£50 million building will provide world-leading facilities for theoretical and experimental physics in the heart of the University of Oxford’s science area. The University of Oxford has marked the opening of the Beecroft Building, a new 8,950sqm building for experimental and theoretical physics. Oxford University Estates Services directed the project team, with architect Hawkins\Brown leading the design of the project in collaboration with contractor Laing O’Rourke, project manager WSP, structural engineer Peter Brett Associates, Landscape architect BD Landscape and M&E engineer Hoare Lea.
The Beecroft Building will bring together 200 researchers from theoretical and experimental physics, uniting the two disciplines within one building. The building has been designed to foster collaborative working in a visually connected yet acoustically controlled environment. Offices and collaboration spaces are organised within a five storey atrium connected by a meandering staircase that enhances social interactions. Breakout spaces are arranged at half levels within the atrium, with informal seating arranged around double height curved blackboards. These provide opportunities for group working and serendipitous meetings. The design transforms the way the Department works, encouraging two separate disciplines to share an environment for work more akin to a modern workplace than an institutional research facility.
The building sits above the deepest basement in Oxford: a sixteen metre-deep complex of high specification laboratories intended to house extremely sensitive experiments that will advance the University’s research into areas such as quantum science and technology, and the fundamental laws of nature. The environmental and anti-vibration performance of the laboratories is amongst the very best globally, and capable of isolating interference from the M40 motorway – more than 9 miles away.
Professor John Wheater, Head of the Department of Physics at the University of Oxford said:
“Modern science is essentially collaborative — the days of the lone scientist are long gone. The Beecroft Building has been designed to enable and encourage people to work together in the fluid combinations that are crucial to solving today's complex scientific problems, and to provide a laboratory environment that is second to none globally.
“The highly interdisciplinary nature of 21st century science underpinned the decision to build new research infrastructure close to the many other disciplines housed in the university’s city centre Science Area rather than move to an outlying location. This has the added advantage of maintaining the geographic integrity of the Physics Department that teaches over 650 undergraduate students, all of whom are based in the City.”
Oliver Milton, Head of the Education & Research Sector at Hawkins\Brown said:
“The Beecroft Building combines a creative and sensitive response to a challenging city centre site with a very carefully resolved internal organisation that delivers a step change in physics research environments. It is the continuation of the now decade long collaboration the practice has enjoyed with the University of Oxford to deliver buildings across its estate. The building is essentially a 10-storey tower - half of it buried below ground to achieve the performance requirements. The split character of the building belies the unified concept that guided our design. By taking responsibility for both the technical design of the labs as well as the workspace above ground, Hawkins\Brown was able to integrate the two halves into a coherent whole that creates opportunities for social and collaborative working.”
Hawkins\Brown was appointed by the University of Oxford in 2009 to design the new theoretical and experimental physics building. The University’s vision was for a collaborative working environment that would sit alongside cutting edge laboratories to provide unprecedented facilities for the university’s world-leading research in Physics. The site allotted for the new building presented a number of challenging constraints for the designers. At the junction of Parks Road and Keble Road in the north east of Oxford City Centre, the prominent location sits in close proximity to several listed buildings, notably the grade I listed neo-gothic buildings of Keble College, designed in the 1870s by William Butterfield. A protected cedar tree sits adjacent to the main entrance and the site is also enclosed by Oxford’s Central City Conservation Area on two sides. The building enjoys expansive views across the University Parks to the north and its massing has been arranged to respond to the varied local context, which contains a range of scales and settings.
The building is clad in a combination of bronze, glass and expanded copper mesh insert panels with a grid of naturally weathering bronze fins. The rhythm, vertical emphasis and colour respond to the upright gothic style of Keble College. Large picture windows frame views into and out of the internal collaboration spaces, creating visual connections between activities within the building and its context. Buildings in central Oxford are restricted by the city’s “Carfax Height” policy, which limits new buildings within 1.2km of Carfax Tower in the centre of Oxford to 18m in height. In order to fit the full complement of accommodation required by the university onto the site, including an extensive amount of services and plant to achieve extremely stable and tightly controlled laboratory environments, the development of a 16 metre-deep basement was necessary. This houses two floors of facilities that meet the highest global standards.
Within the robust basement floors, structurally isolated “black box” laboratories that require onerous standards of vibration isolation have been created. These are housed on top of monolithic concrete keel slabs, the heaviest of which weighs 54 tonnes, and are mounted on sophisticated damping systems to provide a stable platform for nano-scale experiments that are otherwise sensitive enough to be affected by vibration sources that include the M40 Motorway, nine miles to the east. Major plant equipment is housed in a sub-basement with a physical break between the structures to isolate any vibration that may affect experiments. Despite the heavy servicing of the Experimental Physics laboratories, Hawkins\Brown’s building achieved a BREEAM Excellent rating.
The central atrium, through which rises a series of stairs and landings, provides a focal point for the building and establishes continuity between the two halves. The landings are equipped with blackboards and informal seating and act as stages, facilitating presentations by researchers and encouraging them to test, discuss and develop their ideas together. This is supported by strong visual links across the atrium and into individual research offices. This aspect is in line with the university’s vision for the Department to break with the traditional academic working model and learn from industry to transform its working methods.
Quotes from Project Team Members:
Allan Ashenden, Senior Project Manager at WSP:
“It has been with great pride to have been involved as project managers in the development of the ground-breaking and iconic new Beecroft physics building at the University of Oxford.
“The end state performance requirements in terms of vibration control within the laboratories are cutting edge which has stretched the team both with design and construction methods. We’re thrilled to be able to provide a world-class science lab that fosters academic and creative learning in such a high-tech environment.”
Matthew Jones, Partner, Hoare Lea:
“The Beecroft Building, University of Oxford is one of the most complex projects we’d ever undertaken. The project involved close collaboration with architect Hawkins\Brown, MEP contractor Crown House, and the University of Oxford – working with some of the brightest people on the planet. Seeing our people really rise to the challenge, was so rewarding.”