A new interior identity to the Portland Building
The University of Nottingham’s iconic and well-loved Portland Building has been transformed into a desirable students’ union venue for socialising, informal learning and relaxing. The building, which is in the heart of the beautiful University Park campus, is home to more than 34,000 students and one of the busiest and most active students’ unions in the UK.
Starting in 2014, the four-phase masterplan completed in 2018 and was devised by an expert team of client advisors, designers, engineers and contractors, which we are proud to have been part of.
The brief was to optimise the building’s potential to support a variety of enriching social activities for the students’ wellbeing and creative learning, whilst preserving the building’s rich heritage.
The student body also needed a building which represented its strong cultural identity and appreciated the stunning natural landscape of University Park Campus.
The importance of interior design in university masterplanning
Our interior design and architecture teams were involved in the scheme from beginning to end, having been awarded the project by a competitive design competition and tender.
Not only did we deliver the interior design brief for the Portland Building’s transformation, but working alongside the university in developing its new Students’ Union brand, was a key component in achieving a consistent look and feel throughout the project’s four phases, which was delivered by a range of contractors.
Understanding the audience to create a meaningful identity in the Students’ Union building
To really understand the brief and what the building needed to provide, the Students’ Union conducted extensive market research and peer surveys. Our masterplan evolved year on year, with successive students’ union representatives, evaluating the newly completed elements, reviewing the remaining elements of the masterplan and collaboratively developing the design. We also worked closely with the university’s estates office to understand the operational needs.
The initial survey findings were fascinating, showing that the students considered the building to be mainly ‘functional’, with which they had little emotional connection.
Rather than staying on campus and using its facilities, they were travelling into the city of Nottingham instead. We needed to encourage the students to stay on campus by designing a welcoming and safe environment, and this became a key element of the project.
The Portland Building also needed a new, unique identity to reflect its students’ diverse values. The building needed to be reinvented to demonstrate its ability to provide new experiences, particularly in its position in the heart of the campus.
Optimising space for creative learning
The concept of clearly defined ‘academic’ and ‘non-academic’ zones within universities is long gone as new learning styles and technology has changed the way students learn.
Whilst it was necessary for the Portland Building to maintain its existing services, the existing space needed to be optimised to create more accessible and agile spaces which a rich palette of reconfigurable furniture types promotes.
The Portland Building needed flexible, inter-connected areas suitable for a variety of activities, so we re-addressed the needs of the students and the functions for each space.
Under-utilised areas and dead spaces were totally redesigned for socialising and flexible learning to promote unplanned encounters and conversations. One example of this, which was delivered in phase one, is a flexible, accessible and dynamic activity and performance hub which revitalised the east wing, transforming a dark and unattractive corner.
We also designed a bold new performance venue, extended an existing terrace to create more social and performance space and we redesigned a peace garden, faith zone and retail mall. A new five-story social and support hub is now dedicated to its students, which was one of the ‘big ambitions’ suggested in the market research.
Using wayfinding to direct the movement of students
Before its transformation, the Portland Building felt too busy for its students, with an abundance of people and corridors.
It felt inaccessible, with a distinct lack of usable space. As such, many of the university’s services became invisible. People were no longer using the space effectively and in the Michael Hopkins’ building, the main flow into the building was through the rear Portland Hill doors, rather than the original main entrance overlooking the lake.
In response to this, a clear wayfinding strategy was put in place, which looked in detail at the movement of students between spaces.
In phase three, for example, we re-orientated the entrance in response to student movement and worked within the existing building fabric to develop a multi-height ‘welcome hub’ with a video screen projecting onto the Djanogly Steps to create an external meeting, gathering, viewing and performance venue. We also strategically used colour, flooring, graphics and lighting to make it easier for people to passively navigate the building’s new layout. New television screens have been set up within the main circulation areas which can be used to find the locations of the building’s various activities and spaces.
How to use biophilic design for universities
To encourage a better sense of wellbeing, we incorporated elements of biophilic design as it is proven to increase happiness and productivity levels. This taps into our innate desire to be close to nature, and people are happier when they are connected to flora and fauna.
At the Portland Building, we used a combination of materials, fixtures and lighting to create an environment which represents the outdoors, including a green wall, wallcoverings mimicking natural materials and feature lighting.
The floor also worked in conjunction with the other materials to create a biophilic-inspired environment, as biophilic flooring products are incredibly effective for bringing the outside in. We used flotex-flocked flooring and luxury vinyl and carpet tiles to give the look and feel of wood, grass, pebbles and stone.
Combining modernity with rich architectural heritage
The students are proud of how beautiful the Portland Building is and wanted to really take advantage of its architecture and heritage. Our designs had to remain sensitive to the neo-classical 1950s building, as well as Michael Hopkins’ 2003 extension.
We introduced new lighting, signage, furniture and finishes to make the building brighter and easier to navigate. This allowed us to maintain and highlight the building’s historical architectural features.
Our designs took full advantage of the luscious university campus, connecting the building with the landscape and allowing the students to appreciate the views from the interior. Existing outdoor terraces were also transformed to encourage students to use the outside space for socialising and learning.
A multi-purpose university building
Today, the students and staff are embracing the redevelopment, using every new space for both studying and socialising, showing its transformation into a hub of student life. More students are taking advantage of the campus facilities and its new culturally-rich Students’ Union.
The University of Nottingham’s Portland Building is an example of the growing importance of interior design when creating inspiring environments for the leaders and great thinkers of the future.
Transforming one of the UK’s largest students’ unions over a four-year period has had its challenges. By engaging our team of expert interior designers and architects from the beginning and throughout the project duration, the outcome remained true to the vision.
For such an influential global university, it is only right to have invested in these learning spaces, which play a pivotal role in the student experience.