Copperas Hill catalyst for change, says architect

Jessica Middleton-Pugh

With a planning application for Liverpool John Moores University's 340,000 sq ft Copperas Hill redevelopment due to be submitted this summer, Place North West sat down with BDP's Sue Emms to discuss the significance of the scheme.

Emms has worked for BDP since graduating from Sheffield University in 1999, and is now the practice's education sector advisor for the North West; previous schemes include St John Bosco Arts College and Enterprise South Liverpool Academy, both of which are RIBA award-winning buildings.

Copperas Hill LJMUFor LJMU, Emms is the lead architect on the £80m redevelopment of the former Royal Mail sorting office on the three-acre site acquired in 2011. In 2013, the university announced plans to transform the site as part of its vision to locate all students and staff in the city centre.

"Copperas Hill is going to be a catalyst for transformation in the area around the Lime Street railway station," Emms told Place North West. "The campus will be embedded into the city centre, combining the student experience with the civic experience."

The development will see the current 1970s Royal Mail block stripped back to the frame, re-clad and redesigned to increase natural light internally. Emms described the vision for the space as "cohesive and convivial" with a mix of uses under one roof including the library, student services, teaching and learning academy, sport and wellbeing centre, counselling rooms, and some administrative rooms.

The planning application is due to be submitted in June or July, and LJMU is currently out to tender for a contractor.

"The challenge of Copperas Hill was getting under the skin of the brief and addressing the various potential uses for the building," explained Emms. "We're inventing a new typology of building, and that means it requires lots of testing as the downside of a new typology means no one has done it before."

St John Bosco by BDPAccording to Emms, it is this desire to keep the client's wishes at the heart of the design which is core to the BDP process.

"An architect should never just go off at a tangent, it's not just about the art," she said. "There are many examples of buildings where the architect has been stubborn and then the clients have hated it.

"BDP has its roots in humanistic architecture, so it is not about a style, instead it's a user-centric approach."

Over the past eight years Emms has become a specialist in education projects, working on a range of schemes from universities to nurseries.

"I'm always interested in socially motivated architecture, and buildings that can make a difference to people. When the head teacher at St John Bosco said that it had changed the lives of young people that was better than any award the scheme could have received."

Improvements in the design of primary and secondary schools, increasing university tuition fees and a rise in international students, are all factors which have led universities to look critically at their facilities and how they can raise their standards according to Emms.

"Students are now consumers, they want shiny buildings and many have come out of the new-build academy schools so are used to a fresh, modern environment.

"The Government is very keen for universities to support the economy, so university developments are being driven by research needs. The labs we are designing are very different to 20 years ago – interdisciplinary working is now the trend, and cross-working between subjects, so the spaces need to enable that."

 Royal MailWhile cost constraints are an ever-present factor within education projects, a tight budget does not mean that expectations need to be lowered, Emms said.

"At St John Bosco, we had to work with the same timeframe and budget as any baseline scheme, but wanted to deliver great and transformational architecture. It proved that if you think outside the box, you can do something inspirational."

As the latest phase of LJMU's £180m development plan, which has included the construction of Rick Mather's Art & Design Academy, Austin-Smith:Lord's Tom Reilly Building and ADP's Redmonds Building, the bar is set high for Copperas Hill. With LJMU's estate management department closely involved with the process, Emms stressed that the strength of the relationship with the university would be central to the quality of the finished design.

"The success of our buildings is down to our clients," she said. "Simply, every good building has a good client."

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