy efficient and to reduce CO2 emissions and running costs.

The university estimates that its fuel bills will be cut by at least one third thanks to the range of measures being installed during the refurbishment, including photovoltaic cells on the roof and an aquifer thermal energy store – a massive borehole in the courtyard – that provides heating and cooling. In all, around 10,000m2 of the building is being refurbished, with just the ground floor and the mezzanine level above it – the building’s main circulation areas - being left out.

While this would be a major challenge in an empty building, it is made far more complex by the fact that the Cockcroft Building is remaining occupied throughout the refurbishment and fit-out. Willmott Dixon is given access to two floors of the building at a time, while lectures, teaching, laboratories and meetings continue as usual on all the other levels. It means that the contractor has had to develop methods of working that mean the 950 staff and students who are using the building are not adversely affected by the work.

The Cockroft Building's '60s architecture is an acquired taste
The Cockroft Building's '60s architecture is an acquired taste

Key to this are very strict rules about the hours in which the firm can undertake noisy activities, as Willmott Dixon senior build manager Lewis Hepburn explains: “The floor slab is only 150mm or 160mm deep, so we cannot be making noise on one floor while there is a lecture going on immediately below. We have got ‘noisy times’ that we can work.

“Our noisy times are before 9am, between 12 and 2pm, and after 5pm,” he adds. “We have planned the work so that the guys start at 7am and pre-drill holes into the slab up to 9am. Then, between 9am and 12pm they are cutting boards and studs and fixing them. And from 12pm until 2pm they can drill into the slab again.” These “noisy hours” rules only apply during term time, so Hepburn has tried to plan the work so that many of the most disruptive activities are done when the students are not using the building. The Construction Index visited the project on the last day of term before the Easter break and, in Hepburn’s words, the contractor was all set to “hit the demolition hard” for the next five weeks.

In addition to the noise rules, Willmott Dixon has also had to work around the university’s exam timetable, as many of the rooms in the building are used for exams. The contractor started work on site in November 2012, intending to start at the top and move down through the building. With Levels 9 and 10 being plant rooms – which Willmott Dixon is completely rebuilding and re-roofing – the top two teaching floors are on Levels 8 and 7, which is where the firm started.

Staff based on these two floors had moved to offices elsewhere in the building and in a temporary building in the car park until their new facilities were finished, so the contractor had unrestricted access. The work involved demolishing all the internal walls and putting in new offices on Level 8 and laboratories on 7.

This was followed by Levels 6 and 5 – both of which were mainly transformed into new office and break-out areas – before work started on the next two floors. But here the sequence was not quite as straightforward, with the contractor moving onto floors four and two. “There is certain equipment that could not be moved out of Level 3 until Level 4 was finished,” explains Hepburn. “Having Level 3 as an occupied floor while we worked above and below them has not been easy. It has taken a lot of management time to make sure we’re keeping the university happy.” Level 4 has now been completed, and includes some new electronics laboratories, while Level 2 contains a new lecture theatre and teaching rooms. The contractor has now been given access to Levels 3 and 1, and anticipates completing all the work later this year.

While the configuration of each floor in the refurbished building is different, there are common activities that Willmott Dixon and its subcontractors have to undertake in all of them. All 986 of the original steel-framed Crittall windows have been replaced with modern versions that have low-e glazing on the north side of the building and solar control to the south to prevent too much solar gain. “Almost every aperture had to be measured individually, because the age of the building means there may have been some movement, and we could not assume a ballpark figure for all of them,” explains Hepburn.

Willmott Dixon's senior build manager Lewis Hepburn (r) with operations manager Tony O'Shea
Willmott Dixon's senior build manager Lewis Hepburn (r) with operations manager Tony O'Shea

Additional measures to improve the energy efficiency of the building include installing insulation panels on the inside of the structure’s brick-clad walls, and putting additional thermal insulation on the beams and beneath the floor for 1m adjacent to the external walls, to slow down the effect of cold bridging between the external structure and the interior. All the flooring inside the building is also being replaced, with raised metal floor panels being fitted on top of the original parquet in the corridors, offices, break-out areas and teaching rooms, and vinyl floors in the labs. The metal floor panels are secondhand – a piece of value engineering that has saved the client hundreds of thousands of pounds, as well as having a major environmental impact. “It comes down to a lot of planning to make sure our supplier is sourcing enough,” says Hepburn. “They clean it, snag it and make sure it is structurally sound.”

The slightly worn metal flooring fits with the overall look of the refurbished interiors, which have a slightly industrial feel thanks to exposed ducts and pipework at ceiling level. What were once dark interiors, with individual offices and heavy partitions, are now bright, open, airy spaces, with glazed partitions and natural light flooding in.

Talking to Hepburn, it is obvious that the key to the success of a complex fit-out contract like this one is planning: from planning exactly what can be achieved during “noisy hours” to arranging for deliveries to arrive just in time, because there is nowhere for delivery lorries to park on the tight, congested site.

All materials are taken into the building using an external hoist, which is also used by all the operatives to get to the floor they are working on, rather than using the staircases. “There are only two staircases in the building, so we would have had to mix, which would not have worked,” explains Hepburn. “The hoist is the best option, because it reduces manual handling and keeps us out of the way of the university as much as possible.”

As soon as the contractor is given access to one of the floors, it seals off the entrances to those areas from the stairwells using fire-rated partitions. This enables staff and students to carry on using the stairs quite safely, because they are completely separated from the work areas. It has also installed a network of temporary wireless fire alarms – just one of the temporary measures that have to be put in place every time a new work area is opened up. Although all the existing services are being replaced, they cannot simply be stripped out in one go, as they are still being used on the floors that have yet to be refurbished. The new design includes two new risers going up through the middle of the building to carry the services vertically to each level, but the contractor can only create this riser one floor at a time. “We break out the slabs for the new risers and run the permanent pipework down these risers, but then we have to make a temporary connection to the existing riser until we get a chance to work on the floor below,” explains Hepburn. “When we break the next floor out, we can bring it back to there, and join it to the new.”

Willmott Dixon has built new laboratories on Level 7...
Willmott Dixon has built new laboratories on Level 7...

The project’s architect and engineering designers have designed the fit-out using BIM (building information modelling), and passed the 3D BIM model to the contractor at the start of the contract. Hepburn says the model has been very useful for clash detection, especially when things change or get updated. He has also used it to help the subcontractors visualise exactly what the working areas look like.

“One of the benefits for us is getting the guys who are going to build it and walking them through the project,” he says. “They will pick up things that are not that clear on the 2D drawings, so it gives them a real understanding of what the building will look like. “BIM is not that common in fit-out, and it’s the first time I’ve used it,” he adds. “It seems to have helped with the buildability.”

While the subcontractors are “walking” through the 3D BIM model, the staff who are based in the Cockcroft Building have physical walkarounds through the real thing. These monthly events are organised by the university’s client liaison manager, who acts as the intermediary between Willmott Dixon and the occupants, collating any changes that are required as the project progresses, and also acting as a single point of contact for the university’s own stakeholders.

“In the early days we would get people coming to us who were not involved in the design or building process saying that something was not going to work,” explains Hepburn. “Now we have a technical person from the university who gets involved half way through the fit-out and firms up any issues. It means that we get stakeholder/user buy-in earlier in the fit-out process.

“And we have monthly walkarounds, which are a chance for the people who are moving in on that floor to have a look at it – so again we’re ironing out problems earlier. We have built very good relationships with the university’s maintenance team and their client liaison manager,” he adds.

...and new offices on Level 8
...and new offices on Level 8

This article first appeared in the May 2015 issue of The Construction Index magazine. To read the full magazine online, click here.

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