Transforming a Brutalist tower block into the heart of a university campus

The Vijay Patel Building at DMU, Leicester, is a prime example of impactful renovation, and is inspiring the arts and design students within its halls.

Nottingham and London-based CPMG Architects have recently completed work on the Vijay Patel Building at De Montfort University in Leicester. With an overall scheme value of £57 million, the redesign of the building is a perfect example of how making brave architectural decisions can inspire future art and design professionals.

As the centrepiece of the university’s £136 million Campus Transformation Project, the Vijay Patel Building has received much acclaim since its completion; it was voted ProCon’s ‘Large Non-Residential Scheme of the Year’ and is also being called the ‘best new building in Leicester’. CPMG Architects have managed to unite all of the university’s art and design students in the building, creating a landmark design in higher education which has proved to be a success.

At DesignCurial, we were offered the chance to delve further into the astonishing transformation of the 1960s Brutalist tower block by speaking to CPMG Architects about their design, and how they hoped it would inspire future generations of art and design professionals:

How has the new Vijay Patel building helped revitalise DMU’s creative departments?

DMU’s art and design faculty has a record of excellence dating back to 1870, producing graduates who have shaped the UK’s creative industries. However, before the new development, these faculties were spread across nine different buildings, some of which were housing [other subjects]. Along with the age of the buildings, [these challenges were] hindering the future growth, development and achievement of the department.

The new development provides a base for all of De Montfort University’s art and design students, who are now united under one roof; it encourages creative collaboration and openness between eleven different subject areas, making it easy to share studios, workshops and break-out spaces.

The building also addresses the complex academic challenges often faced by art and design departments. The flexibility of space now accommodates for changing programmes, departments and group sizes; there is a large amount of space for creative exchange, private design and interactive workshops. There are open plan studios, specialized smaller spaces on each floor, and a mix of formal and informal teaching spaces, workshops and shared atria. The Gallery is the largest space of its kind in Leicester, displaying student, staff and external artwork.

Tell us about the ‘floating’ staircase?

The staircase links all of the faculties within the building by climbing five levels, with each flight zigzagging over the next. This provides a focus for collaboration between schools and interaction with exhibitions by enhancing the circulation of students and providing an interactive route for movement while maintaining continuous accessibility. As students ascend or descend, they come across different spaces on each floor, encouraging them to work together and collaborate with those from different subject areas.

How does the building aid DMU in their long term master plan to connect Leicester city centre to the River Soar?

Via a public thoroughfare; DMU has a long-term vision to reconnect the city to the riverside using a series of linked open spaces throughout the campus. With this in mind, we designed a landscaped ‘green lung’ which connects the river to the Vijay Patel Building – it’s a stunning focal point at the heart of the campus. The development has created brand new access paths, for which the building won the Leicester Civic Society 2016 Award for ‘New Build complimenting the historic Built Environment of the City of Leicester’. Open parkland along Mill Lane leads to the edge of the River Soar, creating a new gateway that connects the city’s West End to the city centre.

Why transform a 1960s Brutalist tower block?

[We were] asked to transform the existing building - which divided the campus - into a modern and flexible landmark building. The prominent eleven storey 1960s tower block had to be refurbished, as the original Brutalist architecture meant poor quality materials were used for the cladding; the flat roofs had minimal insulation and there was an abundance of single glazing.

To refurbish the tower block and the surrounding low rise buildings, everything was stripped back to the concrete structural frames and replaced with curtain and render. A 15,000 sqm new build element was added to expand the Vijay Patel Building; the new six storey building engages with the redeveloped Brutalist tower block, as well as the low-rise CLASP buildings, and is mainly clad in terracotta planks to fit with the campus’ red bricks.

The former Fletcher Complex for Art, Design and Humanities was also redeveloped and integrated with the landscaped ‘green lung’ which fronts on to Mill Lane. It occupies the space created by the demolition of some of the redundant low rise buildings and has created an open, high quality landscaped area that knits the campus together, providing clear views in all directions. 

How did you ensure the project was sustainable?

As DMU prides itself on its environmental and sustainability credentials, it was essential for the Vijay Patel Building to be sustainable - the university is strongly committed to reducing the environmental impact of its campus and in response, 15% of the new building’s energy is renewable. We also achieved our target of recycling over 85% of the demolition material.

To make sure the building was sustainable, environmentally friendly, and utilised energy saving technology, PV panels were integrated throughout the project - particularly in the eleven story tower. 156 glass photovoltaic fins were installed on the arts tower, providing solar shading and renewable energy to the building. In addition, over 35 new trees were planted in new green landscape scheme.

We used low maintenance sustainable materials and significantly improved the environmental and energy performance of the retained buildings. As a result, the building achieved a BREEAM excellent rating, which ensures the environmental credentials of buildings.

All images courtesy of CPMG Architects

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