Newcastle Helix gathers a head of steam

November 5, 2019

The last 12 months have seen a striking acceleration of development at Newcastle Helix. Here, marketing manager Tom Bramald reflects on the recent changes at the city centre’s innovation zone

We knew 2019 was going to see significant development at Helix but I think it’s fair to say that everyone on the team is delighted by how far we’ve come,” says Tom Bramald, marketing manager for Newcastle Helix.

“I saw a social media post the other day that showed a view across Newcastle from the offices of Watson Burton. It showed just how big a development Helix is physically, which in turn reemphasised to me how important it is for our city and region.” Newcastle Helix is the award-winning redevelopment programme led by Newcastle University, Newcastle City Council and

Legal & General on the site of the former S&N Brewery. For years, many will have known it as ‘Science Central’ but the scheme was rebranded last year.

Tom continues: “We knew that developments through 2018 and 2019 would mean we were ready for more people – businesses, residents and visitors – to come to the site. But our market research showed that the word ‘science’ was proving to be a bit of a barrier to some and so we rebranded. We liked Helix because it suggested different strands combining and working together.”

Helix comprises £350 million of capital development and aims to host 4000 jobs, 500,000 sq ft of office space and more than 500 homes.

“They are big numbers but I think what we’re aiming for is about more than numbers,” says Tom. “We’re creating a whole new quarter, a mixed community encompassing a variety of R&D, educational, business and residential uses. We want Helix to become a destination for work and leisure, to be an exemplar of sustainable urban development, and become a place synonymous with innovation and collaboration, particularly around data, ageing, energy, life sciences and urban sciences.

A place for everyone

Helix is fast becoming a destination for conferences, events and meetings. “We’re seeing a growing number of events coming through the site,” says Tom.

“In the last few weeks we’ve had DataJam North East, CBI’s Energy Opportunity conference, Dynamo activities, ENGIE held their national innovation conference here…and it’s growing all the time.

“We also host the monthly ‘First Friday’ business networking event, which has run for more than ten years now and continues to help organisations forge new links. “We’re reaching the point now that we’re looking at how we can provide a programme of activities and events that will appeal to groups beyond the business world.”

As part of beginning to invite more people to site to see first-hand what’s happening, Helix participated in Elmer’s Great North Parade public art trail that is raising money for St Oswald’s Hospice.

“The Great Exhibition of the North probably came just a few months early for us. We had some really good exhibits on site and we were part of the Innovation Trail. But at the time the site was relatively underdeveloped. When Elmer’s Great North Parade was announced we were very keen to be involved. We’re delighted to be supporting a local charity and our Electric Ellie sculpture has been a great way to attract people to the site and see what we’re doing here first hand,” says Tom.

More than meets the eye

Tom Bramald joined the Newcastle Helix team as its marketing manager 18 months ago. He splits his work between Newcastle Helix and also being head of B2B marketing at Newcastle University.

“Helix is an awful lot to take in when you first get involved. The vibrancy, diversity and ambition of Helix are great to be part of. But this trinity also creates considerable complexity,” he reflects.

“24 acres of urban regeneration, commercial property development, a district energy scheme, academic spaces, a new residential quarter, events and conferences, home to three national centres of innovation and research, places to meet and socialise, not to mention being an at-scale living laboratory …it’s quite something.

“The underlying culture to Helix is about innovation and collaboration, helping all the different components to become more than the sum of the parts. Some of that is about people and how we encourage and enable all walks of life to feel part of what’s here. Some of it is about place and the spaces and environment we create.

“There are some really subtle touches to the site such as the street layout, public spaces, building cladding, clever window shading. Part of what we’re doing at Helix are big but we also pay attention to little things that can make a difference.

“One of the benefits we promote to organisations looking to come to Helix is the proximity and ease of access to Newcastle University. Our Careers Service wants to help companies, students and graduates come together for placements and jobs. We want companies based here to be able to engage in students’ learning and teaching. And we will provide easy access to the university’s business and enterprise team to support CPD, collaborative research, consultancy, and IP transfer.”

Newcastle Helix – the buildings

Vision and concepts are one thing. Creating the physical space where the vision can become a reality is another. What are the physical parts of Helix?

The Core

Opened in 2014, The Core was the first building on-site and is owned by Newcastle City Council. Space at The Core is targeted at knowledge-based SMEs and particularly at those whose work is related to innovation, science, technology or any aspect of tackling future challenges that cities face. Development, research, testing, business services and related disciplines are part of the community. Occupancy of the building is consistently above 95 per cent and there is an event space for up to 150 people on the ground floor, which is very popular.

“Some amazing stories are coming from companies based at The Core, such as winning awards or attracting more investment. And we also see and hear some of the companies sharing and promoting the benefits of being at Helix – being here is about more than ‘just’ having an office space to them,” says Tom.

The Urban Sciences Building

Opened in September 2017, the Urban Sciences Building (USB) was Newcastle University’s first major building on site.

Its primary role is as home to the School of Computing, providing a base for 1200 students, 55 academic staff, 120 post-doctoral researchers and two national Centres for Doctoral Training.

But the USB was also conceived and designed as a “building as a lab” and so is home to a fascinating range of other activity.

It is an urban testbed for demonstrating how to transform cities into places that are not merely habitable but innovative and integral for multiple generations. The line between research at the USB and the city is seamless, providing insights into how people interact with their immediate environment and improve upon it in real-time. It does this through the discovery of practical and solutions-based research.

The digital era opens up a wide array of opportunities for cities to be more productive, liveable, resilient and sustainable. The USB is harnessing interdisciplinary research at Newcastle University and building strong partnerships with industry, business, governance and communities, to turn cities from places where people live and survive to places where people thrive.

The USB is a demonstrator for understanding the relationship between buildings and their wider environment. The thousands of sensors located in the building make it possible to not only understand its performance but also how it interfaces with the energy, water, internet and other networks it is connected to.

By co-locating computer scientists with engineers, new research is enabled that explores the crucial dependencies much of our infrastructures have on digital technology. Building-as-a-lab makes it possible to do leading, innovative research on the built environment and test potential solutions to global challenges in water, food, energy and infrastructure.

The National Centre for Energy Systems Integration is based at the USB, along with experimental infrastructure including an Energy Storage Test Bed and later this year, an Electric Vehicle Rapid Charge Filling Station.

What might appear to be planters and green space behind the building is, in fact, the National Green Infrastructure Facility, a £10 million investment into creating full-scale space for research into Sustainable Drainage Systems (SuDs), green infrastructure approaches, and making urban centres more resilient and sustainable. The facility combines a 130 metres swale enabling research and demonstration for urban water attenuation with a 100 metres ensemble of beds planted in various ways to investigate the influence of planting regime and management on rainfall management. All of the data from the building and its environ feeds into the Urban Observatory, a project that curates thousands of data streams that give insight to the systems and flows of the entire Tyneside conurbation. There are more than 1.2 billion data points in the observatory with a further 2000 points gathered every minute.

All of the data are fully open and available for people to use to make better decisions about the future of urban areas.

The Frederick Douglass Centre

Opened for the start of the 2019/20 academic year, the Newcastle University facilities comprise a stunning auditorium for 750, a 200-seat lecture theatre and a range of seminar rooms and exhibition spaces over several floors.

It will primarily support students studying with Newcastle University’s Business School and School of Computing.

The building is named in honour of the 19th Century social reformer and abolitionist who was associated with the Summerhill area of the city, close to the Helix site. The official opening ceremony will be performed by Kenneth B. Morris Jr, co-founder and president of Frederick Douglass Family Initiatives and the great-great-grandson of Frederick Douglass. There will also be a series of talks, panel discussions and reading as part of several days of celebration.

“As well as an amazing interior, we’ve ensured that the spaces around the building are inviting and open. Whether a break between lectures, a cuppa during the working day, or having a breather while passing through the site, we’ve tried to create a space where people can socialise, work or relax,” says Tom.

“The priority for the Frederick Douglass Centre is learning and teaching. But outside of term time, we hope that we’ll be able to offer the spaces as conferencing facilities, drawing more visitors and businesses into the region.”

The Catalyst

Completed and handed over in mid-October, The Catalyst is home to the National Innovation Centre for Ageing and the National Innovation Centre for Data.

“Newcastle University is part of the intellectual horsepower behind the two National Innovation Centres. But it’s essential that as the region we recognise and promote them as national centres,” stresses Tom.

The National Innovation Centre for Ageing works with research specialists, businesses and the public to facilitate the commercialisation of key products, services and technologies that will help people live better, longer lives due to the needs and demands of an ageing population.

The National Innovation Centre for Data works with partners in industry, the public sector and academia to exploit opportunities offered by the explosion in digital data. They have already successfully completed projects with P&G, NHS Business Services Authority, LKQ and AkzoNobel, some projects leading to multi-million-pound gains for the organisations involved.

“The vast majority of people who visit Helix are bowled over by The Catalyst. It’s certainly a very striking design but, as with most things on site, the level of thought behind everything in the building is quite something,” Tom adds.

GSS Architecture’s design was developed through extensive collaboration with multiple stakeholders and consultees. Particular attention has been given to creating a building that encourages collaboration through shared spaces and chance encounters between the people working and visiting there.

Given the work of the National Innovation Centre for Ageing, it’s vital that the building is an exemplar of accessibility and so specialist organisations like the RNIB, the Thomas Pocklington Trust, the Alzheimer’s Society and Stirling University’s Dementia Services Development Centre were also consulted. The strength of Newcastle University’s expertise in ageing has attracted one of the largest single philanthropic donations to ageing and in honour of this the entrance floor of The Catalyst will be named the ‘Helen McArdle Atrium.’

The National Innovation Centre for Ageing recently announced the arrival of a new director. Nic Palmarini joined from the MIT-IBM Watson AI Lab in Massachusetts. A researcher, writer and TEDx speaker, his career has demonstrated a deep commitment to exploring the impact of technologies and their applications in the life of the ageing population and people with disabilities.

The Biosphere

July 2019 saw the formal opening of The Biosphere. Led by Newcastle City Council, this facility is entirely dedicated to the commercialisation of life sciences, offering biology and chemistry labs and high-quality office space.

Emerging from the region’s strengths in life and health sciences, the concept behind The Biosphere was to provide much needed infrastructure and support to enable the sector to grow and thrive.

“We have had great interest in The Biosphere including plenty from outside the region and internationally,” says Tom.

“Matt Bratton and the team at Invest Newcastle are fantastic are driving interest and enquiries

“Like The Core, the companies based there are talking openly about the benefits of being based at Helix, in an environment where they can work with others.

“We’ve had visitors from the life sciences’ ‘Golden Triangle’ of Oxford, Cambridge and London, who think what we’ve done at The Biosphere is great: the depth of thought that has gone into the design, how successful we’ve been in attracting occupiers, and the support provided to help the businesses here grow. It’s great to know that we’re providing the infrastructure needed to retain talent here in the North East and even draw investment in.”

There are already 12 companies operating from The Biosphere and a steady flow of more people moving in – occupancy should be above 50 per cent by the end of 2019. Several of the companies in residence are spin-outs from Newcastle University research.

“At Newcastle University, we’re very good at identifying commercial potential in research and supporting academics to ‘spin out’ into a company,” Tom explains. “Our company creation manager David Huntley has been shortlisted for a North East Times Impact Award because of his role in growing businesses here in the region.

“We’re part of the Northern Accelerator scheme along with Durham, Northumbria and Sunderland universities. The scheme offers a range of funding support and also has a pool of experienced and talented business executives to match to opportunities to lead university spin-outs. Now with The Biosphere in place we also have physical infrastructure that could be key.”

The Lumen

Expected to complete in early 2020, The Lumen offers more than 100,000 sq ft of Grade A office space over seven floors. Where The Core and The Spark are aimed at smaller occupiers, The Lumen has been designed with large open floor plates that can accommodate larger occupiers.

Earlier this year, it was announced that the new North of Tyne Combined Authority would be based at The Lumen.

“I thought it was a huge vote of confidence that the new mayor and their team will be at Helix,” Tom reflects. “We have some excellent enquiries open for The Lumen. Obviously, we’re not able to disclose who they are but we’re really excited about who may be coming. We should receive the building in early 2020 and we’re confident that once we can take enquirers into the space, we’ll be able to secure them joining us.”

Owing to the size and bold design of some of the buildings at and around Helix it’s easy to forget about the experience for an individual walking into the site. Together with The Core, The Lumen will be the ‘front door’ to the site for most people and so a café space has been incorporated into the ground floor.

“For me, the ground floor café at The Lumen will do two things,” Tom reflects. “Yes, it’ll provide for people working in the building with refreshments and a place for informal catch ups and meetings. But it is also a way of welcoming people into the site and setting the tone for the day ahead.”

The building includes 100 bicycle storage spaces, shower facilities, and excellent natural light.

The Spark

In September, work started on The Spark, a £28 million 100,000+ sq ft development, which includes co-working space and staff amenities over 12 floors.

“Where The Core and The Biosphere are aimed at small organisations and The Lumen at larger ones, The Spark is aimed right in between the two,” Tom explains.

“Ryder is the architect for both The Lumen and The Spark. This has allowed the designs to come together in such a way that the buildings complement one another but that avoids creating twin ‘homogenous’ blocks of office space.

Plot 9b

“Don’t worry, that won’t be its final name,” Tom muses.

Before the end of the year a planning application is expected to be submitted for what is presently known as Plot 9b. This build-to-rent scheme will incorporate around 290 apartments split between two towers. Although the taller of the two will have fewer floors than Hadrian’s Tower, because of being slightly further uphill, Plot 9b will rise to about the same height.

“The architects, Ryder, hosted a public planning consultation in October, which gave people a chance to see and comment on the plans. As the scheme moves towards and through planning, we’d really like people to take the chance to see and feedback on what’s planned here.”

District Energy Centre

As part of Newcastle City Council’s partnership with ENGIE, Helix includes a centralised energy system for the entire 24-acre site.

The £20 million District Energy Centre provides heating to all businesses and homes on the site via a network of underground pipes. Non-residential properties on the site will also benefit from a cooling system and electricity supply.

It has been calculated that the scheme will provide a carbon emission saving of 30,650 tonnes over 40 years.

More to come…

Next year will be another important year for Newcastle Helix. More organisations will take up residency at the site in 2020, more buildings will be constructed, and more aspects of the vision for innovation and collaboration will come online through conferences, events and activities.

“It’s great seeing what’s happening adjacent to Helix too,” says Tom. Newcastle United Foundation’s plans for Murray House look great and Hadrian’s Tower is an exciting development.

“All in all, I really enjoy being part of Newcastle Helix. We’re attracting interest from around the world into all the different aspects of Helix. Behind the scenes, the teamwork by everybody involved in the site – whether Newcastle University, Newcastle City Council, Legal & General, architects or contractors. We’re all working to turn the Helix vision into reality.

“It was great to have this recognised when we won the EG 2019 Collaborators award in late October.

“The award recognised the impact of Helix on the region and the impact still to come.”

The Helix website and social media channels share updates and news from the site.

And the team is always delighted to hear from people wanting to find out more about spaces, events and opportunities at Helix.

Newcastle Helix

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