Dawn of the STEAM age

A groundbreaking further education building in Bridgend, south Wales, integrates ‘art’ into the established STEM typology to make STEAM. It also combines a range of open workshop spaces alongside traditional classrooms, as James Parker discovered

The concept of bringing together Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths in technology and practical learning-focused further education facilities, transferring skills across these related disciplines, is now well established. However a new tweak on the idea has brought so-called ‘STEAM’ facilities to the fore. The ‘A’ stands for ‘arts,’ the idea being to ensure a rounded education for 16-18 year olds, with the emphasis being on creativity and innovation.

A STEAM Academy – totalling 8,500 m² – has recently been completed for Bridgend College at its campus in Pencoed, just east of Bridgend in south Wales. The building was designed by established Cardiff-based practice Rio Architects, and is their first major project with the college, and first encounter with the ‘STEAM’ concept. The two-storey, £25m facility includes workshops for car and other vehicle maintenance, welding, M&E, pneumatics, CNC cutting facilities, and laboratories as well as the more traditional range of classrooms, staff areas and break-out social spaces.

The design also enables a forward-thinking approach for the college, including bringing teachers together to enable collaboration across disciplines, aiding efficiency. Connection is a big theme behind the project – it is designed to give students a feeling of openness but also connection – with copious glazing employed internally to visually connect workshops with classrooms. It’s also a building carefully designed to connect and blend unobtrusively with its richly landscaped existing setting, which doesn’t impose itself.

The project’s initial impetus came from a drive by the college to better connect with local businesses. The college, in line with Welsh Government priorities, wanted to enhance its existing STEM offering, and collaboration with local industry, by creating “real work environments.” Being located next to the ‘Digital Creative Cluster’ within Pencoed Technology Park meant that it could develop closer working relationships with both large and small companies.

Procurement & brief

The architects’ involvement began when they were asked to do a feasibility study for a new building on the campus. The project would be a Design & Build, via a local education framework, NPS (since renamed DPS), led by Mott MacDonald.

However, benefitting the design, the architects designed the scheme to Stage 4 with the client, before it went out to tender. Project architect Andrew Baker comments: “For me, Design & Build works when you design up to Stage 4, with the client’s requirements. I don’t think it works when the contractor takes over at Stage 2; they’re not really pricing anything accurately because the designs are incomplete, prices are based on outline information only, the contractor then finalises the design process with a bias to reducing costs and risk, to the detriment of the design quality.”

The college wanted to relocate existing ‘specialist’ further education facilities – requiring specialist design treatment – such as car mechanics, from its Cowbridge Road campus. However it also wanted to make some new additions as part of the STEAM remit. The architects carried out “extensive” surveys of the existing facilities and specialist equipment early on, in order to closely model the equipment they’d be needing to house. They also fully investigated the working practices of college tutors, to make the new facilities as efficient as possible.

Baker says that this approach was highly beneficial, and offset imminent design challenges, “as more people became engaged with the project from the client side, with their preferred teaching or operational methods.” The ‘A’ part of the STEAM equation didn’t however add too many design challenges in terms of new spaces. Baker explains that the ‘arts’ elements integrated here were generally manifested in the form of rooms where filming and production could take place, to help publicise the college’s activities, and included ‘green room’ facilities.

In addition, there’s a large conference room, with retractable tiered seating and acoustic treatment for performances and presentations, plus a substantial lighting gantry.

There were some challenges around the client’s remit moving during the briefing, expected in an emerging typology like this. Certain areas of the curriculum were expanding, like the car mechanics teaching function (including one large workshop for training in maintenance of electric vehicles). As a result, client expectations were evolving as the architects were designing the project. “It was one area where there was a bit of uncertainty – as we were designing the curriculum and the brief was evolving.”

Baker cautions that if a project is a Design & Build such as this, “Once the contractor’s on board, changes in the design can be expensive. It’s critical to have a thorough briefing and design process.”

Where the college wanted to make a tweak on traditional teaching methods, with the help of the design, was to “integrate break out spaces” throughout the building. These would facilitate “more experimental learning methods,” i.e. flexible approaches to using the space, “alongside the traditional classroom formula.” Well-suited to more practical, task-based learning, this means that students can separate and perform a particular task in a break-out area, then come back to the classroom.

With the project having a finite budget, the smaller break-out spaces allowed for a reduced number of traditional classrooms below that in the original brief, and so a reduced overall GIA. This was “a bit of a gamble for the college,” says Baker, in the hope that the break out spaces would provide sufficiently for the curriculum.

Transparent transformation

The pre-existing provision for STEM teaching was of a poor standard, characterised by “old workshops, leaky roofs, no insulation,” and were “spread” across different buildings. They were also “dark and dingy,” often windowless spaces, says Baker; “unless you went in, you wouldn’t be aware of any engineering activities.”

There was a further, key aspect to creating open, welcoming and bright new spaces, compared with the previous offerings. That was to make them feel more inclusive, and less intimidating in the hope of attracting more female students into the engineering industry, and “dispel the dirty, male-dominated environments” that characterised the previous workshops, says Baker.

The client’s drive to have a building with a strong, visible presence, included a transparency to enable visitors and students in classrooms to see what was going on in the workshops.” This also raised a “big challenge,” namely that in making all of the engineering facilities “open and visible,” the architects had to balance this against the functional urge to close spaces off for fire and acoustics reasons. But in the end, the architects were determined to harness the benefits of good design to help inspire all of the college’s students, “and hopefully enjoy being in a great building.”

A collegiate aesthetic

The design is described by the architects as “sober, robust and confident,” and one which seeks to defer to its rural context, but also, the extensive landscape of mature trees surrounding it. Another example of a balance the architects were keen to strike was the overall ‘collegiate aesthetic’ they were aiming for, as well as the more self-explanatory ‘crisp detailing.’ Baker explains the ‘collegiate’ aspect as offering a sense of academia, without overdoing the formality, while also not being too patronisingly ‘young.’ He says: “It’s for young people, but we didn’t want it to be too playful, or childish. By the same token, it’s got to be formal, but not corporate.” Baker adds: “These are people who have put school behind them and are going into the adult world. It needed a certain level of maturity, but without looking like a building on a business park.”

The facades have generous areas of glazing ‘where appropriate’ but also the necessary solar shading to mediate this. External facades show the ‘collegiate’ aspect expressed in “robust and industrial materials with warm tones and textures,” and “well-considered proportions.” As per the intention, the buff-coloured brick facades (Michelmersh Synthesis S09, Light and Mid Grey 50% blend) give a sober, unassuming feel; aside from the surrounding trees, there was little architectural context in the nearby buildings to respond to. The workshops, which are to the rear, have a “calm” black cladding formed in a pyramid profile.

“We wanted a building that had a confident design, but which wasn’t too shouty, one that settled into the landscape,” says Baker. There is one striking detail, i.e. an orange-hued aluminium ‘picture frame’ surrounding a number of windows. This gives the building a subtle presence behind the trees; “When approaching from a distance, you sense there’s a building of note.” However, the long, low horizontal form sits below even the shortest trees surrounding it, so it’s “very much a building within the landscape, and doesn’t dominate it.”

An exposed concrete frame, offering the benefits of thermal mass, has been used for most of the structure, and runs throughout the general teaching spaces. The large workshops however have an exposed steel frame as they require much greater open-plan space – meaning long spans up to 35 metres. The architects say that this approach, alongside exposed services “creates a bold aesthetic that reflects the building’s engineering environment, as well as passively enhancing the environmental performance.”

Programme & interiors

The volume is organised over two levels, but includes several double-height spaces, from the six large workshops, to the conference room for up to 200 people on the ground floor, and parts of the reception. Classrooms and circulation spaces are located on the upper floor, looking down into the workshops through glazing which controls noise.

The classrooms project into the workshop void, framed in orange, a feature that visually connects back to the exterior. Some of the classrooms are also glazed to the internal circulation, so that walking down the corridor you can see through the classroom to workshops beyond. This was “challenging with noise breakout,” says Baker, “but the whole building works really well acoustically.”

According to the architects, “the internal environment balances comfort, robustness, connectivity, privacy, accessibility, security, an open collaborative environment and quiet study areas,” Meeting these challenging and diverse end-user requirements was part of creating an “uplifting educational environment.”

While the client was keen not to have a capacious, space and heat hungry atrium, they did want to experience a sense of arrival in the building’s reception, so there’s a two-storey green wall, and the social breakout spaces above look down onto the double-height spaces. The architects created a clever circular aperture above the voids cut into the plasterboard, beneath a standard square rooflight, adding a “sense of elevation” to the space.

The client wanted the spaces to give users a sense of being connected to a ‘greater whole,’ so that the individual classes or disciplines would not feel cut off from the rest of the building. “So if you were sitting in a classroom you could see into the workshops, and vice versa,” says Baker. We wanted students to “have a sense of being part of a wider learning environment.”

Flexible spaces

The architects provided great amounts of flexibility to the workshops, as “to be able to alter the space was really important to the client, as they don’t know how the curriculum may evolve over the coming years.”

The workshops are “one big open shed, basically,” but they have storey height stud wall partitions to provide acoustic protection. Easily demountable, workshops can be enlarged or subdivided as required. There is one full-height partition, to cut off the particularly disruptive levels of noise from the mechanical workshops.

Some of the glazed classrooms, for example those overlooking the car maintenance area, have two ‘skins’ of double glazing, with a “big gap” between, and the final part of a belt and braces solution being a twin wall consisting of concrete frame and metal stud and plasterboard beyond, plus insulation, “just to achieve the acoustics we needed to.”

This obviously came at a cost, but, the final build cost was circa £21.8m (under 2,800/m2), therefore within budget, and no value engineering required.

Baker comments on the successful procurement when it came to the subcontractors: “We provided a really robust set of information at Stage 4, the contractors knew what they had to price, and they all came in relatively close. The contract was tendered on mean cost.”

Landscaping & sustainability

The architects used their own landscaping consultant, but involved the college’s horticultural department in the design and physical planting of the site, which contributed towards their curriculum.

On the 4,500 m2 roof there are 3,000 m2 of PV panels, and data on the electricity generated is on constant display in the reception area. There is greywater recycling and the concrete is contributing to the passive control of the internal temperature.


Bridgend College fully embraced the concept of the flexible break-out areas to provide for new ways of learning and fully supported the design team to create these environments within the final designs. However, the team was relieved to discover that things have gone according to plan, and these spaces are very well used and enjoyed by staff and students.

Baker says: “When we revisit the site, all of these spaces are really well used, there are always people and groups in them, whether for social or structured learning.” Class-based teaching still forms a large part of what the college does on the campus, but students have also embraced the flexible spaces naturally, whether doing tasks alone, or collaborating.”

A vast improvement on the college’s former STEM facilities, and a highly successful example of Design & Build for the architects, this building represents a transformation in the students’ experience, to a much more inclusive one. Rio Architects’ design has been validated by their “extremely positive” feedback received so far since the building opened to students in September 2021.