21st May 2012
Proposed New Building for the University of Sheffield’s Faculty of Engineering
On Land at the Junction of Brook Hill and St Georges Terrace, Sheffield Known as Jessop East
This letter sets out our thoughts on the proposals for a new building for the University of Sheffield’s Faculty of Engineering, presented to us on 17th April 2012. First I would like to put our comments into context.
We have worked collaboratively with the University of Sheffield for many years to help them upgrade and enhance their campus. In this time they have produced many good quality new buildings and refurbishments that they and the City can be proud of. We want to continue this good working relationship. We also want to provide a good service and so try to identify key issues early in any pre-application process and seek ways to address them. This is how we have tried to work to date.
One of the key issues we flagged up in our pre-application discussions was the importance of the grade II listed Edwardian Wing of the former Jessop Hospital for Women to the City of Sheffield and we asked you to thoroughly explore the option of retention.
The proposals presented to us on 17th April, and to the Sheffield Sustainable Development and Design Panel on 19th April, were the culmination of a 10 week programme during which the Architects, RMJM, produced two options for the Jessop East site. While both options incorporate a substantial five storey building, plus basement accommodation, one option involves the demolition of the listed Edwardian Wing and the second is essentially a façade retention scheme which involves building up to the north and west facing elevations of the Edwardian Wing.
The proposed building forms the focal point of a significant investment in the Faculty of Engineering, an investment which seeks to meet the predicted growth of the Faculty as well as help the University to realise its ambition to be the best Engineering Faculty in the UK and among the best in the world. We are fully supportive of their goals and would welcome the benefits it could bring, including how it can support the advanced manufacturing ambitions of the city and city region. However, there is concern that, thus far, the design process has focused more on achieving the University’s optimum space requirements and less on assessing the characteristics and constraints of the site and the level of accommodation it can comfortably hold. Moreover, the space requirements have increased since our discussions began and, importantly, it has been made clear that even the current proposals do not meet the full requirements of the Faculty and that additional space will need to be identified in the medium term.
This brief led approach has led the University to favour the full demolition option, a proposal that makes optimal operational use of the site for the client, giving little weight to other considerations, including the loss of an important grade ll listed building and its impact on the setting of the retained, grade II listed Jessop Victorian building. It is the role of the planning authority to examine other factors which may influence the future development of the land and to make a balanced judgement.
The Existing Buildings
The Victorian and Edwardian Wings have a strong architectural character, very much an expression of their era and civic function. They are considered to be the most prominent work of notable regional architect, John Dodsley Webster, and the buildings take their name from the Sheffield steelmaker Thomas Jessop, who held many important civic posts including Master Cutler (1863) and Mayor (1863-64). The buildings are undoubtedly important to the people of Sheffield.
In addition to their historical, architectural and social interest, the existing hospital buildings have a positive townscape value. They sit comfortably within the area because they maintain the historic building line, are of an appropriate scale, are executed in materials that inform and are part of the local palette and, through generous fenestration and the positioning of entrances, have a good relationship with the street. The buildings hold the corner well and despite its poor condition the Edwardian Wing provides a strong edge to the adjacent public space. It is considered that their contribution to the townscape would be greatly undermined by the loss of the Edwardian Wing, leaving little more than an isolated fragment. On its own the Victorian block would appear weak and out of place against the backdrop of a new building.
The conversion of the Victorian block demonstrates how historic buildings can be successfully reused. The cellular nature of the room layout can easily accommodate the smaller spaces that the new building will require, such as those otherwise housed in ‘pods’. Indeed planning permission and listed building consent were granted in September 2009 for alterations and an extension to the Edwardian Wing to bring it into educational use (09/01836/FUL).
The site forms an integral part of the established townscape. This brings with it a range of embedded characteristics, including, scale, range of plot sizes, palette of materials, order of uses and relationship between internal and external activity, to which any new development should respond. Core Strategy Policy CS74 (Design Principles) explains the importance of this approach in delivering new buildings and spaces that respect, take advantage of and enhance the distinctive features of the city, its districts and neighbourhoods.
Since the demolition of the St Georges Wing, the site in question has formed a hole in the urban fabric. Its development provides the opportunity to:
• form a civic scale edge to the significant traffic route of Brook Hill;
• provide a strong frontage along Leavygreave Road, a busy pedestrian spinal route;
• reinstate one of the sides to the square containing St Georges Church;
• create a visual link with the original engineering buildings on the opposite side of the square;
• reinforce or establish a coherent sense of identity for this area of the campus and the Engineering Faculty in particular;
• help knit the retained hospital buildings together with more recent interventions;
• help to provide a degree of coherence to the area to counteract the disparate range of materials and styles that have prevailed in recent years;
• introduce greater activity to the public space to the west and
• express the character of the Engineering Faculty.
Many of these opportunities have yet to be realised. The material provided so far indicates an analysis that moves from a city-wide scale to immediate site, omitting a detailed analysis of the local context. This is despite work done some years earlier by the same team which advocated a different approach based upon the area’s inherent characteristics.
The background material repeatedly refers to the desire to create a landmark building. While delivering a building that provides visual interest and responds positively to key views is highly desirable, the need for a new landmark is questioned. St George’s church is a landmark structure set in space and therefore has primacy in townscape terms. Rather than compete for attention, the new building has an important part to play in enclosing the space around the church and providing definition to the adjacent circulation routes.
It is arguable that the range of architectural styles, forms and layouts in the area has created an incoherent townscape. The exceptions to this are the historic buildings and the road pattern. Rather than set out to add to the eclectic nature of the townscape, the new development has the potential to impart a sense of cohesion and create tangible links with the other faculty buildings, something that will be difficult if the ambition is yet another landmark.
The building as currently proposed is disappointing. The drive to meet the requirements of a changing brief has not been tempered by concessions to the townscape. This is exemplified by the decision to rely entirely upon an external wrap to create visual interest and character. We understand that the scheme is in its early stages, but the result so far could be seen to be an ungainly big box with an overly-complex external envelope that has no relationship with its setting.
The mass, scale and elevational treatment are not suited to the site and combine to accentuate the bulk and alien nature of the proposal to the locale. It is unclear whether the sorts of volumes desired can be successfully accommodated on the site; but what is apparent is that the current disposition does not work. Greater consideration needs to be given to breaking up the mass, and articulating the scale and form of the building to respond to both to its surroundings and to the internal uses.
The proposed cleared site option will loom over the Victorian building, making it appear out of place and scale. It will be functionally separate, divided by a service yard and a ground floor plant room. The coherence provided by the Edwardian Wing would be lost. The elevation that would replace it is proposed as a sheer wall that will be out of scale with the adjoining public space, creating an even more unpleasant environment. However, retention of the Edwardian Wing would provide an appropriately articulated human-scale scale face that supports its neighbour and can potentially enliven the public space.
The decision to pull the building line back away from Leavygreave Road appears to have been driven by internal considerations. The external space created is unlikely to serve any real purpose, as there is little discernible reason to congregate, but it could undermine the integrity of the street. It is suggested that the main entrance and external expression of circulation would be better associated with the church and square, an extension of the proposed atrium.
Treatment of the Elevations
The proposed treatment of the elevations is the same on all sides, despite dramatic differences in the character of the environment. This prevents the establishment of a more positive relationship between building and setting and it weakens the ability of individual elevations to make a constructive contribution to the context, such as providing a strong edge to Brook Hill or a connection with the Mappin Building. The choice of such a strong façade dramatically reduces the opportunities for the internal activities to be read externally.
The building could potentially become a physical representation of the Engineering Faculty, an expression of the properties of structure and materials. This is surely an unrivalled opportunity to express the building’s structure rather than hide it behind an elaborate skin.
Relationship with External Spaces
The redevelopment of the site presents an opportunity to enliven surrounding spaces and improve circulation routes. The Edwardian Wing is human scale and contains generous levels of fenestration which are able to establish visual connections between internal and external activities. The ground floor has been substantially altered and so is capable of being adapted to create generous openings to support uses that interact with the adjoining external space or doors which connect to the atrium and support significant volumes of footfall. By contrast the cleared site option not only towers over the space to the west, but positions a plant room adjacent to it.
The new National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) makes it clear that heritage assets are an irreplaceable resource and that local planning authorities should conserve them in a manner appropriate to their significance. The grade II listed Edwardian Wing is an irreplaceable resource. The NPPF advises that substantial harm to or loss of a grade II listed building should be exceptional and that consent should be refused unless it can be demonstrated that the substantial harm or loss is necessary in order to achieve substantial public benefits. In this instance, the University consider their investment in the city justifies the demolition of the Edwardian Wing and this might be the case if the proposed building realised the site’s many opportunities, as discussed above. However, the current proposal is considered to be unacceptable as it does not relate to its setting, it leaves the Victorian building stranded and fails to relate to the other historic buildings in the locality, and the wrap does not feel like an honest representation of the building and its end users. Given this conflict, and the inability of the scheme to comply with the alternative NPPF tests for demolition, it is felt that considerable changes are necessary.
We recommend that:
– a review of the campus masterplan is undertaken to explore the capacity for future expansion of the University, and in particular the Faculty of Engineering, to assess where this may be appropriately accommodated and how it can be realised through high quality buildings and spaces, acknowledging that the Faculty of Engineering will need further expansion space in the near future;
– the Edwardian Wing of Jessops Hospital for Women should be retained and should influence the footprint and massing of the new building;
– the set back from Leavygreave should be omitted in favour of making better use of existing external spaces;
– an alternative treatment to the wrap is developed, that relates to the building form and function and does not add additional bulk.
The recommendations and issues raised in this letter are unlikely to come as a surprise to you or your colleagues. They reflect the conversations and comments made in the three pre-application meetings we had between 13 October and 29 November 2011, although at that stage the discussions were focused on the many massing models produced and the detailed analysis of the University’s requirements being undertaken by the architects. It is unfortunate, however, that these concerns have not been taken on board during the development of the scheme.
May I also take this opportunity to let you know that the next meeting of the Sheffield Sustainable Development and Design Panel will be on Thursday 28th June 2012. Please let me know if you are still interested in presenting to the Panel on that date.
We would like to continue to work with you to develop the option that retains the listed building. We believe we can help you to achieve a strong scheme that provides a substantial element of the floorspace you need. We would also like to work closely with you to explore the alternative sites you will in any case need to meet the Faculty’s medium term growth requirements.
Principal Planning Officer