AV from room to room at Manchester University

Flexibility is at the core of a multi-million euro AV project at the University of Manchester. Paul Milligan was given a guided tour.

The Manchester Engineering Campus Development (MECD) represents one of the single largest construction projects ever completed by a higher education institution in the UK and is the new home for engineering and material science at Manchester University. The development will provide 80,000m2 of modern facilities in a bespoke environment, to support research and teaching for more than 8,000 students and staff. MECD represents a £420m (€500m) investment to help the University achieve its goal of becoming one of the top 25 research universities in the world.

The project is the culmination of a two-year collaboration between Trevor Byrne, head of media services at the University of Manchester and system integrators Pure Audio Visual. The eight-storey new build project is split between two adjoining buildings – Engineering Buildings A and B, and features 2 tiered lecture theatres, 4 teaching clusters, 122 Meet & Teach rooms, interconnected teaching spaces featuring five large teaching areas, an open plan blended lecture theatre and an incredible laboratory/lecture blended theatre, all backed by the latest in AV technology.

Pure AV, a long-term provider of AV services for the University, won the £2.2 (€3m) AV project through a tender process. The AV package was placed within the main contractor’s remit (Balfour Beatty) and the initial tender was originally put out as two projects, but Pure AV’s proposal demonstrated it could cover both, rather than split it into two, and as a result won a combined bid.

Because Pure AV had worked for Byrne for more than 10 years, the original brief (drawn up by Byrne and Arup) didn’t change too much according to Andy Truswell, systems integration manager, Pure AV. “We added in an extensive AV over IP solution (Extron NAV), with 143 endpoints to create enhanced flexibility in the way spaces are configured and connect with each other, but the actual specification and client brief didn’t change a huge amount, it was to provide simple but effective teaching environments.”

Flexibility was a key element for the University to give itself the ability to host different kinds of events. Another driver in the project was standards. “This was this was going to be the milestone marker where everything that followed to be of this level and standard, using the same technology, the same manufacturers and provide a template moving forward,” adds Truswell.

The first sight to greet visitors through the revolving doors of MECD is a vast entrance area with huge staircase straight ahead. In keeping with the recurring theme of flexibility at MECD, the staircase also doubles as tiered seating for any large (internal and external) events, conferences or expos. The space is full of hidden power and data points to cover any technical requirements that may arise. Behind the entrance area and café is where you’ll find the first large teaching area, for 150 people, called Blended Theatre 1, “The unique thing about this is I’ve never been asked to design a lecture theatre with no walls before,” says Byrne. The lecture theatre has divisible walls and can open up into the cafe area, “the whole idea is engagement with the area around us,” adds Byrne. The audio, provided by JBL pendant loudspeakers hidden in the ceiling, cleverly extends to the cafe area, which adds another flexible aspect to the whole space. “Having no walls obviously presents some challenges because we normally hang stuff on walls,” says Byrne. The space was created for group study, and blended activity instead of traditional lectures. “The intention is that it’s not a traditional didactic lecture, that’s why there’s no traditional lectern. The academic can move between the student groups, engage and interact, it’s not supposed to be a one-way delivery of information.”

The only fixed pieces of AV visible is a Sapphire projection screen, onto which a Panasonic 10,000 lumens projector shines. Panasonic displays (on trolleys) are used as repeater screens, so students have visibility on content at all times. The students can engage and interact with the screens via Mersive’s Solstice wireless collaboration technology. Solstice (all 500 units of it) can be found throughout the MECD explains. One thing you won’t find anywhere is VGA, this is a fully digital campus explains Byrne. Another technology used throughout the project is Kaptivo digital whiteboard cameras, used to capture work and to ensure everything can be used to teach remotely. “Every single lab in some way is AV-enabled,” says Byrne. One unique challenge for Pure AV was that because the University is teaching engineering and not English for example, it has to deal with an extra level of health and safety. “There’s one corrosion polymer lab where we had to install screens in IP-rated cases because of the risk of corrosive chemical splashes,” explains Truswell.

On the first floor is where you will find one of the real gems of this stunning project, two lecture theatres with capacities of 600 and 450 respectively. Both feature three-way projection (via Panasonic 12,000 lumens projectors), full AV lecterns, that can be relocated to multiple positions to cater for different event configurations, digital Sennheiser mics, Martin Audio loudspeakers and amps, Yamaha Stage Boxes and mixers, and Wolfvision visualisers, together with Extron video switching, distribution and control. “All the technology you’d expect in a lecture theatre,” says Byrne, with the addition of more technology for events – Panasonic camera systems, Blackmagic live production mixing and recording, full event lighting systems, and confidence monitors. One major challenge in this project was accommodating control rooms for the bigger spaces such as the lecture theatres. “Because the architectural design was somewhat along they couldn’t be accommodated in the theatres, so both of them have remote control rooms, in which the theatres are viewed on high end cameras, with full audio monitoring,” explains Byrne.

Standardisation has been key to the project’s success says Byrne, and this is evident in two ways, first it makes supporting the AV easier, and it also makes it easier for the lecturers too as they can use familiar systems in different rooms. Four teaching clusters (the biggest one seats 160 students) can be used for teaching or individual study. To improve the line of sight the decision was made to install two monitors at every desk instead of filling the room with large screens. Audio for the rooms is hidden in the ceiling in the form of JBL pendant loudspeakers. A design challenge here was where to put the AV racks, the solution was a clever one, to raise the rack and hide them overhead in the open ceiling. The design team took the decision not to have a designated teaching point so the teacher can teach from anywhere. The lecturer sends content to the second monitors via Microsoft Teams.

Smaller teaching spaces (called Meet and Teach rooms) in the form of 10 and 20-capacity spaces, are dotted around MECD. There are more than 100 around the building, all built with the same design. There is a main screen on one wall for the academic to teach on. Solstice wireless collaboration is in every room, with HDMI connections installed only as a failsafe. A second screen in these spaces is for the students to view their content, and the writing surfaces (again using Kaptivo) can be web streamed or captured. Was it important to have a whiteboard in each room? “With everything moving towards distance learning/blended learning, we couldn’t put something in unless it could be captured,” says Byrne. The content is cloud-hosted and saved to the local intranet or to each lecturer’s individual account. There is a unique ID for each one room, and a unique ID for each session, so lecturers or students can distribute that link so that other people can live view the contents as well. Sessions are ended securely at the touch of a button when you leave the room.

The beating heart of this project is the new Extron NAV AV over IP system, which has been installed throughout. “We can send a source from any room to any other room,” explains Byrne. “There could be a presentation in one of the lecture theatres and we could simultaneously broadcast to every single teaching room in the building if we needed to.” Having the NAV system turns the entire MECD into one giant flexible learning space.

The interconnected teaching spaces are another shining example of flexibility within MECD. There is projection at the front of each room with 65-in repeater screens to aid student sight lines and to boost flexibility everything is on wheels. Each of the five spaces is partitioned and can be opened up and connected in any combination. A lecturer could be in one room and students could be in another, cameras are suspended from the ceiling so anyone in any of the spaces can see or hear them.
It’s a fully zoned audio system combined with Extron NAV initiated from the control system, so audio and imagery can be sent in-between any space in any combination.

Another jewel in the crown at MECD is Blended Theatre 2/Dry Teaching Laboratory, the design of which was the source of much political debate within the University says Byrne. “We could have had a 450-capacity standard lecture theatre, but we wanted something different, so we really pushed this design.” The original brief was for a blended lecture space, similar to the 600-capacity theatre mentioned previously, with the ability for students to work in groups. The unique element here is that behind a divisible wall lies a huge 160-seat Dry Teaching Laboratory, and the lecture theatre needed to open up into that. Byrne explains how it works; “After various different designs we came up with the idea of the LG videowalls (seven in total in 2x2 format) with distributed content around the room, the academics can control it from two different places on touch monitors, they can send whatever they want to the videowalls or each videowall has its own Solstice system so the students can take control too.” Having the lecture theatre intertwined with the lab gives MECD the opportunity to take traditional teaching and practical learning and marry them together. The use of wood panelling in the space makes it feel like a century’s-old library, yet you are surrounded by up-to-the-minute tech. In a project full of clever thinking and innovation this is another stunning outcome.

The attention to detail throughout is obvious, and another small example is how staff and students are given help getting to know the new technology. Pure AV has provided every single space with a QR code, which when scanned, brings up a user guide to their device.

The build began in July 2018, and MECD was handed over to the University of Manchester in May 2021. The fit out of the top three floors is still ongoing and is expected to be completed by September 2022. The AV installation and commissioning works were delivered in parallel with the main contractor works on a zone-by-zone basis. The main contractor worked through each zone from upper levels down, and the Pure AV project manager, Gary Welton, coordinated the different Pure AV resources and liaised with the relevant third-party trades as each zone progressed.

The final word on a glorious project goes to a very proud Trevor Byrne, “This was the first project we’ve done where it was an absolute partnership between the technical side and academic side. Myself, senior academics and the faculty worked together for five years on this project. Previously, we’ve just put in AV, but this was very much a partnership.”


Audac CAP412, EPA502, and EPA152 amplifiers
Audio Technica AUTEPRO49Q gooseneck mic, PRO49Q gooseneck lectern microphone
Crestron SAROS-SB-200-P-B soundbar, UC-SB1-CAM video conference soundbar
Crown DCi8/300 amplifiers
JBL Control 64P/T and Control 65 P/T B pendant loudspeakers, Control 1 PRO loudspeaker, Control 25AV wall speaker
Martin Audio CDD6B 6.5-in and CDD12B 12-in loudspeakers, VIA5004 and IK81 amplifiers, WPM loudspeakers
Sennheiser lavalier mics, DW-3-UK R mics, TeamConnect ceiling mics
Yamaha Stagebox mixer, TF3 console, MPS5 loudspeakers

Black Magic HyperDeck Studio Pro 2, ATEM 1 M/E 4K Production Studio, HDMI-SDI 6G mini converter, Smartscope Duo monitor
Dalen Spire AV Trolley
Extron SW2 HD 4K switchers, NAV E 101 IP encoder, TLP PRO 725M and 1025M and TLP Pro 1520-TG touchpanels, DXP 44 HD 4K PLUS matrix switcher, TLP Pro 1025M, DSC HD-HD 4K Plus A HDMI scaler
iiyama T2452MTS-B5 240in interactive display
Kaptivo Capture Board
LG 49VL7F-A videowall displays
Logitech C930e conferencing camera
Loxit 8961 height adjustable column mount
Mersive Solstice
Netgear FS108P, GS105PE, JGS516PE, FS116PEU network switches
Panasonic 55-in, 65-in, 75-in, 86-in pro displays, AW-UE70 4K PTZ camera, PT-RZ970, PT-RZ120LB, PT-RZ970B and PT-RZ570W projectors, TH-43EQ1W 43-in confidence monitor
Samsung LU32J590UQUXEN 32-in and QB43N 43-in UHD monitors
Sapphire electric projection screens
Wolfvision VZ9.4F and VZ8LIGHT4 visualisers

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