Concrete Quarterly Interview
Recently Jamie spoke to Concrete Quarterly about our University of Edinburgh Wellbeing Centre project on the theme of retrofit and the carbon savings possible in re-use.
An unloved brutalist refectory building, slated for demolition, is back in rude health as a light-filled wellbeing centre
When the University of Edinburgh began updating its central campus, 7 Bristo Square’s days looked to be numbered. This unloved 1970s refectory bore many of the failings of architecture from that era: inaccessible, poorly lit and forbidding, its apparent lack of charm further marred by a series of pragmatic but ill-advised additions.
Which makes its new role as the university’s Health and Wellbeing Centre, bringing together its counselling and disability services, pharmacy and health facilities, something of a Lazarus-like recovery. Architect Page\Park has achieved this not with a radical overhaul, but by reinstating many of the building’s original modernist qualities.
“We tried to keep structural alterations to a minimum,” says project architect Jamie Hamilton. “This was partly because the health centre was kept in operation the whole time we were on site, but also because we were able to exploit its concrete frame, using the voids and big open spaces. Things get messed around with and things get added, and it clouds the original benefits. We’ve been able to take a lot of that away again.”
Page\Park embarked on this project before embodied carbon was a mainstream concern within the construction industry, but it increasingly shaped their thinking as design work progressed. “As a practice, we began looking into embodied carbon and the various sustainability benefits of retrofit, and here there were inherent benefits to keeping as much of the existing structure as possible, says Hamilton. “We developed a tool using the LETI guidance and the carbon cost per square metre of new-build offices and education buildings. That gave us a notional total of the embodied carbon if we had built this new to best practice. We then worked backwards to estimate what we had saved by retaining the substructure, structure and facades. It came to about a 75% saving.”
The building comprises a five-storey tower, which already acted as the university health centre, and a lower two-storey block behind, which housed a lecture theatre and smaller teaching spaces. Access was via stairs up to the tower podium, leading to a double-height entrance foyer at first-floor level. “It was quite a defensive base, with this great, solid, bush-hammered concrete plinth,” says Hamilton. It also had limited wheelchair access.
In one of the most prominent interventions, an entrance pavilion with a glazed colonnade has been added at ground level to present a more welcoming public face to the square. This is a steel-framed structure with precast-concrete panels, specified to match the cladding of the tower behind. This, in turn, has been repaired where necessary, cleaned and given a tinted coating to ensure a close match to the new pavilion.
Internally, the space has been reconfigured to provide a 50% increase in one-to-one consultation space provision, a student lounge, dedicated quiet spaces and activity rooms for everything from group counselling to yoga. A palette of natural tones and textures has been chosen to evoke familiarity and sense of place. New lifts have been installed to connect ground, first and second floors, making the building fully accessible for the first time.
Suspended ceilings have been removed throughout, exposing the original in-situ coffered slabs, which were in a good condition. In some areas, the grid of downstands has been used to route services; in others lights drop down from the centre of the coffers. Towards the back of the building, where it abuts the neighbouring student union and there are no windows, four of the coffers have been “cored”, with circular voids cut out to create lightwells.
A key move has been to open up a pyramidal lightwell that had been concealed by the lecture theatre soffit – a later addition. “They had put a sort of lid over that just killed the natural light coming in. It was a very odd space. I don’t think we were really aware that the rooflight was such an amazing feature until we squeezed our heads up above the soffit and got to dig around a bit more. It just opens the heart of the building back up.”