Evans Vettori has designed a student hub and Environment Centre for Nottingham Trent University’s Brackenhurst Campus. Sue and Mark Emms deliver their verdict on a project that acts as a new focal point for the campus and reflects a belief that learning and landscape should go hand in hand.

Buildings.

Rooted within beautiful countryside, 14 miles from Nottingham, is Nottingham Trent University’s (NTU) Brackenhurst campus, home to its School of Animal, Rural and Environmental Sciences with around 1,700 students. Rising from this diverse cluster of low-scale residential and academic buildings, perched on a hilltop in open farmland, two brick towers signify the origins and most recent evolution of the site. The first of these towers is part of the Grade II listed Brackenhurst Hall, a country home built in 1828 and remodelled around 1890. Alongside its 200-hectare estate, comprising formal gardens, farmland and woodland, it was converted to an agricultural college in 1949, from which the current NTU campus has grown. The second, a clocktower, smaller and simpler in form, marks the entrance to the Lyth Building, a new campus hub and Environment Centre that now forms a stately centrepiece to this rural campus.

Evans Vettori has established a healthy working relationship with NTU, having completed key buildings for them in recent years. The strength of this relationship manifests itself in the quality of the Lyth Building, which is an expression of the huge benefit that trust, common goals and shared vision between client and architect can bring. Design approaches evident in new-build collaborations, such as The Pavilion and Teaching and Learning Building at Clifton Campus, demonstrate a concern for placemaking that has evolved maturely at Brackenhurst’s countryside location.

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The ‘H-shaped’ form defines and protects a quiet and sunny south-facing courtyard, designed around the retention of an existing maple tree and open to a wonderful landscape and distant views beyond.

NTU’s progressive strategic vision is about creating ‘A university that opens its arms to all, challenges conventions, and enriches the world around us.’ With a focus on communities and environment, it aims to empower students to take control of their learning, extending it beyond the classroom through its industry-focused courses. This vision is strongly enforced through both the successful contextual response of the Lyth Building and the mix of social and teaching facilities within; here, learning, landscape and environment sit hand in hand.

Located on the site of a former 1960s CLASP library and student residences, the two-storey Lyth Building comprises two wings linked by a central foyer.

This ‘H-shaped’ arrangement skilfully adapts to the varied character of the surrounding context to provide a sense of unity to the campus and enhance the setting of Brackenhurst Hall. The building’s adjacency to the main road that connects Nottingham to nearby Southwell, forms a visible frontage to the community, while establishing a new arrival point for students and visitors travelling by bus from the city.

Along its northern edge, the building creates a civic setting with vertical elements and openings, and is entered from a new student square. Cleverly closing the views along key student routes from the north and east, the building has established itself as a prominent focal point within the campus, with its new contemporary brick clocktower visible from all approaches. This clocktower is respectful of the existing tower of Brackenhurst Hall, but a little extra height might have enhanced its visibility with more elegant proportions, while valuing the new in equal measure with the past.

Contrasting with the entrance facade, the ‘H-shaped’ form defines and protects a quiet and sunny south-facing courtyard, designed around an existing maple tree and open to a wonderful landscape and distant views. Here, the architecture has a more horizontal emphasis, with the mediation of built form and natural environment eloquently expressing NTU’s ambition to bring learning ‘off the page and into the great outdoors.’

The building’s southern edge reinforces the formal gated approach to Brackenhurst Hall, preserving and augmenting the view to its historic facade. The geometrical shift between the two wings responds sensitively to the alignments of the listed hall and its lodge, allowing the central courtyard to widen outwards and make the most of its landscape setting. New forms and materials make reference to the historic hall, with the wings enclosed in yellow brickwork with ordered window arrangements and perimeter parapets, capped by expressive, individual zinc-hipped roof forms over each of their major spaces. The dynamic form of the foyer adeptly mediates between the splay of these wings, connecting them via a first-floor terrace, but differentiated by zinc cladding that derives from a more agricultural aesthetic.

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A line of glulam tree columns within the foyer forms arches that give a nod to the gothic choir of Southwell Minster nearby.

Along with the clocktower, this careful composition is completed by contemporary timber colonnades that give a nod to the neoclassical porticos of the adjacent hall. The overall arrangement not only draws upon existing characteristics of the site, but recognises traditional courtyard typologies relating to both education and farming that resonate strongly with Brackenhurst’s campus program.

The spatial organisation also responds directly to NTU’s brief; the east wing houses the Environment Centre, with a refectory and flexible hall located in the west wing, and central foyer in between. Approaching the Lyth Building from the north, a large aperture abuts the clocktower and signifies the main entrance, while framing views and access to the courtyard beyond. From under this covered ‘porte coch re’, visitors and students can enter the foyer which leads on to the refectory and hall. Separate access to both levels of the Environment Centre is via an external colonnade running along the eastern side of the courtyard. An open stair or lift within the clocktower leads to a first-floor walkway and teaching spaces, whilst ground-floor academic offices are accessed from the courtyard cloister below.

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Sketch demonstrating the relationship between the new building and Brackenhurst Hall, and the original design concept of ‘pavilions in the park’.

The central foyer acts as a new campus reception. The lack of visibility into this space from the entrance square is rather curious at first, but its solid walls hovering above low-level horizontal windows make sense when the interior is revealed as a flexible exhibition area. Barn-like timber doors allow direct access for large exhibits, originally intended as a display of farming machinery. Running alongside the taller volume is a more intimate aisle containing the reception, seating and large discrete windows to the landscape, above which clerestory glazing illuminates the foyer.

The west wing houses a refectory and a hall with vertical circulation and support spaces sandwiched in between. These two double-height spaces create grand but uncluttered settings for communal activities, each below a timber structure rising gloriously to a crowning northlight. The refectory can spill out into the southfacing courtyard while picture windows at mezzanine level frame the trees beyond.

The hall can function both as a raked or flat-floored lecture theatre. Together with the foyer, the refectory and hall create a new campus hub with the spatial flexibility to support a multitude of day and night-time activities, including student fayres, open days, farmers’ markets, and most recently, a Covid vaccination centre. The Environment Centre contains ground-floor academic offices and tutorial spaces with teaching rooms and an environmental science laboratory on the first floor. Each office cluster is accessed directly from outside and supports a community of academics. This area feels rather utilitarian compared to the upper teaching spaces, which are characterised by lofty individual roof forms and northlights that delightfully break the mould of conventional teaching rooms. These deeper-than-normal classrooms can be combined to facilitate SCALE-UP learning – an activity-based pedagogy that provides an alternative to traditional lectures.

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A distinctive element of the Environment Centre is the use of external circulation, a design feature that Evans Vettori has previously used in its buildings for NTU. Here, the two-storey timber colonnade provides circulation and shading for adjacent rooms, but exposes users to the elements when moving from one floor to the next. In a post-Covid world and with a concern for student and staff wellbeing, the use of generous external circulation and the ability to step outside into fresh air may become a growing trend.

Reflecting a concern for context and the environment, the Lyth Building is a timber structure utilising CLT panels alongside glulam columns and beams. This timber is most celebrated in a line of glulam tree columns within the foyer; the top angled elements forming arches that give a nod to the gothic choir of Southwell Minster nearby. White-stained CLT wall panels provide a sense of solid calm inside, avoiding the need for plasterboard that dominates so many of our current educational settings, but necessitating an extra level of M&E coordination that has generally been well considered throughout.

Externally, the brickwork honestly expresses the loadbearing timber structure behind it, articulating the spaces between primary load paths with repeated textured brickwork panels, into which a variety of window openings are inserted to suit internal and external conditions. Deep reveals provide solar shading and protection to timber windows that include solid opening vents, with timber infill cladding otherwise sparingly used and typically in more sheltered locations. Running around the top of the brick walls, a band of header courses reflects the verticality of the adjacent hall’s coping balustrade and creates a clean and consistent datum with the zinc roofscape above. Between the brickwork wings, the standing-seam zinc cladding lends itself to more sculptured elevations that barely touch the ground and will develop a natural patina over time.

The overall material approach is both philosophical and practical; crafting a legible but layered architecture that shows respect for its context with a focus on longevity; a key sustainable strategy achieved through robust materials and detailing, as well as in-use flexibility and adaptability to future change.

Environmental strategies are embedded rather than explicit in the building’s aesthetic. Embodied energy benefits from the timber structure, while straw bale insulation, produced on campus, is included within the thick outer walls. Operational carbon is reduced through simple yet effective passive design principles; a thermally efficient envelope, deep window reveals and colonnades providing shading to south and west facades, maximising northlight, and positioning the large volumes roadside to create an acoustic buffer and allow for naturally ventilated offices and learning spaces beyond.