Carter Jonas and Sheppard Robson at our Oxford Science Cities


Above: The Tim Gardam Library building at St Anne's College, Oxford - venue for Future Cities Forum's October 'Science Cities'


Sheppard Robson and Carter Jonas will join our next 'Science Cities' discussion in Oxford at St Anne's College, University of Oxford this October.


Eugene Sayers, Partner at architects Sheppard Robson, and Peter Canavan, Partner at property consultants Carter Jonas have been talking ahead of the Oxford event about sustainable campus design, both in and outside city centres.


Eugene Sayers was asked first about his confidence in the economy to protect long-term investment:


'I don't think we are sanguine. There has been a huge upswing in interest over the last two years and we can see there is a nervousness because of the cost of construction materials going up and also the fact that everyone is crowding into the science bubble. It cannot survive unlimited price rises.


'There are many different streams in science - a huge diversity in the kind of occupiers and outputs - that will continue, but it also depends on where you are and what's driving your buildings to be successful and sustainable.


'There has been a long term move towards increasing quality of environment. People used to say that scientists didn't care where they worked but not now. Occupiers are having to compete to retain talent and the environment has to be top, not just a grey box. The pandemic has also driven this where you need to attract people back and often a softer feel is required but these places also need to function well with good facilities.


'We often begin to design science hubs with the need to cover the basic functions but there is also a strategic brief and what for instance universities want to achieve - spaces that make their mark and engage with the public. Once you have created an eye-catching space though, it is no good if it stands empty, you have to make it work hard. In all our projects, it is the interaction with the scientists' imagination for what the building could be that makes it interesting and feeds into the design.'


Peter Canavan talked about what might continue to make Oxfordshire's 'Science Vale' successful in the long term:


'Science Vale is an idea or geography born out of the Oxford City Deal which involved the local enterprise partnership and was the realisation that Oxford is a key contributor to the national economy and science is a big driver there. Does the vale connect or is it happenstance? A bit of both, I think. The legacy of Culham science centre which was built on old airfield as was Harwell is there but in the meantime, there is investment in science, with people coming and going as well as buildings changing.


'There is a need for big and bespoke buildings, and those need to stay but there are spin outs as well and the need to make sure that knowledge sharing is happening. Public investment goes in peaks and troughs and private investment will support activity there. I think the heritage of the older listed buildings on airfields is understood, but with the pandemic vaccine manufacturing centre at Harwell, consent for a new steel frame building was gained very quickly. What these new buildings are delivering is a good replacement for the 1960's prefabricated buildings that have got damp or perhaps were not fit for purpose in the first place. Some science parks are now building to create their own legacy for the future, without being held back by poor buildings.


'One of the core issues is that there are often short-term contracting staff working in these buildings and there is no stock of housing to support them. The public sector used to own property around Abingdon, for example and other science park areas but has now sold it all off. It makes sense now to provide housing and create community. It is much more sustainable to live close to where you work, but it is also about the next generations of scientists and the new towns where they will work. We have been working on the three and a half thousand houses next to Culham, and planning for schools with apprenticeship programmes as well. Science parks should not be seen as 'stand-alone' environments, but where people can come and go.'


The vision for the Culham site - owned by CEG - includes 3,500 new homes, employment space totalling at least 10 hectares, two primary schools, a secondary school and a local centre with a range of services and facilities. All will be set alongside an improved railway station.


Adjacent to the CEG land is the internationally important Culham Science Centre, owned and run by the UKAEA. The South Oxfordshire Local Plan 2035 provided an opportunity to review the Green Belt classification of Culham Science Centre. It was clear that releasing the site from Green Belt constraints would unlock significant potential for further growth, which is directly related to the Government’s ambitions for increase investment in science and technology, which is an anchor for numerous projects, including the Oxford–Cambridge Arc. As a result of the adoption of South Oxfordshire’s Local Plan 2035, Cater Jonas secured the allocation for 3,500 homes, and associated employment space, along with the removal of nearly 80 hectares of land from the Green Belt to support the growth of Culham Science Centre.


Eugene was asked about the move towards working from home and how this might change science park layout:


'A lot of processes can be done on computer and that kind of modelling as opposed to wet lab is going up, but labs are still the anchors. You can monitor experiments remotely and a lot of office work is done at home. But the science parks are at interesting moment dealing with legacy infrastructure with the campus on perimeter of city, that has to be reached by car. Now more and more science is done in cities because that is where people want to be and this move is competing with science parks sited on the outskirts, also trying to attract talent. We need to look at the sustainability of buildings too. Some built even ten years ago aren't that sustainable. There is a lot of energy embodied in old buildings, so we have to be careful not to destroy all heritage, but also new science buildings are very energy hungry.'


Peter added to the discussion by describing his vision for the future of the suburban science park:


'It all depends on the research. Big science needs that space and with more housing at the science parks - that can bring a city feel. Of course, new rail stations and transport links create sustainable places. We are working on the old Clarendon shopping centre in Oxford where it will be turned into new student accommodation and R&D spaces. With the Oxford Science Park, there is still talk of opening the Cowley branch line and building housing around it, so that park will be brought more into the city. I think what is concerning is the lack of rail between Oxford and Cambridge. We all place emphasis on good digital connectivity but the value of physical connectivity is enormous. The growth around the Arc is going to happen anyway whether there is new rail provision there or not, but without proper connectivity, it is just painful. Oxford Station is going to be re-designed and that's good in a city that has been so vocal in trying to reduce reliance on the car. Buses all using the same roads is not the answer and the new station will move things forward for transport into the city.'


Eugene then spoke of the value of the new district around the station at Cambridge:


'I think it was needed but doesn't address the science city. The station before the new development was created was relegated to the dirty fringes of the city and there is a good plan for bus travel but it all needs dialling up as well as looking at the connectivity outside the city.


Peter was asked about the importance of good public realm in science parks for health and wellbeing:


'Private enterprises competing to get people in are very aware that they have to provide a good quality of life, so that might be green gyms and meeting spaces outdoors as well as places to eat, where people can do things that aren't work related. The master planning of sites is a key thread and what happens to public realm - what are people doing between the buildings.


'Milton Park is a product of its time, an 80s industrial estate with wide roads and junctions and difficult for pedestrians. It just wasn't the place to be. Now that's changing. The freedom of local development order meant that it didn't have to seek consent for every change and that's helped deliver public realm places. A holistic view of science parks is very important.'


Eugene concluded the discussion by talking about the need to take heed of future foreign competition:


'We need a proper eco system - a rounded view - and we have been slightly careless bout how our science centres have happened. We have excellent universities and research facilities built up through the Blair years and they are very successful - the combination of hospital, university and town has worked well. But as a nation, we do not spend enough on R&D and other countries are saying that they notice how good the UK is for science, so they want to do the same. So, we do need to keep investing, focus on how to maintain our centres and keep them flourishing.'


Sheppard Robson is currently working on the St John’s Innovation Park masterplan in north-east Cambridge. According to the practice this includes super-flexible buildings, offering a range of office and R&D spaces, with the design defining a new civic square at the heart of the development. The designs include two new office buildings, as well as a transport hub. The buildings sit next to a newly created and extensively landscaped public space, with their entrances addressing the green surroundings.

The design of the building—for St John’s College with development manager Turnstone Estates - the firm says features a strong, simple architectural form, which is animated by a series of external cutaways. This architectural approach is illustrated by the design of the Dirac Building with three cutaways adding dynamism and external amenity spaces to the building.



Below; St John's Innovation Park, Cambridge (Designed by Sheppard Robson, image by Team Macarie)