Newcastle Helix is a hotbed of sustainability- related activity, exploring the way ahead for other cities in the UK and abroad. Mark Lane visited the impressive city centre site of the ambitious project to find out more about its wide-ranging aims and objectives

Newcastle Helix
www.newcastlehelix.com
@newcastlehelix

In the centre of Newcastle stands a remarkable testbed for green solutions that is intended to benefit the city, and beyond, for generations to come.

Newcastle Helix, described as a living laboratory for urban sustainability, is a landmark 24-acre hybrid city quarter in the centre of Newcastle. It has been built for international tech and science businesses, the local community and residents, combining commercial and residential space with research and education facilities.

It has a wide range of green features built-in to the buildings and the site itself, which comprises five avenues, three cross streets and three public squares.

The new streets and walkways are intended to celebrate the past and the future. The Blue Star Square, for example, was named after the famous Newcastle Brown Ale Blue Star, for this was the site of the Scottish & Newcastle brewery, which closed in 2004 after a long history.

Sean Trott (pictured below), Newcastle City Council’s senior specialist/advisor major projects (pictured below right), explains: “Newcastle City Council and Newcastle University reacted quickly, along with the Regional Development Agency, once it became apparent that the S&N Breweries were looking to vacate the site around 2006. We knew it had huge redevelopment potential and it was a once in a lifetime opportunity to do something at this scale in the city centre. The three partners took the decision to purchase the site so that we could ensure appropriate development sensitive to the needs of the city. The City Council subsequently bought the RDA share when it was brought to a close.”

 

The partners secured grant funding from a variety of sources including the EU, central government and the North East LEP and the university, a lead partner in the project, won a number of bids and brought resources to host national centres on the £350m site. Legal & General also became a partner in 2016.

Stephanie Glendinning is Professor of Civil Engineering and also Dean of Strategic Projects at the university. She pioneered the concept of the Urban Laboratory, an initiative aimed at developing and using full-scale operational infrastructure
as a laboratory in which to develop research and impact, an approach which is central to the development of Newcastle Helix.

She recalls the early challenges of the project. “It was getting others to buy into the vision, because, while it seems more mainstream now to be looking at combining computing, computing brainpower, engineering and sustainability, at the time people didn’t get what this urban science was about. So it was getting others to buy into the vision, then to get all those different parts together, to get the funding from those different sources.”

Outline planning consent was secured in 2011 and the enabling works began the following year.

The next challenge was with the physical site itself. Before it was a brewery, the site had been the pithead of Elswick Colliery and regenerating it meant extracting 40,000 tonnes of coal.

“Most people probably won’t realise that we effectively had a city centre open cast coal mine in operation at that time, which must be pretty rare,’’ says Sean. “We took out two seams of coal, producing around 40,000 tonnes to a depth of about 15 metres. At the same time we had to identify and cap off around a dozen shafts, grouting and stabilising as we backfilled.”

To address the CO2 that the coal would put into the atmosphere, Newcastle Helix created permanent stores, taking out about 90,000 tonnes of carbon from the atmosphere. It has also created a carbon-capture garden, using plants to pump carbon out of the atmosphere.

“We also encountered reinforced concrete basements
and even a subterranean tunnel from the previous brewery operations and had to break those out to get the site ready for its next chapter,” adds Sean.

There was also a 22-metre drop from one corner of the site to the other, which was critical on Thunder Thursday in 2012 when huge quantities of storm water flowed onto and through the site.

Sean says: “One of the interesting things we’ve been able to do in order to prevent such flooding happening in future is to construct an enormous attenuation facility below Knowledge Square, which can hold back a similar quantity of storm water as an Olympic sized swimming pool and gradually release it back into the sewer systems at a controlled rate. This is one of the great examples of the site really contributing to protecting businesses and residents beyond its immediate boundaries.”

Construction of the first building, The Core, began in spring 2013, opening in October 2014, at which point it was already over 90 per cent occupied by a range of SMEs. It was followed by Newcastle University’s first small building in 2016, The Key, a temporary research structure. Next was the Urban Sciences Building which is now home to the university’s school of computing, which opened in September 2017.

“In 2019 we’ve seen a whole phase of buildings completing, starting with The Biosphere, a commercial laboratory for businesses working in the life sciences sector in May,’’ says
Sean. “This was followed by the Frederick Douglass Centre in September, which has a fantastic 750-seat lecture theatre and then The Catalyst, which is home to both the National Innovation Centre for Ageing and the National Innovation Centre for Data. In December, the District Energy Centre was opened and this is now providing heating, cooling and electricity to most of the buildings on site and will ultimately save 30,000 tonnes of carbon over its first 40 years.”

Two 100,000 sq ft office developments, The Lumen and The Spark, are currently being constructed. Also being built is a rapid charging electric vehicle filling station on Wellington Street that will be able to deliver an 80 per cent charge for electric cars within 20 minutes. This is connected to the Urban Sciences Building to monitor electricity flows and regulate demand.

The next phase will focus on homes, with 450 planned. This will start with a Future Homes scheme led by Karbon Homes that will be adaptable to the changing needs of its occupiers and include some experimental units connected to the Urban Sciences Building for the testing and better understanding of functionality and user needs.

“We’ve been fortunate to secure a grant from Homes England for the completion of infrastructure to support the development of the residential plots to the north west of the site, so we’ll see those works getting underway in this next year,” adds Sean.

“We’re also close to being able to announce on the hotel development adjacent to The Lumen on St James Boulevard. We also need to deliver on some of the ground floor uses providing an offer that will really animate the site and help us achieve the place-making ambition.”

The Urban Sciences Building (USB), is not part of the district energy network, but rather is a building-as-a-power- plant and part of a ‘smartgrid’ network. Connected directly to the main grid,

the USB has energy storage and power generating capability through solar panels. It can also store heat reducing energy consumption. It contains more than 4,000 digital sensors to ensure it is always operating efficiently. Computing technology is embedded throughout the structure, making it one of the most monitored and high-performance buildings in the country and has won several awards for building design and sustainability.

Another university-led project, The EPSRC National Centre for Energy Systems Integration is located in the USB and investigates the challenges of energy supply, sustainability and affordability.

“The Urban Sciences Building was a sort of vision that started back in about 2012 as potentially a key enabler for sustainable development in an urban context,’’ explains Stephanie. “It was digitally focused, so it was around data and the generation of data and using that data to make informed decisions. We took that idea and embedded it in of the residential plots to the north west of the site, so we’ll see those works getting underway in this next year,” adds Sean.

“We’re also close to being able to announce on the hotel development adjacent to The Lumen on St James Boulevard. We also need to deliver on some of the ground floor uses providing an offer that will really animate the site and help us achieve the place-making ambition.”

The Urban Sciences Building (USB), is not part of the district energy network, but rather is a building-as-a-power- plant and part of a ‘smartgrid’ network. Connected directly to the main grid, the USB has energy storage and power generating capability through solar panels. It can also store heat reducing energy consumption. It contains more than 4,000 digital sensors to ensure it is always operating efficiently. Computing technology is embedded throughout the structure, making it one of the most monitored and high-performance buildings in the country and has won several awards for building design and sustainability.

 

Another university-led project, The EPSRC National Centre for Energy Systems Integration is located in the USB and investigates the challenges of energy supply, sustainability and affordability.

“The Urban Sciences Building was a sort of vision that started back in about 2012 as potentially a key enabler for sustainable development in an urban context,’’ explains Stephanie. “It was digitally focused, so it was around data and the generation of data and using that data to make informed decisions. We took that idea and embedded it in the Urban Sciences Building, which is a collaboration between computing at Newcastle and engineering at Newcastle with a little bit of in the mix in terms of decision-making and change of behaviour.

“That’s a kind of focal point for then implementing our ideas around buildings and laboratories, science as a laboratory and the city as a laboratory, and using those different skills in making that kind of data capture, data analysis, data visualisation and use of data to make informed decisions about how we run the building, what makes the site sustainable, what interventions can be made in the city in order to improve its sustainability. That’s the whole kind of different skills of living laboratory that we have constructed over a period of years.

“There are a lot of distributed sensors in the building, across the site and across the city monitoring different aspects of the city. So it might be measuring things like air quality, it might be measuring traffic movements, it might be measuring people movements, so there are lots of different ways of sensing. We have got the CCTV images from across the city, we have got our own monitoring systems out there and all of that data is brought back. It’s stored and it’s processed and it’s visualised in different ways to enable you to see the relationship between, for example, the closure of a road in Newcastle city centre with the changing traffic patterns and changing air quality.”

Stephanie says that the key for projects such as The EPSRC National Centre for Energy Systems Integration is that they are co-located on the Helix site. She says: “We are looking at the interactions between energy usage, traffic movement and water because frequently you can have a demonstrator of one of those – something on energy or something on green infrastructure. Actually, the important thing is to be able to look at those together all in one place and how they interact. That’s the great thing about the Helix, we can do all of that, all at one time, on one site.

“For example, using the Urban Observatory, we can look at radar of a weather front coming in, look at traffic routing around the city and then look at the fast track modelling of where flooding events might occur and we have live updates of what is actually happening in the city, so that you can reroute traffic most effectively in order to prevent that huge disruption that occurred back in June 2012.”

So how could the success of Helix overall be measured? “First of all, it’s the impact on the city,’’ says Stephanie. “So it’s trying to take some of the things that we are doing on the site and looking at how that has influenced the city. So, it’s the green infrastructure and that needs to be built out into different parts of the city and we will visibly be able to see whether there is more take-up of that.

“For example, over the long term, can we improve the air quality? We are measuring that, so we will have the proof one way or the other. Can our research change the air quality? It’s also about the people. We have got people involved in doing some of the measurements, local people who are interested, actually going out measuring themselves. Can we create more community buy-in to what we are doing than we have right now? Can we get other people talking about it in schools and community centres? That is just Newcastle, but we are actually linked into other observatories around the country and we need to be able to influence more broadly in those cities as well and then also internationally and get it talked about on the international stage.”

There is also, she adds, an important educational aspect to Helix. “That’s the great thing about having it full-scale and live-in, because you can touch it, you can come and see it, it’s not something that is totally virtual, you can actually come and literally be part of it and that is so much more powerful as an education tool than PowerPoints, or words, or websites, it’s real and you can touch. It’s about influencing lots of people’s behaviour through lots of awareness raising and if a lot of people can change just a little bit, that has a great impact on sustainability.”