A cutting-edge facility designed to keep future vehicle innovation firmly on the map, with the emphasis on sustainability, has completed at the University of Warwick. Roddy Langmuir from Cullinan Studio tells Jack Wooler how it combines collaboration with privacy
The National Automotive Innovation Centre (NAIC) at the University of Warwick brings together some of the brightest minds from industry and academia, in a facility intended to be a ‘beacon’ for innovation in future mobility and sustainability R&D.
The vision of the late Professor Lord Lord Bhattacharyya, founder of Warwick Manufacturing Group (WMG), the £150m NAIC is one of the largest research centres of its kind in Europe, with £15m funding from the UK Government’s Research Partnership Investment Fund through Research England to bolster its cutting-edge offerings.
Designed by Cullinan Studio, the collaborative design process has produced a facility that allows the project’s partners Jaguar Land Rover (JLR), WMG, Tata Motors, and the University of Warwick to work together under one roof successfully, efficiently, and where necessary, discreetly.
The aim was to create future vehicles and personal mobility solutions with the benefits a shared facility brings, as well as to deliver the skills required to keep the UK globally competitive. This collaboration between manufacturers and the university sat at the heart of Cullinan Studio’s concept for the project, creating an environment for the research groups that would halve the time from idea to production.
Featuring a vast engineered timber roof, one of the largest in the world, and precision engineered by Arup, an innovative ‘village’ plan, and a wide range of flexible and functional spaces, it is unsurprising the project has received the array of awards it has since its completion in 2020.
Despite a challenging brief, the completed building has picked up the Structural Award at the 2020 Wood Awards, as well as the American Institute of Architects Design Award for Sustainability, and the BCO Regional Award for innovation, among others.
“Most science buildings get tucked out of the way and surrounded by car parks, with landscape used to defend their privacy,” says Roddy Langmuir, a practice leader at Cullinan Studio.
“NAIC was different; we wanted to open up the research building and bring industry into the heart of academia, and make it a centrepiece of people’s arrival on campus.”
As Roddy explains, on approach into the main entrance onto the university campus, the dramatic statement timber roof appears to float above a ribbon of glazing, creating an impression of lightness – which is no mean feat for a building with a gross internal area of 33,000 m².
The imposing scale of the building is softened however by gently undulating aluminium mesh cladding that complements the landscape maturing around it. Designed by Grant Associates, the landscaping includes a water course, mixed beds of wild native plants, and spaces designed for students and researchers to gather, rest, work or simply pass through.
Everyone enters the building through this space and into the single shared porch beneath the coffered timber canopy, which creates a natural gathering space at a key junction of routes across campus.
The entrance then opens up a view into the main engineering hall, which leads building users into the collaborative hub. This is a layered landscape of internal terraces, designed with the concept of a ‘Greek hill village’, all flooded with natural daylight through the diagrid of the timber roof.
Inside the ‘village,’ the central space contains the more private, technical laboratories and engineering areas. Surrounding these technical areas are a network of meeting spaces, breakout areas and individual booths and exhibition space, “maximising the opportunity for cross-disciplinary meetings and chance encounters that often spark the best ideas,” said the architects.
The placing of internal terraces around this ‘inner sanctum’ ensures that every space feels open and maintains a direct contact with the exterior and nature. The unifying umbrella of the timber roof stretches the full length and breadth of the building, making the building feel more intimate.
Cullinan Studio has worked with WMG since 1992, and from the start of the project eight years ago the architects built on the trust they had fostered over the years.
“This level of engagement – from feasibility right through to delivery – proved essential to the development of the brief and to the eventual success of the building,” said the architects.
The proposed project was to bring together three facilities in a shared building – one for TMETC, one for Jaguar Land Rover, and one for the Warwick Manufacturing Group, with a combination of shared and private spaces.
“Through discussing this, at first separately,” explains Langmuir, “we were able to convince them that the economies of sharing space would mean they could have more as a shared member of the group facility than they could otherwise achieve.”
To achieve these ideas, the architects and client visited a number of relevant projects to help in identifying the best solutions possible. Two of the main inspirations proved to be the BBC Broadcasting House in Portland Place, and the One Angel Square office building in Manchester.
The former, at first not an obvious connection to this project, impressed the team. The recording studios are in the heart of the building, surrounded by glass walls, so the journalists around the studio can see their work being broadcast. This has reportedly “transformed BBC staff’s connection to the production,” and worker satisfaction as a result. The latter building influenced the architects with its huge atrium and offices located around the space; the architects took notes on how the project had achieved a “unified vision that connected people from all sorts of different buildings around the country and pulled them into one centre.”
Langmuir comments: “The main thing we learned in this early process was that you have to work hard on consultation if you’re going to place people close together.” He adds: “If you’re going to take people from cellular offices to an open building, you have to work on it, take feedback, and bring people along in the process.”
Having identified the challenges, Cullinan Studio led an in-depth consultation process to explore and develop a shared working culture. This helped prepare building users for the significant change to their workplace settings and gave the architects a “unique insight into how people wanted to work in their new building and how best to support them.”
Langmuir explains: “It was important that we undertook vision exercises at the beginning, talking ideas through with the clients and listening to their visions for the project.”
Using various methods such as town hall-style presentations with visualisation software, building users were able to easily envision new ways of working. Individual research groups and academics previously working in ‘silos’ on different sites would be brought together under one roof with an unusually high percentage of shared and open spaces, designed with future flexibility in mind.
With many of the NAIC client body being used to a high level of 3D modelling, the architects reportedly had to “up their game” when it came to BIM models. “They do everything in 3D, so right from scratch we had to create digital designs and update them by next week, which was quite a rapid learning curve.”
“They were very good at reviewing our designs,” he adds. “They would go into our models on a regular basis and leave, in effect, post-it notes inside the model for us to pick up on.”
There were a few big obstacles that had to be overcome through the design process, largely concerned with allowing the various companies to work privately when they wish. Defending intellectual property is vital in the automotive industry, explains the architect: “If a car design is seen, it can be copied, produced, and out into the market faster in Korea or China that they can here.”
As such, beyond the discreet placing of more sensitive aspects of the building’s functions, the architects approached privacy from multiple perspectives: “You have to interrogate the need for privacy; is it visual privacy, audible privacy, if you see it at a distance does it matter, or is it just up close that it has to be hidden?”
In this context, one of the hurdles that needed to be cleared was “getting everyone to agree to put a big window into the engineering hall,” he continues. “To assuage the legitimate fears of industrial espionage, we put giant hospital type curtains around the bay so you could close them off if you need to.”
Privacy was complicated further by the integration of students into the building – some who are involved in the automotive projects to at least some degree, and others who simply come for the cafe and a place to study.
As such, there is a clear split between private zones and shared facilities, with a barrier between the public cafe and study areas and the rest of the ground floor. These areas also host the student spaces, exhibitions zones and meeting zones, with the more sensitive areas distributed on floors above.
Another challenge was to enable all the differing work spaces to be shared and to work effectively for a variety of teams, necessitating future-proofed and flexible rooms with reconfigurable walls and writable projection-friendly surfaces.
However, this would be a major improvement on the current situation.
“Their existing facilities included cramped office style spaces and cubicles with experiments tucked under desks – it was a mess,” explains Langmuir.
“To tackle this while retaining all the previous functionalities, we put together all the adjacencies of their differing work, and made connections between their desired principles of ‘smart, connected, clean and capable.”
The research spaces include benches for experiments close to hand, connecting different aspects of the engineers’ work more directly, as well as areas for individuals, and small and large groups. With the exception of the most sensitive areas in the central space, all work is carried out “in plain sight” to encourage interaction.
Materiality & sustainability
Befitting the nature of the automotive industry itself, the materials and construction methods chosen combined precision engineering with craft and creativity. The building structure is exposed “wherever possible,” and support services have been carefully integrated to create a “deceptively simple, calm environment.”
A light colour palette allows the research to take centre stage, and naturally finished timber lends a warmth and human scale to what is a very large space.
Cullinan Studio have a “natural design” philosophy, and were early adopters of cross-laminated timber (CLT). The architects believe the glulam and CLT roof – not perhaps the obvious choice for this typology – “embodies the spirit of a forward-looking industry that prioritises environmental considerations.”
The elements were CNC machined off site, then assembled and dropped into the steel primary grid structure. The walls comprise a system of pre-fabricated, self-spanning CLT ‘megapanel’ cassettes for quick erection. They are overlaid by a lightweight curving aluminium mesh veil externally, controlling solar gain and modulating daylight.
The building’s goal is BREEAM Excellent, befitting the project’s aim to develop sustainable transport for the future: “Wherever practically possible we’ve used renewable materials; we’ve minimised the use of concrete and steel, and made the most out of timber.” There’s a significant array of solar PVs on the roof: “Where we weren’t letting in daylight or bringing services up, we covered it in PVs,” said Langmuir.
As with realising the roof design, precision was key in other areas of the design – aided by the focus on 3D modelling every single aspect of the building. One of the biggest drivers for this was accommodating the high precision instruments in the design studios and workshops – some of these (hydraulics based) machines can measure changes down to micron level. “It was vital that, being placed upon long span beams, that the accuracy was down to less than a millimetre,” says Langmuir.
Delivering these machines to their location was another key task.
“We needed to carry three tonne vehicles across tiles on a raised floor – it wasn’t easy,” says the architect.
Every pedestal underneath had to be modelled to provide just the right amount of strength, while allowing the space around them for the significant amount of servicing needed.
Achieving this high degree of technical precision in timber was challenging, but the architect was grateful for the client’s expertise: “It’s not like we were building a building for a subject that our clients didn’t know much about; the firms’ research divisions all had leads who were consulted in the relevant areas of the project, allowing us to make the best decisions for each area.”
Looking back, Langmuir’s only misgiving was the “big shame” of the project being hit by Covid, “right when it was opening up.” This meant the building was manned by a skeleton crew for much of its early existence.
The building has received recognition for how the architects took on and overcame the project’s complexities – integrating multiple bodies under one roof, allowing a public space to interface with a sector that is notoriously private, and providing a cutting edge building that allows its workers to achieve tasks in the most effective way possible.
Langmuir puts success down to the high level of collaboration and consultation between everyone in the project team.
“It was a complex project, but our work as designers was to make a legible environment that allowed the clients to do their jobs better together, and I believe we have achieved this.”
- Location: University Road, University of Warwick
- Site area: 17,800 m²
- Internal floor area: 33,330 m²
- Value: c. £85m
- Construction programme: 2015-2019
- Client: University of Warwick; Tata Motors; Jaguar Land Rover; WMG (Warwick Manufacturing Group)
- Architect: Cullinan Studio
- Interior designer: Cullinan Studio
- Structural engineer: Arup
- Services engineer: Arup Civil engineer: Arup
- Fire engineer: Buro Happold and Fire Guidance
- Acoustician: Buro Happold
- QS: Rider Levett Bucknall
- Project manager: Rider Levett Bucknall
- Planning consultant: Turley
- Contractor: Balfour Beatty
- Interiors fit-out: Penson
- Carpets: Chroma Global Flooring
- Specialist lighting: Arup
- Signage/wayfinding: Maynard
- Landscape architect: Grant Associates