Oxford 'Science Cities' report Part Two

Above: Observatory Quarter Oxford University - facilities for the humanities built around the original Radcliffe Infirmary

Future Cities Forum held its latest 'Science Cities' event in Oxford, to discuss the way the science campus can evolve to attract international talent. In Part two of our event report, we look at the potential solutions to developing the land owned by Oxford University Hospitals in Headington, to provide spin-out science space and affordable accommodation for hospital workers. We also focus on the issue of joined-up transport and housing in this successful and expanding science city.

Investing in the traditional science centre of Oxford

Arup is part of the team developing the 'Life and Mind Building' in the traditional science part of the city, in South Parks Road. Oxford University, and has described the project:

'The Life and Mind Building will be the largest building project the University has ever undertaken and will significantly improve the way psychological and biological science is undertaken in Oxford, helping scientists to solve some of our major global challenges. It will be home to the Department of Experimental Psychology and a new Department of Biology, combining the existing Departments of Plant Sciences and Zoology. The funding and delivery of the building will be undertaken in partnership with Legal & General.'

Above: CGI of Oxford University's Life and Mind Building - part of the elevation viewed from South Parks Road

Arup's Associate Director, Tim Crow, who joined our discussion, commented:

'It is a very large and complex science project in a sensitive place in the city of Oxford. We decided to knock down the former 1960s brutalist-style building and the decision on this was taken at the time when buildings were being looked at in terms of carbon in use not embodied carbon. The new building has spatially transformed the science area where it sits. Although it has a smaller footprint it has enabled a larger occupancy level by 25%, and these are people who really drive the science business in Oxford. You really do have to attract talent from outside the city with a good building and this has been proved by the move of Professor ...from Cardiff, who is researching antimicrobial resistance to antibiotics, which everyone knows is at the cutting edge of current issues around disease at the moment.

'Although we are interested in all areas for developing science buildings, there is a sense at the moment that scientists want to be in the city, where the growth is and a place to find solutions to our pressing science challenges. However, our servicemen's rehabilitation centre (at Stanford on Soar near Loughborough) is outside the urban draw and works just as well. It has clinical space in a park setting which is critical to the care that takes place there and big enough for the NHS to carry out its work.'

Since 2009, Arup has been managing the £300 million project to create the Defence and National Rehabilitation Centre (DNRC) in the East Midlands. The programme involves the creation of a 21st century clinical rehabilitation centre of excellence comprising two elements: a Defence establishment for injured service men and women and a national facility for the general population.

Arup states:

'We played an integral role in the project, providing a project management-led multidisciplinary team including architectural and engineering design, planning, environmental, cost management and specialist consultancy services, drawing on expertise from our offices across the UK. Through its integrated approach our project managers ensured that all key decisions on design and cost were value-driven, leading to significant capital cost savings in the design and procurement stages. The team has managed the project through conceptual and detailed design stages, procurement and contract award, and managed the construction work on site.

'The Arup teams successfully managed significant planning risks to secure consent for this development, including the refurbishment of a Grade II* building within registered parkland, whilst rationalising the conceptual design to reduce costs despite increases in scale. An innovative procurement strategy using competitive dialogue which we developed to overcome unfavourable market conditions gave further substantial cost savings, without reduction in performance or scale. In addition to the roles on the Defence establishment, we continue to support the progression of the National facility through the concept stage and is part of the team overseeing public consultation events with the local community.'

Above: CGI to entrance to new building on the DNRC campus in Nottinghamshire (Arup)

Redeveloping shopping centres for new science labs

What is the future for retail in the centre of Oxford and how can its demise in some pockets be an opportunity for the expansion of science space?

When the old 1960s West Gate shopping centre was redeveloped and anchored by a large John Lewis store, footfall drifted away from another covered shopping arcade called The Clarendon Centre, which has entrances on Cornmarket and Queen Street.

Peter Canavan, Partner at Carter Jonas, explained at the forum how this has enabled new science lab space to be installed:

'The re-use of The Clarendon Centre is in some ways the story of our UK high streets and their future. Science lab space is going into that space to re-develop the centre, but the number of units are not sufficient in themselves, so student accommodation will also be built there. It is very much the north American model. It creates and maintains an active space through the whole day and therefore does not become deserted. Often experiments in labs go through the night, and this is what will be the case here. It is complemented by the activities of Cornmarket and a public square too and in turn the development adds to this public realm.'

Above: Queen Street entrance to the Clarendon Centre in central Oxford (October 2022)

Preserving heritage on science parks or creating new legacies of the future?

Peter was asked at the forum about creating the legacies of the future in terms of buildings and campuses that will stand the test of time. Some Oxford science parks outside the centre are built on old second world war airfields - but should the buildings there be preserved or pulled down for future re-development?

'At Culham, buildings were hastily put up for research work, but they are not necessarily good quality. They tell a story but the buildings themselves are not important. Proper master planning helps to understand the value of these sites and what to retain, and this determines legacy.

'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 1960s 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 project for 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.