ECHO, TU Delft’s new campus addition is driven by human-centric spatial design

UNStudio approached ECHO, TU Delft’s new energy generating, interfaculty teaching building in The Netherlands as an architectural and systemic case study in future flexibility.

by Jincy IypePublished on : Aug 08, 2022

What happens when a net zero building meets a human-centred, holistic design approach? Global architectural firm UNStudio teaches by example with their recently completed project ECHO, the new energy-generating interfaculty teaching building at TU Delft in the Netherlands. Future flexibility and elevated wellbeing of the university building's users were considered key aspects driving the ethos of the project, from getting maximum daylight to generating clean energy on its own, as well as ensuring the cleanest air quality for students and faculty alike. A healthy building promoting a healthy sense of being, physically, psychologically and socially.

Teaching by example: UNStudio completes Echo at TU Delft Video: Courtesy of UNStudio

Five years in the making (2017-2022), ECHO is being heralded as the most sustainable building at the Technical University Delft, contributing to the university’s ambitions to operate as a fully sustainable campus by 2030.

Harvesting and producing more energy than it consumes, ECHO combats the growing number of students and their need for more educational space with its multifaceted design, meeting the acclaimed Dutch university's requirement for extra teaching spaces as well, "now and in the future". The Dutch architectural firm relays that the project "transcends current learning environments (as) a model for new ways of learning and for future campus buildings."

The Kyoto table designed by Gianfranco Frattini in '74 is faithfully revisited and presented by Poltrona Frau on the occasion of the launch of the 2020 collection. | Take Your Time Collection | Poltrona Frau | STIRworld
ECHO at TU Delft is conceived by UNStudio in collaboration with Arup and BBN Image: © Evabloem
Unlike traditional campuses that operate in silos, the future campus needs to be programmed with agile spaces that invite students and faculty to learn, collaborate and co-create. As student numbers continue to grow, educational buildings need to be extremely flexible, to operate through a model based on shared interfaculty use that can promote a more generalist education. - Ben van Berkel, Founder and Principal Architect, UNStudio
  • Inside the energy generating Dutch university building | ECHO TU Delft by UNStudio | STIRworld
    Inside the energy generating Dutch university building Image: © Evabloem
  • The atrium | ECHO TU Delft by UNStudio | STIRworld
    The atrium Image: © Evabloem

How does ECHO produces more energy than it uses?

UNStudio confirms that a great deal of attention was paid to the environmental impact of the materials employed in the construction, as the building has been pragmatically designed as closely as possible to principles of circularity, as a "negative" energy structure.

A roof fitted with 1,200 solar panels, smart installations generously dotting the structure’s layout, materials that ensure optimum insulation coupled with a ground-based heat and cold storage system ensure that the educational architecture is prepared to deliver more energy (and that too clean) than it requires for its day-to-day operations – this includes user-related energy, such as electricity consumption for laptops, lighting and catering.

The roof features 1,200 solar panels that generate clean energy for ECHO | ECHO TU Delft by UNStudio | STIRworld
The roof features 1,200 solar panels that generate clean energy for ECHO Image: © Evabloem

Upping its sustainability credentials is the fact that 90 per cent of the furniture employed has also wither been reused, recycled or upcycled. The featured steel trusses have standard sizes that can be dismantled for reuse elsewhere in the future, along with the hollow-core slabs, once they outgrow their function in the lifespan of the building.

  • Climate concept diagram | ECHO TU Delft by UNStudio | STIRworld
    Climate concept diagram Image: Courtesy of UNStudio
  • Attractors program diagram | ECHO TU Delft by UNStudio | STIRworld
    Attractors program diagram Image: Courtesy of UNStudio

How does ECHO prioritises well-being through design?

According to the Dutch architects, "transparency" forms the building’s cornerstone. Massive glass facades defining the contemporary architecture draw in daylight in abundance, abiding by the known benefits of natural light on human health and productivity, as well as significantly reducing the need for artificial lighting. The glass elevations also step away from the archetypal, closed-in, 'institutional' experience of such typologies, providing ECHO with an open, airy and public character that successfully bonds the two sides of the campus. The interiors flooded with daylight provide a bright, uplifting and welcoming space for its daily users.

Massive glass facades bring in abundant daylight into the building's interiors | ECHO TU Delft by UNStudio | STIRworld
Massive glass facades bring in abundant daylight into the building's interiors Image: © Evabloem
Climbing plants cascade down the sleek transparent facades of the building | ECHO TU Delft by UNStudio | STIRworld
Climbing plants cascade down the sleek transparent facades of the building Image: © Hufton+Crow

Having mentioned that, it is also necessary to note that a direct by-product of transparent facades also leads to the building overheating, so the amount of light entering the volume had to be controlled and precise - this was done by preventing excess penetration of the sun by a combination of methodical protection provided by deep horizontal aluminium awnings, apart from choosing glass with a low solar penetration factor. These sleek aluminium canopies, or “smart wings”, are unified by cables along which climbing plants are imposed to form a delicate green facade that filters daylight, subtly softening the rigid, straight lined nature of the structure.

The open atrium creates a comfortable way-finding strategy inside | ECHO TU Delft by UNStudio | STIRworld
Climbing plants cascade down the sleek transparent facades of the building Image: © Evabloem

A plenum floor is installed above the hollow-core slabs of the building to ensure clean air - fresh air is pumped up from the floor, rather than down from above, avoiding mindless circulation around the room, choreographing a cleaner – essentially, this is a low-speed system that creates more efficient wind path that formulates a healthier living zone for people. "The vents for this system, along with the computer floor installation, can easily be relocated, should the layouts of the rooms change in the future," informs the architectural and design firm headquartered in Amsterdam.

How does ECHO ascertain healthy way-finding and amplified human interaction?

The strict yet friendly aura of the uber-modern educational building is fitted with multifunctional spaces that seek to “transcend” present-day learning environments. “The design supports the contemporary culture of Everything Anywhere, where the in-between spaces are also of great importance and physical movement is stimulated. ECHO therefore, also provides space for unstructured time: a variety of platforms for reflection, inspiration and communication," relays Arjan Dingste, Director and Senior Architect at UNStudio.

The myriad learning spaces have all being designed keeping flexibility in mind | ECHO TU Delft by UNStudio | STIRworld
The myriad learning spaces have all being designed keeping "flexibility" in mind Image: © Evabloem

ECHO's interior design juxtaposes its glassy, stern exterior with warmth, backed by curving, soft edges surfaces that mingle with straight lines, details and accents in kind timber that brighten up the space, and a copious amount of informal study spots that eases the institution's architectural nobility.

The distinct central staircase facilitates physical movement through the building | ECHO TU Delft by UNStudio | STIRworld
The distinct central staircase facilitates physical movement through the building Image: © Hufton+Crow

One of the most delicate and integral parts that define ECHO's spatiality are the bamboo ribs that extend along the ceiling inside, at specific positions. The bamboo's crafted aesthetic advances around the distinctive, winding central staircase that marries the study and cooperation spaces as one coherent world of learning and collaboration, in one swift gesture. The central position of the grand stair also facilitates physical movement through the building, visually drawing the eye and promoting intuitive walking further into the building, contributing to the users' health.

Bamboo ribs extend along the ceiling as a delicate design element | ECHO TU Delft by UNStudio | STIRworld
One of the many informal study pods (L); Bamboo ribs extend along the ceiling as a delicate design element (R) Image: © Evabloem

"We were interested in making an open atrium space because through that, we had an opportunity to create a very comfortable way-finding strategy, so that you would always know where to walk in the building,” relays van Berkel.

The massive 700-seater lecture hall as well as the debate space form two sculptural spatial volumes that also direct the major flow of users and visitors across this covered square. "The diagonal orientation of these volumes simultaneously defines two large transparent corners, one housing a restaurant with terrace opposite the D:Dreamhall, and the other a large study landscape,” elaborates the design team.

ECHO at TU Delft is designed is designed to promote physical, psychological and social health | ECHO TU Delft by UNStudio | STIRworld
ECHO at TU Delft is designed is designed to promote physical, psychological and social health Image: © Evabloem

Jaap-Willem Kleijwegt, Senior Architect and Associate at UNStudio elaborates, “it has to be flexible because lots of faculties demand different things, it was a key aspect. The main thing with the auditorium is that it houses 700 people… (but) the room can actually be split into three separate rooms.”

Hefty portal constructions with large grid sizes were used, where columns run only on the edge of the building, producing column-free, expansive spaces with beautifully large spans that create more room for flexible spaces to be added or altered.

The 700-seater auditorium can be adapted into three separate rooms | ECHO TU Delft by UNStudio | STIRworld
The 700-seater auditorium can be adapted into three separate rooms Image: © Evabloem

How does ECHO offer agile, "flexible" learning and teaching spaces?

Flexibility has been built in from the beginning for the “future-proof” 8,844 sqm building, which reserves extensive spaces for lectures and tutorials, collaborative group work, project-based teaching, debates and self-study catering to over 1,700 students within lecture rooms, classrooms and an array of well-planned study spaces. ECHO hosts seven teaching rooms with a flexible layout - the largest one is the lecture room on the ground floor that can be adapted into three distinct rooms within a span of 15 minutes, enabling multiple lectures or events to take place simultaneously.

What makes the ECHO building at TU Delft so flexible? Video: Courtesy of UNStudio

A similar movable wall system was fitted in the mixed didactic space on the first level, where it can be divided into two classrooms of 144 seats each if and when required. The 300-plus study spaces peppered throughout the institution can be used for group work as well as self-studying.

Current, as well as future needs of the professors and students, drive the design of the various teaching rooms. Additionally, a case-study room remains particularly suitable for motivational teaching and interaction between lecturers and students, apart from the four-level rooms for project-based teaching, each accommodating almost 70 people.

Columns are placed along the edge of the building to create column-free, expansive spaces | ECHO TU Delft by UNStudio | STIRworld
Columns are placed along the edge of the building to create column-free, expansive spaces Image: © Hufton+Crow

Office spaces on the second floor employ a modular wall system that allows for future alterations to the room's spatial layout. In the future, should there arise a requirement for functional changes, these office areas can be transformed into educative spaces with the least disturbance.

Columns are placed along the edge of the building to create column-free, expansive spaces | ECHO TU Delft by UNStudio | STIRworld
Columns are placed along the edge of the building to create column-free, expansive spaces Image: © Hufton+Crow

"A future-proof campus is an active campus. ECHO not only connects with the surrounding public space, it also defines it. The adjacent square continues through the transparent ground floor of the building and connects with the street on the other side, turning the ground floor of Echo into a covered public square and a public connector that makes the invisible world of learning a visible and engaging experience,” says van Berkel, highlighting the myriad ways in which TU Delft’s newly acquired green building elevates academic learning and discourse, in a contemporary design that heroes the human-centric spatial experience.

ECHO's architectural and design virtues also ignite a discussion where institutional typologies such as these carry the potential to transform into multifaceted spaces functioning as non-academic ones, of hosting cultural and community-focused initiatives as well.

  • Section of ECHO's main staircase | ECHO TU Delft by UNStudio | STIRworld
    Section of ECHO's main staircase Image: Courtesy of UNStudio
  • Organisational and systemic sections | ECHO TU Delft by UNStudio | STIRworld
    Organisational and systemic sections Image: Courtesy of UNStudio
  • Circular concept diagram | ECHO TU Delft by UNStudio | STIRworld
    Circular concept diagram Image: Courtesy of UNStudio

Project Details

Name: ECHO
Location: Mekelweg 5, 2628 CD Delft, the Netherlands
Area: 8844 sqm (GFA); ca. 53 000 m3 (building volume); ca. 4 000 sqm (building site)
Client: TU Delft
Architect: UNStudio
Design team: Ben van Berkel, Arjan Dingsté with Marianthi Tatari, Jaap-Willem Kleijwegt, Ariane Stracke and Piotr Kluszczynski, Thys Schreij, Mitchel Verkuijlen, Bogdan Chipara, Krishna Duddumpudi, Fabio Negozio, Vladislava Parfjonova, Marian Mihaescu, Ajay Saini, Ryan Henriksen, Shangzi Tu, Xinyu Wang
Structural Engineer, MEP and Building Physics: Arup
Building Cost Consultant: BBN
Contractor: BAM Bouw en Techniek
Project Management and Construction Management: Stevens van Dijck

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