Form Follows Function at Informatics Superhighway

Edinburgh University’s newest department, the Department of Informatics, is a shining example of a building which has been designed in every respect to meet its needs.

Suspecting that most of you will want to refer to a dictionary at this point, the term Informatics was coined as a combination of “information” and “automation” to describe the science of automatic information processing. It is therefore a science which requires the communication of information and, in a field which is in great danger of producing computer nerds or geeks, social interaction has its part to play as well, in promoting the exchange of information.

Thus when one of the Informatics buildings (there were 5) in the Cowgate, went up in flames, it seemed a good time to bring together the various parts of the department at least under one roof. A site belonging to Edinburgh University at Potterrow was earmarked for the development, which would also solve an ongoing problem for Edinburgh City’s planners. The University owned site had been derelict for over 40 years with various proposals falling through. At last this eyesore was to be resolved.

© Keith Hunter© Keith Hunter

© Keith Hunter

The site is bounded by Bristo Square, George Square, Teviot Place and Charles Street, a victim of the abandoned Robert Matthew /Basil Spence masterplan of the late 1960s which envisaged a whole new multi-level streetscape. The South Side local plan responded with a move away from demolition and rebuilding in favour of refurbishment on Nicolson Street, which saved much of the Georgian architecture, but this troublesome gap remained, with any building having to fulfil an almost impossible task – It has to link the distinctive and decorative circular McEwan Hall, the recreational public open space of George Square, a dated 1960’s tower concrete edifice and 3 storey 18th century townhouses, while combining vehicular areas with heavy pedestrian (and bicycle) traffic, as students come and go.

Its function is to provide teaching accommodation for the Department of Philosophy, Psychology and Language Sciences as well as research accommodation for the Department of Informatics.

The Edinburgh office of Bennetts Associates won the competition and began by scrapping their own draft in favour of a more collaborative approach. Director John Miller generously says, “There is never a good building without a good client” and the relationship established with the Informatics Department’s Professor Mike Fourman has been critical in the success of the outcome. Having dreamed for years of the perfect home for his department, Mike had very clear ideas about what was needed to make this building work.

A roughly rectangular courtyard shape is planned with 2 interlocking L shapes. The first of these has been completed and recently opened, housing the Department of Philosophy, Psychology and Language Sciences in a rather too tall 8 storey block facing George Square, linked to the more pleasing 6 storey block of the Informatics Department by a lower level section. The selection of sympathetic materials included German Leidstadter precast stone and Northumberland Dunhouse Grey facing outwards with bright white concrete on the inward facing walls. Windows with a strong vertical emphasis are designed to be in sympathy with Edinburgh’s typical Georgian style but these floor to ceiling height windows in fact give a far more modern look – and why not? With such a variety of styles for neighbours, this building is never going to blend in, the best that can be hoped for is that it is pleasing to the eye.

While achieving this, it is however, the interior that is truly exciting.

This is a grown-up building for grown-up people. The Department is one of the top five in the world (the others are all in America) and as such brings together over 500 research students from dozens of different countries who speak dozens of different languages. They come here for years or weeks to explore their own ideas with the stimulation of like minded but differently disciplined other researchers.

© Keith Hunter
© Keith Hunter

Research staff work either singly, in small teams or in large teams and the spaces are flexible enough to allow silent work, quiet chats, lectures and conferences. Walls slide aside to double the size of rooms or extend them into the open air. Reflecting the cross disciplinary approach to informatics research, which links science, humanities and the arts, the spaces within are designed to encourage ‘accidental’ meeting places and high visibility.

The entrance brings visitors into a central forum surrounded by 6 storeys of variously sized ‘offices’ with glass walls. Although ostensibly an empty space, this ‘hole’ in the building is the key to its communications potential. At any one time it is possible to see where most people are, whether at work at their computers, having coffee in one of the coffee lounges, or travelling in one of the glass sided elevators.

Natural light and ventilation are available to every room. On the ground floor itself, a robotics section where robots are ‘learning’ to swim and to fly hides behind a high wall. Once the robots have learned to fly, this wall can slide aside, giving the robots access to the entire atrium!

© Keith Hunter
© Keith Hunter

In addition to standard lifts and staircases, five ‘wormhole’ spiral staircases link specific sections, for example from floor 2 to 4. As well as being fun to negotiate, they act as shortcuts and foster casual interaction. The building is designed on a flexible 1500 metre grid. 4 person offices could appear cramped, but with glass walls, they are simply not oppressive. Corridors are wider than normal, to allow two people to chat as they walk along, photocopying stations punctuate the corners and coffee lounges open out the spaces, often double height, encouraging people to linger, mingle and generally network. Hot desks are in the open, allowing students from other departments to log in for a day or so.

© Keith Hunter
© Keith Hunter

Stunning views of Arthur’s Seat in particular are not ignored and there is talk of a barbecue on the east facing roof terrace.

This being Edinburgh, architects being architects, and builders being builders, did the building come in on time and on budget? it was, remarkably and commendably, close. It was on budget but one year late. Precast panels meant consistent quality and no weather hold-ups during the build. The budget of £41 million proved realistic and at £2560 per square metre, it is quite remarkable what has been achieved.

The building benefits from a combined heat and power system, with solar gain and thermal mass contributing to energy considerations and floor level ventilation ensures comfort. High levels of sustainability have been monitored throughout the construction process and there are plans to bring in an architectural psychologist to evaluate the success of the building in due course.

A flagship department for the university, it has attracted a £13 million grant from Scottish Enterprise because of its potential to attract inward investment. All in all, this is a very satisfying result for both users and architects. And away from the heady world of computer information systems, Edinburgh’s Planning Department will be breathing a collective sigh of relief as this gap in the South Side is gradually filled. The third building, which will complete the scheme, has yet to be allocated a use.

Scotland’s most prestigious architecture prize, the RIAS Andrew Doolan Award, has been awarded jointly to Bennetts Associates for the Department of Informatics and Elder and Cannon Architects for the refurbishment of a stable block in Castlemilk. Congratulations to John Miller and the team!

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Suse Coon

Suse Coon started life training to be an architect but ended up as a fashion buyer then civil servant. After some time out to bring up her family of three, she returned to what had been a hobby and entered the field of freelance journalism. After becoming regional correspondent, then editor of the orienteering magazine CompassSport, she formed Pages Editorial & Publishing Services. In this guise, West Lothian Life was launched, while Suse maintained a level of freelancing and wrote the award winning children's novel Richard's Castle. In 1999, Suse bought over CompassSport and found her time taken up pretty well exclusively with the two magazines. In 2004, West Lothian Life was expanded to form Lothian Life, however, the workload was too great. In 2006, CompassSport was sold and Suse concentrated on the web version of Lothian Life. Her hobbies include gardening, orienteering, sea kayaking and Tai Chi.

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