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Buildings that inspire: award winner and runners-up

Aston University has replaced a tired students’ union building with multipurpose rooms bathed in natural light.

Winner: Aston University
Project: Aston’s student-centred students’ union building.

Students at Aston University rarely chose to spend time in their old students’ union – housed in a shabby 1960s building – unless they were running a society or asking for advice.

Many commented in the National Student Survey that it was an aspect of their university that badly needed to change.

Now change it has. The old building has been demolished and in its place is a two-storey, steel-framed construction with natural light pouring through its glass walls, a double-height ∂reception, a cafe, bar and restaurant, pool tables, games consoles, giant beanbags, big screens and lots of students hanging out.

The new building, completed in February 2019, allows them to do lots of other things too. It has a dedicated prayer space, washing facilities, a kitchen for commuter students to cook or heat up food, and a bespoke space for mature students with desktop computers and lockers.

Multipurpose rooms support clubs and societies, while a mirrored, sprung-floor dance studio becomes a revision room in exam season.

Student involvement in the project, designed by architects Robothams and builders Clegg Construction, was key to ensuring the new building reflected the needs of a bigger, more diverse and modern student body.

Students’ union officers met university staff, the architects and contractors monthly as part of a project team. A 3D visualisation of the space was put up on YouTube for other students to see, and regular updates about the building were posted on social media. Students were also able to suggest items to place in a time capsule buried on the site.

The building reflects the importance to students of sustainability and inclusivity. Made of sustainable wood, it incorporates a low-carbon heating system drawing energy from more than 100 solar panels. All toilets are gender-neutral.

The building was opened in May 2019 by Sir Dominic Cadbury, brother of the late Sir Adrian Cadbury, who left £250,000 in his will towards the cost of the £9.5m project.

After the opening, the students’ union jumped from bottom of a 22-strong list of campus services rated by students to third. It also saw a significant jump in satisfaction in the 2019 NSS.

Nor is it just students who use the building. It has hosted BBC Radio Four Question Time, held public talks and debates for Birmingham’s IKON gallery, and been used as a venue for National Citizen Service as well as a backdrop for BBC interviews.

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