24 September 2020

Bidwells' Head of Oxford, Richard Todd, joined the University of Oxford and Allies and Morrison in a webinar organised by New London Architecture (NLA), discussing 'University Estates as City Makers' - their response to Covid and longer-term plans.

Chaired by NLA's Benjamin O'Connor, the webinar talked about Universities as key players in the development sector, and as major landowners, and asked how are they planning to grow and address key challenges in the current climate? 

Richard was asked "What have you seen to be the biggest trends in the design of university campuses across the Golden Triangle? How do you think COVID will impact them on the medium to long term?"  You can listen to a recording of Richard's response below. 

Richard Todd audio University Estates as City Makers

click to listen


Vicky Thornton of Allies and Morrison gave a presentation on their work at Imperial College London, Elephant & Castle and Cambridge Biomedical Science, among others, illustrating the increasing importance for universities to be adjacent to science, technology, commercial, retail, and residential developments - and their symbiotic relationship. 

On the topic of sustainability, she also touched upon biosolar leaf technology, which is being incorporated into design to clean the air above urban rooftops. 

Alistair Cory, of Oxford Sciences Innovation, University of Oxford, acknowledged that the biggest challenges the universities are facing are health, wellbeing, safety and finance - particularly as their event venues and museums have been shut throughout the pandemic, and they were expecting low numbers of new students. However, positively, Alistair reported that they had actually had more students join than predicted.  You can watch the full webinar here


Transcript of Richard Todd's speaking slot

Your question made me think of two things:

  • Do we need to worry about Covid and its influence over design?
  • Do we need to develop schemes that are pandemic proof for the future?

How do we future-proof schemes recognising the conflict between creating… will we get adjacencies and blurred margins of spaces and enabling productive serendipitous interaction, moving around, segregation and flexibility from a special and infrastructure perspective. Some points to touch on are:

  • I think we clearly need to react in terms of design
  • I don’t think we need to over react in terms of design
  • I think we need to compromise in terms of design

The construction industry has shown amazing resolve, resilience and creativity in continuing to support the build environment over the last six months. We have overcome real issues around safety, productivity, how we have engaged with many stakeholders in teams.

I think we are pushing back on cultural shifts of people sitting behind desks, while we have workers out on site delivering and we have continued to deliver well - all of us in the construction industry - during this current climate. It is important to remember what we can achieve while working as teams when we are together.

If I think back five or ten years ago when there was a real drive to push sustainability into the built environment  - BREEAM Excellent and Passivhaus were two real challenges - we would’ve probably thought it was quite improbable at the time to accommodate naturally ventilated buildings within the university security conditions, or big open plan multi use spaces with low energy consumption… we would’ve thought they were challenging design aspects for us to overcome and yet here we are ten years on from those initial challenges and we have delivered all of that. Excellent examples of those buildings, with complex designs without effecting the functionality. 

We need to trust in our designers. I think we need to work harder now to promote the benefits of creating these multi use spaces with different departments, with combinations of engineering and computer sciences, the combinations of science and tech start-ups sitting in the heart of an academic environment - that’s what modern design is to me.

We have a responsibility to promote our ability to continue to deliver these complex projects as property consultants and designers and not let Covid move us into building being isolated and inflexible. 

In terms of an answer on the trends: over the last years we have seen the creation of collaborative spaces and the architects we are working with have been doing a brilliant job, really giving credence to blurred margins of adjacencies. It doesn’t just help with the ‘value add’ and positive interactions, it also helps with net-to-gross and enabling a number of departments that operate under one roof and not needing all these silo buildings for people to function. That takes some demand off the stock.  But most excitingly for me is the trend in science and technology living in the same buildings as academia and research and commercial spaces.

In summary, what I would hate to happen is, during lockdown and semi isolation, starting to bring this culture of consulting behind a desk and those working out on site – ‘us and them’ culture! We have worked so hard over the last ten years to break that down; I wouldn’t want that to stifle any progress in creating modern institutions. 

There has been a real drive over the past ten years to move science parks into innovation societies and that is only going to continue to grow with the promotion of conviviality and blurring of margins and with injections of commercial investment. 

I don’t think Covid will impact on the design per say, but as property consultants and teams I think we need to promote our ability to overcome real complex issues, like the Passivhaus example I have given, and celebrate the ability to deliver those achievements to keep this moving rather than making some retrograde steps through isolation.

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