Interview with key project figure: Chris Churchman, Churchman Landscape Architects.

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  1. Can you describe Churchman Landscape architects and your role in the Green Heart Project?

Churchman Landscape Architects are award-winning designers of landscapes and public realm projects within the academic environment.  We have previously worked at the University of Warwick, UEA, London City University, UCL, Queen Mary – University of London and Glasgow Caledonian University and we have a particular focus on all aspects of sustainability and biodiversity.  We were appointed by the University of Birmingham to design the Green Heart project following a competition between many of the UK’s leading landscape practices in the spring of 2015.

2. Can you confirm what stage the project is currently at?

Following 18 months of design development, the project is now at an exciting stage. It has been submitted for planning consent and is due to go to tender early in 2017.  It is intended that construction will commence in the summer of 2017, with the completion of the main central space due late in 2018.

3. What will The Green Heart project bring to the University of Birmingham?

The Green Heart will be the largest single piece of public realm at the heart of any UK campus.  It will provide a memorable space at the centre of the University with the historic clock tower at one end and the North Gates at the other. It has been designed to provide many opportunities for events, study and relaxation.  It will remove the less memorable spaces, including the north car park, and overcome many of the accessibility issues that currently exist due to the changes of level.

4. How valuable has the information gathered from Green Heart consultations been in helping you develop the design, and can you highlight any aspects of the design that it has impacted?

It has been an invaluable process and has verified that the academic community shared our initial thoughts.  The feedback tended to strengthen a conservative agenda, focusing on the historic aspects of the campus environment with a general desire for a green and pleasant space.

5. What are you most looking forward to seeing on campus when the project is finished?

A space that is well used and full of life.  From the outset, it has been our desire to create a space that the students can adopt, that they will enrich, and within which they are encouraged to dwell.  If the Green Heart is simply a large green space then it will be something of a hollow gesture; it needs to be animated and activated by campus life – our hope is that it will become the ‘talking point’ of campus.

6. What design elements will create the wow factor?

Achieving a ‘wow’ factor will not be difficult, the sheer scale of the 5.5-hectare space will impress, as will the views of the clock tower and the buildings of Chancellor’s Court.  We took a conscious decision to use the level changes to our advantage – we have created a series of large grass embankments that will extend out from the North Gate and run along the front of Muirhead.  A new bridge will span from this embankment to the existing raised terrace in front of the library.  Together these features will create an impressive landscape.  We have also selected planting that will maximise seasonal colour, particularly during the course of the autumn and spring terms.  There are other aspects of the design, that although visually less impressive, will strengthen the quality of the space, these include: Swift hotels and bat boxes, the use of paving that generates power when walked upon, and rain gardens that allow rainwater to naturally infiltrate the ground rather than overloading local rivers.

7. Describe the design process – what inspires you?

A successful design for us means creating environments that are uplifting and work on many levels, environments that enrich and that people adopt and enjoy.  We like a challenge and are always seeking to develop new ideas and concepts. We always set the bar high during the early stages of the design process, expecting that some ideas will be diluted or will disappear during the delivery process.  The design is something of an iterative process, where ideas are constantly refined and fine-tuned.  For us, universities provide fertile ground for developing new ideas; they are focused at a young audience and can provide a test bed for new concepts.

8. Best part of the job?

Seeing our vision realised and fulfilling its intended use, receiving recognition for our work from clients and peers.

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