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Construction to start in January on Sheffield University’s £45m social sciences building: ‘This is about competing with the world’

How the atrium will look inside Sheffield University's new social sciences building. Picture: HLM/University of Sheffield
How the atrium will look inside Sheffield University's new social sciences building. Picture: HLM/University of Sheffield

Architects Nick Beecroft and Karl Brown agree that designing Sheffield University's £45 million new social sciences building was a 'dream project'.

A facility for the institution's biggest faculty, serving 9,000 students, it will offer learning space for 13 departments in a prominent position on the edge of Broomhill, with construction poised to start in January.

"Part of the brief was to have a world-class facility, and I think we're going to deliver that," says Nick, director of the HLM practice where Karl also works in Sheffield.

"I'm really excited. Because it's such a big development and a game-changer in the architecture of the city, there's been a lot of interest."

Timescales have been revised slightly. Planning consent was granted by the council in summer 2017 but the scheme, expected to start at the beginning of this year, was put back by the university as it reviewed its spending. However, now things are coming together.

As the building will replace sports pitches at the Goodwin centre on Northumberland Road, replacement all-weather grounds are being provided at Norton - once these have been handed over, work can commence. An opening date is envisaged in September 2021.

"Everything is getting aligned," Nick says. "We're very confident we're going to be on site early in the new year."

Nick is among the founders of the Sheffield Property Association, of which HLM is a member. The Star is focusing on the mission of the SPA – which aims to be the ‘collective voice of property in Sheffield’ – through a series of features looking at major ventures. In each case, members – a diverse group including developers, both city universities, planning consultants, solicitors and commercial agents – are making a contribution in a professional capacity.

The social sciences overhaul is, Karl explains, part of a wider estates strategy. The faculty encompasses subjects such as law, geography and journalism, which are presently spread across more than 20 premises, and relies heavily on interdisciplinary research brought about through interactions between different departments.

"That can't be facilitated when they're in two dozen properties," says Karl. "What they need is a focal point in order to collaborate."

It will combine with the nearby management school - another HLM job - and the Elmfield building to form a proper campus; sociology, politics and economics will be based there permanently, so space has been created for more than 150 academics plus administration and support staff.

Design inspiration was taken from the site itself, where the Godfrey Dam - one of 10 that fed the city - once stood. The old dam threw up 'some interesting challenges', says Karl - the original wall still runs along Northumberland Road.

"We somehow wanted to reflect that heritage in having something that felt natural and reflected the idea of water."

The exterior will 'shimmer', not looking the same from any two directions. "It looks like a largely glass building but 40 per cent of it is clad in either pre-cast concrete, zinc, or natural materials that we think really ground it in its surroundings."

A large, airy, light-filled atrium sits at the four-storey development’s core, containing a research hub where students and staff can gather. "The things that often have the most impact are people just having a catch-up over a coffee," Nick observes.

There will be professional-standard TV and radio studios, and the plans have factored in some impressive moveable 'meeting pods', self-contained booths in which people can work and chat quietly.

"We had to design a building that is at once quiet, and available for research, and also a big, busy, student-facing building," says Karl. "Normally they'll do things separately."  

On the ground floor, a café will be open to the public. Weston Park Hospital will likely recommend the area as a nice spot where visitors and patients can sit, and the scheme is set back from the main road, tying in with the 'boulevard project', a community ambition to extend Sheffield's gold route for pedestrians up to Fulwood.

One decision yet to be made is what to call the block - the university usually picks the names of benefactors, industry figures or prominent staff. Sir Frederick Mappin, Alfred Denny and William Mitchinson Hicks, as well as several others, have all been honoured in this way.

"I can't say it's been easy, because it's a big building and it's got lots of complexity, but actually it's been a fabulous thing to be involved in," says Nick. "The elevations had countless hours and reviews."

Sheffield lacks iconic structures, Nick thinks. "It's got a few - some are Marmite, you either love or hate them - but I think as a city sometimes we do lack adventure in architecture. And I think that's changing."

HLM - which also dealt with a £36m refurbishment of the 22-storey Arts Tower, next to the student library - is on the university's consultancy framework, meaning an agreement is in place for the firm to draw up future proposals.

"We're now working with them on other opportunities," Nick says.

Much has been made of a decline in applications from prospective students, heightened by a fall in the number of 18-year-olds in the British population, but the situation will soon be reversed, Karl believes.

"There's been a natural dip in the birth rate, and as that starts to pick up over the next couple of years you've got to be prepared," he says. "Students are now a legacy from the Building Schools for the Future programme. They expect a certain standard of environment and technology. If you don't provide that somebody else will."

Nick puts it succinctly: "This is not about competing with the rest of the UK, this is about competing with the world."