Ulster University Belfast Campus

Avant-garde design and outstanding construction delivery completes Ulster University’s new enhanced Belfast Campus…

Led by Sacyr UK & Ireland, the newly completed £363.9m Ulster University campus in Belfast represents one of the most impressive feats of architecture and construction delivered within the UK in recent years.

Taking its architectural design inspiration from the shape of the surrounding Belfast hills, the 75,000m2 addition to the campus is one of the largest higher education capital builds in Europe and is set to transform higher education in the city. 

The new building, designed and built by Sacyr, is bright and open with five atriums and 22,000m2 of glass used in its construction. The facilities include more than 300 learning spaces, two lecture theatres with 350 and 250 seats respectively, 18 elevators, a two-story library and private study sections, which can accommodate up to 500 students, a biometric laboratory, nine catering outlets including a rooftop café.

This state-of-the-art building combines Victorian inspiration from local architecture and modern, using long-lasting materials, resulting in a sustainable building which can accommodate more than 15,000 university students and staff.

Bespoke design

The responsibility of managing the delivery of the final phase lay with Duane McCreadie, Construction Director for Sacyr. “It has been an intense three-year construction period,” he admitted. “Every element of the building has a degree of bespokeness, which has required a lot of BIM modelling. All elements needed intensive design, procurement and sampling before installation. It is a very complicated building but also a wonderful piece of architecture. Parts of it have been described as cathedral like.”

The concrete superstructure frame includes a two-storey concrete basement with a small number of steel frames erected at the top to house the plant. The cladding is a mixture of brickwork and multiple types of glass installed on an extremely complex façade which steps in and out on different levels and planes. There are 19 roof levels which include green roofs, a vast solar panel installation and roof terrace complete with tree planting.

The internal fit out elements include seven feature staircases, bespoke ceilings, oak wood strip wall panels, acoustic panels in the lecture theatres and vast amounts of ventilated computer flooring and stud partitions. “No two rooms are the same in this building,” said Duane. 

A complicated M+E package included installation of specialist ventilation for medical gases in the labs, extensive ventilation below the computer flooring and in the ceilings, a full sprinkler system on every floor and nine gas boilers housed in the basement.

On the electrical side, 606km of data cables was installed, along with specialist energy saving lighting control systems. “From a services point of view, it’s a very smart building,” said Duane. 

Local pride

The project has faced many challenges from start to finish, with one of the partners within the main contractor JV going into administration in 2018. When you add a global pandemic, lockdowns, labour and materials shortages to the mix, it is a truly phenomenal achievement for Sacyr to have successfully handed over the new campus to teaching staff and students in September.

“We constructed this building during a tumultuous period of history, and it’s an absolute credit to our local supply chain that they stuck with the job until the end,” Duane said. “I can say with great pride that the majority – 80%-85% – of the workforce has been made up of key local sub-contractors. It’s been a privilege to work on such a landmark job, and hopefully in years to come, my own kids – who are 4 and 2 – might study here in the future.

“Typically, in Northern Ireland, we don’t build projects at this scale, but, in my opinion, this has to be one of the best buildings built in the UK in the last few years. It’s a phenomenal design and I believe the quality and the detail that we’ve managed to achieve is second to none. This building will be remembered as a real game changer to Belfast. As Sacyr, we’re proud to have delivered it.”

For the full feature, see issue 33-5 of Northern Builder here.