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If you build it, they will come

Students flock to Bristol University's new study centre and café on opening day

Posted by Stephanie Broad | April 11, 2016 | Bricks & mortar

A historic, Grade II listed building in the heart of Bristol, previously a Habitat store, has been transformed from a tired retail space into Bristol University’s new student study centre, public reception and cafe after a £12 million investment.

After eight months of building work led by Midas Construction, the 2,643 square metre facility now boasts a study centre, complete with 388 study seats, 66 computers, social study spaces, a quiet study area and flexible group learning rooms. 

The café will be open to the public seven days a week, as will the large reception area which provides a focal point for all visitors to the university.

Beacon House will become a key part of the university’s campus thanks to its location between the Students’ Union and the central campus. During the planning phase, the university consulted with students and academics to ensure the building met their needs. The intention, as Bursar and Director of Estates Patrick Finch tells us, is to open the space up, see how students use it, collect feedback and adapt where needed. 

On our visit, students were already making the most of the space, with a quiet study room full to the brim and a collaborative working space enjoyed by groups and individuals alike. Bookable rooms and moveable furniture means the space can be used in a variety of ways. 

Professor Judith Squires, Pro Vice-Chancellor at the university, said: “Beacon House is a really exciting addition to the university as the building is in such a prime position.

“It will accommodate, energise and inspire students in a welcoming and flexible environment, and showcase the best of the University to our visitors. As a site that promotes and celebrates learning we hope that it will become central to the University's engagement with its students and the wider city.”

The building has been carefully designed to meet the needs of students who increasingly need flexible study spaces in addition to traditional libraries.

The project is the latest in a series of investments by the university in teaching and research facilities as part of its £525 million capital investment programme over 10 years.

Dr Jessica Gardner, Director of Library Services at the university, said: “A great deal of work has gone into this project, and we’ve created a space which we hope students will really love. 

“Although a traditional library will always be a core part of any university, the way young people choose to study is definitely changing and Beacon House has been designed with that in mind, offering both quiet and sociable learning spaces in a central location.” 

In the quiet study space upstairs, we’re pleased to see a completely full house, silent despite minimal signage asking for quiet. Jessica sees this as proof of the thoughtful architecture: “Students know what to expect from their spaces if you design them well.” 

Beacon House, next to the Royal West of England Academy, was constructed in the 1850s and was formerly the Queen’s Hotel before being used for retail purposes – Gardiners in the 1930s, Debenhams after the war and more recently Habitat, which closed in 2011. 

In addition to the listed part of the building, there is also a more modern rear extension which acted as the main floor space for Habitat.

Patrick Finch, Bursar and Director of Estates at the university, said: “Beacon House was a very tired building but Midas Construction has done a fantastic job in transforming it into a modern and flexible environment for our students and the public to enjoy.

“The structure of the listed building has been difficult for us to work around, particularly where the reception and cafe are now sited. Despite these difficulties, we have managed to create a light, airy and welcoming space. 

“Similarly, introducing services like air conditioning to meeting rooms and ventilation to spaces which will be used much more intensively by us than by Habitat has given rise to much thought about where to hide unsightly services so as not to impact the listed building.”

Beacon House has achieved a Royal Institution for Chartered Surveyors SKA rating of bronze, mainly by upgrading insulation, introducing double glazed windows, fitting energy efficient boilers and using LED lighting. 

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