Blurring the lines between reality and fiction: Virtual Reality teaching at National College for Nuclear South

National College for Nuclear
National College for Nuclear

Blurring the lines between reality and fiction: Virtual Reality teaching at National College for Nuclear South (blog By Murtaza Rizvi, Austin-Smith:Lord)

Murtaza discusses our recently completed NCFN Southern Hub – a project in which innovative technology is key to the delivery of specialist skills teaching.

You find yourself in a locker room. Squinting as your eyes adjust you ask yourself ‘what am I doing here?’ Looking around you see various pieces of protective clothing on the benches. You see a clipboard on the bench and pick it up. There are instructions about what you need to wear to enter a confined space. You put on the rest of the equipment and look down at yourself wearing the equipment.

You walk over to the door and exit into a corridor where the lighting is dim and the sound of alarms is deafening. There is smoke emerging from around the corner and as you walk forward the smoke becomes thicker and there is water flooding across the floor. Your heart starts to pound and you take a breath in order to settle your nerves. You discover the smoke is coming from a room where a motor unit is on fire. Opposite you, there is a fire extinguisher. Instinctively you pick it up, checking it’s the right kind of extinguisher, and turn to the fire to put it out. You experience a brief sense of relief before your attention turns to finding the source of the flooding water.

It appears to be seeping from under a door to an adjacent room. You try to open the door but it won’t open, you see through its window that there is something blocking it on the other side. You spot that there is a ventilation hatch you might be able to climb through at floor level, but it is held shut with screws. You rush back to the locker room, retrieve the screwdriver you noticed earlier and return to the hatch. You crouch down on the ground and remove the screws and ventilator screen and crawl through the hatch, being careful not to snag the threads of your protective wear.

At this point, anyone observing you in the real world would probably be very entertained at the sight of seeing you scrambling across a training room floor, holding two triggers. You are in fact inside the Virtual world where everything feels eerily and impressively convincing.

Once through the hatch, you find the controls for a pump and run it until the water is fully drained from the floor. You climb back through the hatch, return along the corridor to the locker room, where you are relieved to be told that you have successfully completed the ‘confined spaces’ exercise. You finally take off the headset and realise you had completely lost all sense of direction, and for a moment forget where you were.

What I’ve described above is one of the learning scenarios students will be experiencing through VR headsets at the National College for Nuclear Southern Hub for Bridgwater and Taunton College, a building we had the pleasure of master planning, designing, detailing and delivering. It’s one we’re proud to be involved with and the technology used as part of the teaching methods will be of particular interest to many, not least within the construction industry and higher education sector.

The new BREEAM excellent rated facility is one of 4 specialist teaching colleges across the UK set up by the government to develop technical skill sets required for the nuclear sector as part of its industrial strategy. In addition to the Nuclear training facilities other colleges include Creative and Cultural Industries; Digital Skills and High-Speed Rail. The spur for the construction of the facility stems from the nuclear sector and plans for 12 new nuclear reactors across 5 UK sites that will require 6000 people each year to maintain and run facilities. The facility in Somerset has been developed in collaboration with Industry experts from Sellafield, EDF Energy, University of Cumbria and the University of Bristol in order to help train up to 3,500 learners by the end of the decade.

NCFN features an impressive array of cutting-edge technology its educators will be using as part of developing the skills required to deliver the government’s vision. The new building will provide physical, virtual and augmented reality technology to create a learning environment that replicates a nuclear workplace and deliver revolutionary new engineering courses. Training experiences using VR headsets, such as those described above, are designed to help learners let go and enter a state in which deep, effective learning can take place. The thought is that whilst VR experiences are simulated they have the power to trick our embodied cognition circuits into thinking they are real. Technology has a key role in teaching at NCFN with its ability to simulate the working environments learners will face in practice – replicating behaviours, trialing these and perfecting through rehearsal in a safe and risk-free setting is essential and will help create a highly-trained, professional, technical workforce for the nuclear sector.

As designers, we’ve been through a fascinating process in helping Bridgwater & Taunton College realise its plans for this facility. During the early design stages, we had a number of discussions with our clients about how they wanted to use VR technology within the building. What made this challenging was that there was no real precedent for a facility of this nature. This prompted a number of visits made to buildings that contained similar facilities, albeit smaller aspects that were relevant to the design of NCFN as there wasn’t an ‘off the shelf’ example available.

This was enhanced by visits to virtual reality technology providers themselves to look at the available technology first hand. Like any good designers, we went through a process of carefully listening, scribbling notes, drawing sketches, reviewing, discarding the obsolete and repeating everything to refine our design response. What we learnt on visits to other facilities with our client manifested themselves through a number of design choices in the building as part of our response to the brief. For example, as the use of technology in this sector is continually developing the design of the building had to accommodate future flexibility – there are a number of folding partitions which allow a number of different teaching configurations to suit the nature of teaching delivery. You may think, folding partitions are commonplace in many modern education buildings. You’d be right, folding partitions might typically be seen, say, between two rooms. However, within NCFN whole wings of teaching spaces can be opened up, providing a number of teaching possibilities essential to the teaching methods required within NCFN. For example, this might form part of a VR training scenario in which student and teacher might physically walk through a training scenario exercise.

In conjunction with full height glazed screens along corridors, what’s clear in NCFN is that the typical teaching classroom format is completely opened up favouring a more innovative, multi-faceted teaching programme. All of a sudden, the classroom takes on a different meaning and might end up being, say, a high-level gantry walkway 3 storeys up inside a 6 storey high cooling tower. It’s for this reason that at NCFN teaching rooms aren’t called classrooms, they are referred to as flexible training spaces.

Another simple but effective example is the internal arrangement of the teaching wing and simulator suite. The corridor is offset to one side of the plan to allow a larger simulator suite room to be accommodated. This was driven by the need to allow future flexibility depending on whether VR reality experiences would be through VR headsets or within a 360-degree immersive dome, the latter requiring a larger room as part of its feasibility.

National College for Nuclear
Corridor design visualisation

Turning attention to the external form and appearance of NCFN, another consideration and challenge was how to reflect the ‘national’ qualities of a National College for Nuclear, given a need to be pragmatic whilst working with a defined budget. The arrangement of the building form reflects these qualities through the siting of the building at the northern crest of Bridgwater & Taunton College’s Cannington campus. The building’s forms sit in an elevated position above the rest of the campus. Driven by a need to work with a steeply sloping site, the distinct forms wrap around a central landscape and sculptural courtyard.

National College for Nuclear
External form visualisation

The form of the building is further expressed and articulated through sloped glazed façade to the south east wing and first floor cantilever on the south west wing, incorporating full height corner glazing to better link the social/bar space within to impressive views of the Quantock hills beyond.

The distinct forms created by these wings are linked by an umbilical glazed link which provides continuation of the circulation spaces between the buildings. NCFN is in fact a conglomeration of two buildings, one part teaching facility and one part welfare & recreational building which accommodates facilities for use by students across the campus as well as hosting out of hours events.

National College for Nuclear
The glazed link connecting the teaching building and welfare & recreational building at first floor with bridge truss expressing the working structure.

These design ‘moves’ are intended to provide the building with an almost civic quality, perhaps more readily associated with university buildings. The architectural expression is intended to provide young learners attending the college with a tangible sense of the importance of the career they are about to embark on from their first day.

National College for Nuclear


Continuing this theme internally, upon entering the building the visitor is struck by the faceted array of stainless steel rods lit by Blue LEDs behind the main reception desk. The idea is to reinforce the impression of entering a cutting-edge nuclear facility through use of precisely engineered detailing with the striking blue lighting evoking images of nuclear reactors to provide an industrial feel.

National College for Nuclear
Reception desk design visualisation.


National College for Nuclear
Blue nuclear reactor rod reception feature.

Whilst there were many aspects both inside and out we enjoyed developing through the design process, it will be seeing how the building accommodates continually changing technology that will have the most impact on those using the building. Following handover in February 2018, the college have already installed WiFi throughout along with Google Home digital assistants (the AI of which is learning specific nuclear terminology) and Chromecast. To top it off all of this is being streamed to 4K Digital TVs. With the VR suite expected to be fully functional by summer 2018, it is anticipated that use of VR headsets, coupled with the impressive digital connectivity, will allow students to ‘dial into’ nuclear training scenarios with their teachers remotely. This will allow teachers to walk through training scenarios with students, providing support and advice where needed as part of the teaching process and embedding key skills.

We are pleased the design of the building is enabling its educators to trial new and innovative methods of teaching, some of which may not even have been known at the design stage, given how quickly technology is developing. In our studios, we are finding the use of virtual and augmented reality fascinating, and its use as a design tool, as well as a method of communicating our ideas, is one we are pushing on projects of all scales within different sectors.

It will be important to pay attention to the trend of VR technology in your organisation. Like many technologies before it, awareness is the first barrier to uptake, followed by cost and content. Costs for adopting VR will continue to decrease through 2018 and with better content and more awareness spreading, VR will play a key role across education and industrial sectors. In education, VR is already revolutionizing not only how people learn, but interact with real-world applications of what they have been taught. Imagine ecology students getting to actually see where the Amazonian rainforest is, or biological science students exploring distant worlds in outer space. The possibilities are endless.