Bill Ungless reviews Fraser Brown MacKenna’s ambitious retrofit of the 1960s Cockcroft Building at the University of Brighton


Half a century has passed since the dramatic expansion in higher education provision that followed the 1963 Robbins Report. The resulting ‘plate-glass’ institutions embodied the social aspirations of a visionary moment in British history. Some of these buildings are worthy of preservation but are showing their age. Upgrading and reconfiguration can give them an extended life while also embracing developments in information technology and sustainability demands that have changed beyond imagination since their inception.

The Cockcroft Building – home to the University of Brighton’s College of Life, Health & Physical Sciences – was just such a candidate, and its sustainable retrofit by Fraser Brown MacKenna provides an exemplary template.

Built by Brighton Corporation architects for the College of Technology, the Cockcroft is a 10-storey, 95-metre-long slab block. Its glazed long sides, facing north and south, consist of a continuous pattern of elegantly proportioned projecting and recessed precast concrete bays.

These bays, plus two service cores, constitute the entire vertical structure. This gave a high degree of freedom in the internal replanning that has been imaginatively exploited while increasing the occupancy level by 25 per cent. Formerly dark central corridors have been replaced by a variety of agreeable, well-lit routes, improving access and making better use of space. The glazed partitioning incorporates splays and steps which provide pleasantly informal sitting and teaching areas in tune with the collaborative environment sought by the client.

The building sits on chalk, and two 90-metre-deep holes were bored to create an aquifer thermal-energy system”

On four of the floors, the corridors are now placed directly against the south wall, giving attractive views across the city to the sea.

This contributes considerably to the students’ wellbeing when gathering, and provides a daily reminder of their place within Brighton and the university. The spaces also act as a buffer zone to reduce glare and overheating in the teaching areas.

The constructional logistics were tricky as the building remained in use throughout. The contractor worked on two floors at a time to allow sequenced decanting, and drilling and other noisy work was restricted to less busy teaching times. On the plus side the contractor had the use of the design team’s BIM software, providing helpful three-dimensional imaging for its workforce.


The building sits on chalk, and two 90-metre-deep holes were bored to create an aquifer thermal-energy system. This provides 100 per cent of the cooling load in summer and 92 per cent of the heating in winter.

The external envelope was comprehensively insulated and the internal concrete structure exposed to provide a heat store (radiating cool air in summer and warm in winter). This is made more effective by omitting 85 per cent of the false ceilings (also saving a considerable amount of embodied carbon dioxide). With the new rooftop photovoltaic array providing 25,000kWh of electricity per year, the annual fuel bill is predicted to be one third that of the original building.


The new services are generally exposed, imparting a lively character appropriate to the teaching of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. The ducting and pipework look pristine, even on the floors first renewed two years ago.

Although the air throughout is filtered and dust free, these exposed services will, no doubt, require cleaning over time. A false floor, cleverly arranged within the thickness of the lowest riser of the existing staircases, absorbs the servicing to the laboratory benches and computer tables. Most floor finishes comprise large removable second-hand steel tiles – appropriately mechanical, and again giving a substantial saving of embodied carbon dioxide.

So, all in all, the Cockcroft retrofit is a success story. Any university vice-chancellors seeking solutions for their university’s ageing estate could look with benefit to this attractively refurbished building.

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Fraser Brown MacKenna
Structural engineer
Curtins Consulting
Mott MacDonald
Quantity surveyor
Burnley Wilson Fish
University of Brighton

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