Fresh identity

Queen’s University Belfast welcomes a dynamic new student hub and learning spaces to its city centre campus.



urwell Deakins Architects has completed a new £1.4m student hub and lecture theatre for Queen’s University Belfast (QUB). Situated at the heart of the university, the pavilion acts as a social core for the QUB campus and a breakout area for informal and social learning.

The new hub is located inside the pre-existing David Keir Building courtyard, which – with a gross internal area of 27,000m² – is the University’s largest single building. As a result, this location offers a prominent facility which is accessible from all areas of the surrounding building.

Featuring a series of blocks with central corridors oriented around a courtyard space, the David Keir Building accommodates a number of disparate schools located in different zones. Following this, the new pavilion – which was shortlisted for both WAN Education and RIBA Northern Ireland awards – is required to cater to a broad section of the student body, including students of the Psychology, Architecture and Planning and Chemistry schools.

The project arrives in response to a brief that called for a building with a “clear identity” that could house an active set of collaborative spaces that could support and connect different modes of learning. The university also recognised the need for teaching spaces that could reflect the evolving learning landscape, with adaptable spaces that could allow lecturers to move between didactic and collaborative learning modes.

The building programme has been welcomed by the Student Union, who praised the hub for its innovative contemporary design in an otherwise unambitious built environment. Ciaran Gallagher, President of the Queen’s University Belfast Student Union, also said: “The building provides a social setting for students at the heart of a complex that was desperately lacking a dedicated communal space.

“The new lecture theatres will radically enhance the ability of students to work collaboratively during teaching hours.”

Material dialogue

In response to the warm red hue of the surrounding David Keir Building, Burwell Deakins Architects chose to execute the hub’s exoskeleton in Corten steel – a material that simultaneously echoes the colour of the existing brickwork and references the city’s tradition of shipbuilding.

This steel frame also gives the hub its dynamic, angular form, and allows the building to assume strong identity whilst existing on a modest scale. The frame in turn supports a 250m2 glass shell, allowing for high levels of visibility between students occupying the facility and passers-by.

These glazed facades also incorporate glass louvers and roof lights, whilst the walls are heavily insulated. This creates a low carbon, naturally ventilated environment with local controllability designed to meet BREEAM Very Good standards.

Roland Carson, Head of Estates Planning at the university, said: “The pavilion offers a strong statement against the formal brick and stone of the existing building. It creates spaces both internal and external which have immediately become popular spaces for students and staff, delivering on the most important criterion for the success of the design: to provide a space where students wish to be.”

Lecture theatre, Connect Seating

Burwell Deakins Architects were also responsible for the refurbishment of the adjacent lecture theatre, which was deemed outdated by 21st century teaching methods by the facilities team at QUB.

The steep rake of the existing lecture theatre was re-organised to provide a series of terraces, upon which Burwell Deakins’ award-winning ‘Connect’ seating system was been installed, allowing lecturers to move between didactic and collaborative learning modes, without having to move students or furniture.

Connect replaces traditional straight benches with seating that follows geometric, undulating wave patterns arranged around shared tables. This spatial configuration groups students into small clusters, encouraging engagement and interaction between students with increasingly divergent learning styles. Desktop screens and tethered tablets are integrated into the Connect modules, allowing for direct engagement with the lecturer’s content. These also allow students with sight problems to access written information at close range, and a delegate conferencing system allows the hard of hearing access to direct head phone attachments or room induction loops.

Originally conceived by Burwell Deakins for a project at Loughborough University, Connect has since been implemented across a range of higher education schemes. Nicholas Burwell, founder of the practice, said: “When working at Loughborough Design School, we found that the design and thinking behind university auditoriums was rather prosaic and didn’t reflect pedagogic changes. We used our experience to probe the challenges of creating a much closer relationship between lecturer and student.

“We consulted with students and staff to help create a design that revolves around enhancing the relationship between the two, using a layer of technology alongside the development of innovative seating plans that challenge the traditional didactic character of lecture theatres.”

Space, plan, accessibility

These new teaching and learning spaces are linked to the building’s existing circulation route, drawing on a steady flow of movement to facilitate the exchange of knowledge. Internal windows enhance visual connections and encourage students to make use of teaching spaces for collaborative study when they are not in use. This extends the range of learning spaces available within the adjacent new student hub whilst improving the use profile of the auditorium.

The construction of the project required this existing circulation to remain ‘live’ at all times. This required the incorporation of tunnels through the site and careful coordination of the delivery and fixing of heavy materials and products.

The project overcomes a series of level changes, creating an inclusive environment that allows disability access to different levels of the auditorium and gives general access to the landscaped courtyard that had not previously existed. The AV and IT systems in the auditorium are all fully enabled for various user groups.

Nicholas Burwell said: “The intake of students at Queen’s University Belfast is increasingly international, and so our challenge was to create an environment that would meet the learning requirements of students who have all individually been equipped with different learning methods. We are incredibly pleased with the outcome of the project: the scheme enhances the existing facilities of the David Keir Building, and at the same time provides a distinctive new hub for students at QUB.”

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