• A palace for Math & Science

    In seven years’ time, a new palace will become a reality for the Faculty of Mathematics and Natural Sciences at Zernike. The building will be filled with dozens of lecture halls, hundreds of fume hoods and kilometers of lab tables. It’s a huge puzzle, and the pieces didn’t simply fall into place.
    in short

    The design for the Zernikeborg is finished. In seven years’ time, the new accommodations for the Faculty of Mathematics and Natural Sciences (FMNS) will materialise at Zernike.

    It will be an enormous structure: 260 meters long with five floors and a total floor surface area of 62,000 meters squared.

    The building will be filled with cleanrooms, meeting hubs, lecture halls, laboratories, lounges and indoor gardens. Its many windows and zigzag design will provide plenty of light.

    On paper, the Zernikeborg has gotten somewhat larger in the past few years. They first assumed the building would have a surface of 50,000 meters squared. The extra space is necessary due to the popularity of FMNS among international students.

    Designing the building was quite a feat: 120 faculty staff members were involved. The building also had to be made sustainable and earthquake-resistant.

    With sustainability in mind, the roof of the Zernikeborg will be covered with solar panels and will be provided with self-closing fume hoods, heat and cold storage, heat exchangers and LED lighting.

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    The design for the Zernikeborg, which is what the RUG’s latest mega project has been christened, is complete. The building, spanning 260 meters in total, winds its way across the campus. Its five floors are filled with cleanrooms, meeting hubs, lecture halls, laboratories, lounges and beautiful courtyards.

    ‘The Research Cluster lies at the heart of the building’, says Rien van Uitert from Property and Investment Projects (VGI), the department responsible for all university buildings. Together with Klaas Stoelwinder, construction project manager at the Faculty of Mathematics and Natural Sciences (FMNS), Van Uitert is one of the leading figures involved with the building. ‘The central part can be used for gatherings, congresses and meetings. There will also be a restaurant with 250 spaces in the middle section. Student work spaces look out on to the campus and students can also walk directly to lecture halls from the bicycle storage under the building via the ground floor.’

    Growing pains

    Although the building will be colossal, it will not feel that way. The zigzag design ensures that plenty of daylight is let in and the enormous glass façade allows it to reach deep into the building. ‘You can see the indoor garden from your office through all of the glass’, says Van Uitert. ‘ Five years ago, you might have said that having all that glass would cost a lot of energy, but nowadays, glass insulates well and reflects the sun.’

    Around a year and a half ago, the building was first presented by the faculty. The preliminary design was complete, which showed the contours and size of the building in particular. Now, the floor plan is also complete. However, the size of the faculty’s castle-to-be has somewhat changed since then. At that time, they had assumed the building would be 50,000 square meters. That eventually turned into 62,000 square meters.

    ‘This is due to student numbers, among other things, as numbers increase dramatically due to the English-taught programmes. We presumed we would have 800 bachelor students and around 300 master students. That has now been scaled up to 400 master students and more than 1,000 bachelor students’, says Stoelwinder.

    FMNS has suddenly become extremely popular among international students. But are the current admissions numbers a sufficient reason to make the building thousands of meters bigger, especially now that massive lectures are becoming increasingly uncommon in education? ‘The enrolment numbers fluctuate’, admits Stoelwinder. ‘On the basis of the admissions data that I now have, the student numbers are relatively certain through 2019. However, only the first phase of the new building will be complete by then. So what happens in the second phase? Will the numbers stay the same or will they take a huge dive, which would mean that we are building too big? You cannot predict that.’

    In any case, it was reason enough for the university to increase the budget for extra student facilities. But it is not only the students who are responsible for the growth of the building. ‘We decided not to install the air conditioning units outside of the building in the end, and we have built basements underneath the cleanrooms’, Van Uitert begins. ‘We have had a number of meetings in which things were constantly being added and scrapped. We have been very strict, however. There has been no change made to the space which we have planned for student and staff use. If we had not been strict about this, the design would have probably ended up being 70,000 square meters instead of 62,000’.

    Ready for earthquakes

    There is something else that has changed in the past year and a half. The ground began to shake considerably. Earthquakes are a regular occurrence now in Groningen, and all new construction projects must be prepared for them. ‘Luckily, the construction company had raised the question about what we should do about the earthquakes pretty early. We were just in time, unlike the Energy Academy which started construction six months later than planned because they had to revise the entire construction project’, says Van Uitert.


    Sustainability is a priority at the RUG, and that has been taken into account in the design of the Zernikeborg. A lot of effort has been made to save energy by using, among other things, self-closing fume hoods, connections to two sources for heat and cold storage and the use of heat exchangers. Throughout the whole building, there will be LED lighting – even in the laboratories, which is unusual.

    The roof will be covered with solar panels, says Stoelwinder. ‘The FMNS will pay for these. We do not know the percentage of energy use that will produce. I have asked for a calculation to be made, because I also want to know how many years it will take to recoup on the solar panels.’

    It is generally not lucrative to have solar panels at the university because the RUG pays an extremely low price for electricity. That means that a return on investment for the solar panels would not happen quickly. ‘However, in terms of sustainability and the image which the RUG wants to profile itself with, it is almost obligatory to invest in solar panels.’

    Previously, the RUG sought to attain a Breeam certification to indicate its institutional sustainability, but they have changed their minds. ‘We are not aiming for that piece of paper any longer. We do want to obtain the score, but we do not want to have it certified. It is a ridiculous administrative hassle and misses the point’, explains Van Uitert.

    A considerable amount of space was added to the Zernikeborg due to the ‘horizontal reinforcement fields’: floor partitions which should be able to absorb shocks. Meanwhile, the standards for earthquake resistant buildings have been revised downwards repeatedly. However, the building does not take these into account anymore. ‘If it were the other way round, it would have of course been worse’, says Van Uitert. ‘If the standards had become stricter, we would now have a building which would not satisfy them. But if the standards become less stringent, it can only work in our favour if there happens to be earthquake.’

    Although it is earthquake resistant, the design is somewhat simpler than was first intended. Van Uitert: ‘We thought that the NAM might not fund it if the building was above the standards.’ But the gas extraction company will indeed fund it since the new calculations are in keeping with the latest standards and, in doing so, the building will not be much more expensive than was first estimated.

    The laboratories will have low vibration floors to prevent research from being disturbed, but they will not be able to cope with earthquakes. ‘You cannot build something for that; there is nothing you can do about it’, says Van Uitert.

    120 ‘architects’

    Van Uitert and Stoelwinder emphasise that the users of the building – instructors and researchers – have had input regarding the layout. ‘About 120 people from the faculty have contributed in one way or another. We have had many individual consultations to consider the layout’, says Stoelwinder.

    This was a very different process to how it went with the Linnaeusborg. ‘With that building, we started with the design of an architect who had won a prize, and with the Zernikeborg, we forbade the architect from putting pen to paper until we were present and he had an assignment. We have been present and in discussion with all the building users since the first line was written down. We have not magically come up with something and then later said: now, we have to see where we should put everything.’

    Consulting with 120 individuals also has its downsides, however. You are faced with 120 different opinions. ‘You are also subject to the whims of different institutes. It was very difficult sometimes’, says Stoelwinder. ‘I did find myself thinking: I’m getting little negative feedback. We were resolving things again and again until everyone was satisfied. It’s not like things stay up in the air. Don’t get me wrong: the institutes do nothing but defend their own interests, as they should. But their interests sometimes clash and it has been difficult for me at certain points to navigate between them. That has cost a great deal of energy, but the problem is always resolved in the end.’

    ‘The result counts’

    The design team has not exactly had it easy in regards to planning with 120 architects, says Van Uitert. They had to repeatedly adjust their plans due to changes being relayed each time.

    ‘That caused real stress, because the planning was under pressure. Each month costs a fortune. But what counts in the end is the result; we have thus not made any concessions concerning the layout plan variations. We have, however, had quite a challenge in giving everyone the right place so that everyone has the neighbours that they want.’

    But the layout is complete, and they are proud of it. The work places, the meeting rooms, break rooms, plinths, plug sockets and ventilation ducts all have a place. Stoelwinder: ‘That is what is so nice about a complex project. Despite the occasional opposing interests, we have reached a solution together. There has never been an issue which we could not agree on, so in that respect, it gives you a good feeling.’