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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.

Above: 1940s era buildings by Culham Station, which connects directly to Oxford, Didcot, Reading, and London - one mile from Culham Science Centre, which was built on the site of the old Royal Naval Air Station, HMS Hornbill. The UK Atomic Energy Authority identified Culham as ideal for lab space for plasma physics and fusion research in the 1960s. The Culham Centre for Fusion Energy continues research programmes to create clean sustainable energy for future generations.

Foreign competition and better science campus design?

Eugene Sayers, Partner at Sheppard Robson joined the discussion by talking about the need to take heed of future foreign competition and think carefully about the way we design our science buildings and campuses in the UK:

'It is a balance of pragmatic decisions that have to be taken when designing good science buildings and taking into account the requirement for sustainability. Science buildings are energy-hungry, and every site is different. But we must take action to retain talent. Historically there has been a lack of lab space in Oxford and no one wants to be left with just a bad building, that's perhaps damp and does not fulfil its net zero requirements.

'Scientists really do care about the buildings they work in. You used to hear clients in the past saying that design didn't matter but you hear much less of that these days and health and wellbeing facilities are important on site. There has been a great deal of work carried out to make sure that things like good air quality and acoustics are thought about in designing new buildings and the importance of that shouldn't be written off.

'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 practice 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.

Above: CGI from Sheppard Robson of designs for St. John's Innovation Park, Cambridge (with Turnstone Estates for St John's College, Cambridge University

The most inclusive way to develop the hospital and university campus

What of under-developed land in the city, which could be turned into science workspace or accommodation for scientists/hospital workers? Oxford has unused land owned by the Oxford University Hospitals which has largely been used for car-parking. Now the Trust wants to develop it to provide space for spinouts and accommodation for hospital workers, who are struggling to afford to live in the city.

The Chief Financial Officer, Jason Dorsett, explained at the forum:

'We own three hospitals in Headington and have a surplus of ten hectares of space which is really urban waste land. What is there at the moment, doesn't add to the quality of the built environment and we don't feel we have the capabilities to develop the land in the way that the region needs. We are however committed to developing in the city. We are the fifth biggest hospital in the UK in one of the smallest cities in the UK. We have a lot of patients and staff which creates challenges but do not have billions of pounds to spare, nevertheless we have to make it work.

Above: Oxford University Hospitals' CFO, Jason Dorsett, talking at 'Science Cities', flanked by architects - right - Eugene Sayers of Sheppard Robson, and - left - Stuart Cade of MICA Architects.

'It comes back to people. A nurse entering the profession earns about £27,000 a year and of course we also have consultants earning quite a lot of money. What we need is affordable housing and we think perhaps creating bedsits with shared space might be the answer. We think we could rent this out for £600 a month, but even that could be too much for a nurse to pay. We have big areas of car-parking, and we would like to put accommodation there. Most people want a house with a garden for a low price and that's just not realistic, but we aim to offer them cheaper accommodation where they can walk to work.

'We are not in it to make money. We are the biggest (hospital) recipient of R&D funding in the UK, and we now want to test to see if we can make some of this land attractive for companies at the spin-out stage. Can we make buildings viable and close to where they live? Most companies if you asked them at the moment would want to locate on a science park in Oxford but it is very important to be close to the cutting edge of where the action is taking place and that is happening at NHS Trust labs and the universities and that makes it attractive to build here at the hospital.'

MICA Architects is familiar with the Headington area of Oxford and the need to build good quality accommodation. It has been working on a large commission for student accommodation at Oxford Brookes University. Could ideas from this new style of accommodation with its connection to nature, inspire key worker homes for the hospital Trust?

MICA Director Stuart Cade said:

'The new campus project is for 1,000 bedrooms which is a significant size both nationally and for Oxford. It has been important to design them to be future proofed and with flexibility in mind. The University doesn't know its future and certainly it is different from how it was fifty years ago. The buildings must be able to be turned into other educational facilities in the future or removed if need be. Although from a distance, Headington has a visual green backdrop, when you get up close, it is less so. We are planting more trees to bring back more of a woodland environment.'

A large number of the existing buildings on the site are now 30 years old. There has been a need to redevelop the accommodation so that living arrangements continue to be of a high quality for the students and so the site can be improved and modernised. The design is the result of a 10–20-year plan for the University’s key Oxford campus at Headington to create a vibrant academic community, using the estate more efficiently and delivering better services for students, staff and the community.

Key aims of the project include building a sense of community, improving student health and wellbeing, a positive engagement with the topography of the site and a strong sense of visual amenity.

Above: CGI from MICA Architects of re-developed student accommodation at Clive Booth Student Village, Oxford Brookes University

How are developers viewing the opportunities for investment in Oxford as a science city?

Orestis Tzortzoglou, Development Director of BioMed Realty (which owns and manages 2 million square feet of science R&D space across the USA, Europe and UK including 158 acres around the city of Cambridge), added:

'We are very interested in Oxford and have seen the city become much more successful in the last few years, and it has a lot of common themes with Cambridge - housing need, and congestion in the city centre, for instance. There are certainly lessons to be learned from other international markets, and also from the development of Cambridge which really took off with Trinity College's Cambridge Science Park in the 1970s. We are looking at the inner city - out of city dynamic and where these different approaches to science R&D spaces might become complementary. There are advantages to working with beautiful park-like settings with the lower rise, flexible spaces that are possible outside the city. but I think the city centre becomes more challenging with the mix of student use, residential and retail - so it is interesting how this co-existence with science R&D can be developed.

On the question of national planning policy and incursions into the green belt, Orestis added:

'The green belt issue is challenging. What we have learned from other locations in the USA and Europe, is that providing more local autonomy (for planning) at a local and granular level is very important, because places can be very unique with big differences - historic cities versus other places - which are more growth focused. How do you provide flexibility and bring local communities on board to discuss housing unaffordability, which is a challenge for Cambridge?

Tom Bridgman of Oxford City Council interjected:

'Let's not get too negative because It's really exciting what is happening in Oxford now - with Oxford North, for instance - as finally the city has a new employment space offer. Traditionally it hasn't had this, relying instead on the University and the public sector. We have the Clarendon Centre and Oxpens coming on, while the Business Park and Oxford Science Park want to double the density, and we are segmentising the city for transport so it will be easier to get around and to connect out to places like Harwell and Milton Park.

'Everyone brands themselves as an innovation district, but the innovation district is Oxfordshire. Cycling to Begbroke (where Oxford University is pushing forward a major development around a science park) is horrible at the moment but will get better. We are starting to build housing at scale, with 11,000 new homes in our Local Plan, so we are in a good place, and we are getting sorted out. On transport it will get really bumpy, and we need to get people behind the strategy. Jason spoke eloquently about the housing needs of Oxford, and with our own housing company the council is leaning in and is committed to building more affordable homes.

'How do we make these schemes relevant to local people? One aspect is making sure that people can flow in and out and the public realm is very important. Broad Street will be our new civic space, taking pressure off Cornmarket. We need to make these new schemes more relevant to local people and show how they can get jobs there, and support those on lower wages.'

Jason added:

'We are in a city where the political make-up is out of kilter with a lot of other places. We survey our staff in the Trust about transport, and they want to drive to work. They also are very enthusiastic about our ambition to be the first hospital trust to reach net zero. There is a disconnect here! Oxfordshire has highest rate of clinical trial participation in the country. How do you fuse all this together? If you are developing buildings, then you must have skin in the game.'

Peter Canavan said:

'It's the planning vision that is important, and this has worked around the Grenoble Road project (the South Oxford Science Village project that shares local authorities) with a forward vision. It's about maintaining the vision. The Oxfordshire Plan 2050 (involving five local authorities) - which was recently cancelled in favour of Local Plans only - was a shame and frustration. A vision over 10 years will have peaks and troughs and it's unusual to have politicians who will push it through. It becomes a hard sell when people are told 'it's just about houses.'

Future Cities Forum will be following the growth of science investment across the UK and will hold its next Cambridge 'Science Cities' event in February 2023.

Above: CEO of Harwell Campus, Stuart Grant (fourth from right) talking at Future Cities Forum's 'Science Cities' event in Oxford


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