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A study in green
Autumn 2006
Published:  23 October, 2006

The windows in the bridge between the new studio and Scroope Terrace have been placed deliberately high to emphasise the transition between building styles

Forget The Backs and King’s College chapel, Cambridge University architecture students will soon have a showpiece of sustainable construction for inspiration. Mike Jeffree reports

The new timber-framed studio at Cambridge University’s Department of Architecture looks like being an impressive, totally 21st century building. The design pushes a host of environmentally-sound construction buttons and its exposed structure should act as combined inspiration and materials and structural engineering tutorial for students. 

In addition to this, the studio is also clearly a concrete – or rather glulam, glass, steel and solid timber – expression of the Department of Architecture’s faith in its future and new outlook in education and research.

To understand the studio’s significance as a statement you have to backtrack to 2004. That was when the university rocked UK architecture by announcing it was considering axing the subject after 92 years and closing the department. The news sparked learned uproar. Students took to the streets and big gun architects, led by Cambridge alumnus Sir Richard MacCormac and the Lords Foster and Rogers, fired off a broadside to the broadsheets.

At one point it was touch and go, but eventually the protests, plus proposals for a new, independent funding regime, led to a university U-turn on the closure. And since being given its new lease on life, the department has been clearly intent on making the most of it with a vigorous programme of reinvention and renewal. This includes refurbishing and modernising its Scroope Terrace base, five adjoining Victorian houses on Trumpington Street. The revamp, costing a total of £1.56m, will not only create a more salubrious teaching environment, it will also enable the buildings to assimilate the department’s Martin Centre research arm which has been housed separately.


The glulam frame will be a post and beam structure and the saw-tooth, four-section stainless steel-clad roof will be based on exposed steel-tied softwood trusses
“Restructuring the department provides a fantastic opportunity to rethink the way we teach and research architecture,” said department head Marcial Echenique. “We’re bringing the two together physically and intellectually.” 

Creating this all-in-one centre meant that a new undergraduate studio was needed and the only place to fit this was Scroope Terrace’s garden alongside the department’s iconic Sandy Wilson-designed brutalist classroom block.

The brief for the new structure was bound to be demanding. The location and client meant that a stress on architectural excellence and innovation was a given and it had to be built to a strict schedule and tight budget – around £1.4m.

Environmental performance was also right up the list. That’s probably true of most academic building projects today. But here it was a more vigorous stipulation than most, given that the reinvented department had set itself a course to become a "centre of sustainable construction expertise".

“We already have a reputation in sustainable building and urban development, but it will now be our main research remit,” said Echenique. “We’ve appointed a professor of sustainable design, Koen Steemers, and have four new lecturers specialising in aspects of construction and the environment.”

The principal architect for the whole Scroope Terrace regeneration is Freeland Rees Roberts of Cambridge, but it subcontracted the studio to Mole Architects of Prickwillow near Ely. A quick click through the latter’s website and you see why it got the job. The practice undertakes a wide variety of domestic and commercial new build and refurbishment work. But there are recurring themes throughout: use of natural materials and technologies and a stress on minimising environmental impact using efficient construction and energy systems. In line with this, Mole’s work is also heavily timber-oriented. “It’s the construction material I grew up with in East Anglia, with all its timber farm buildings,” said Mole founder partner Meredith Bowles. “I also worked in the Far East, where I fell in love with vernacular Chinese and Japanese wood building, and in Australia I studied under Glen Murcutt and Richard Leplastrier, who won the 2004 International Spirit of Nature Wood Architecture Award. Today I start from the assumption that our buildings will be timber frame.”

Department of Architecture head Marcial Echenique with a model of the studio
Mole’s design for the studio combines a 180x180mm glulam frame with closed, prefabricated timber-frame panels. The 320m2 space will stand on 3m glulam ‘stilts’, fixed into concrete pad foundations, with car parking beneath. On one side it will also rest on the department’s existing block-built machine shop. “The studio is effectively a big box on legs and the workshop will help take the shear loads,” said Bowles. “It also houses some pretty heavy machinery so has to be extra robust. We’ll clad it to blend in, though, probably in Douglas fir or larch.”  

The glulam frame will be a post and beam structure and the saw-tooth, four-section stainless steel-clad roof will feature exposed steel-tied softwood trusses. These will link to a glulam top cord which will vary in depth according to the stresses across its 15m width.

The roof’s north-facing vertical faces will comprise 1.2m-deep timber-framed windows from Rationel of Denmark, with the triangular end section lights metal framed. The studio floor will be oak boards on a conventional timber joist substructure, with the individual joists spanning up to 3m between the glulam members.

“In many ways it’s a traditional structure, a bit like a Victorian building,” said Bowles. “We did look at a proprietary glulam system-build approach but we wanted to create something that could be built by anyone, just with glulam used where traditionally they might have used oak beams.”


The lightweight building will maintain a comfortable temperature through good cross ventilation, orientation and a unique cooling system
The glulam frame is being made by Constructional Timber, which worked closely with Mole and project structural engineers Cameron Taylor to fine-tune the engineering. It is also supplying the prefabricated wall panels which are based on a stud structure and supplied with internal and external skins and Isonat hemp insulation in place.  

The panels will incorporate a vapour barrier, although Mole generally tries to avoid them. “Time constraints and the requirement to design a fire-proof wall meant we had to include one," said Bowles. ”“But you can design them out. Vapour pressure is naturally greater inside a building, so we generally put the more impermeable plywood skin on the inside and softboard on the outside which lets the moisture escape naturally.” 

The northern end of the studio will be a 5.5m-high laminated timber-framed, double-glazed curtain wall from German specialists Seufert Niklaus. This, together with the roof windows, will allow natural light to flood the interior.

Another aspect of the building that gets Bowles and Echenique, excited is its thermal performance. The lightweight structure won’t overheat, said the former, partly thanks to good cross-ventilation and orientation, with all the high level main windows facing north. The other substitute for thermal mass will be a water-based cooling system, designed by M&E engineers Max Fordham and  based on a loop of 6mm plastic piping embedded in the Fermacell ceiling panels.

“During warm weather water will run through the pipes at a constant average 18O C,” said Fordham’s Phil Armitage,. “This will provide a large cool surface which both removes heat from the space and feels cool to people within it. The water is kept at this temperature by a heat pump which transfers the heat to two 45m deep boreholes underneath the building.”

“This system requires little energy and gives similar thermal performance to a concrete ceiling,” said Echenique. “It deals with all the thermal mass arguments against lightweight building.”

The finishing touch for the studio will be Eternit cladding and, tying in with the architecture department’s aim of integrating all its elements, it will be connected to Scroope Terrace by an enclosed glulam and timber panel bridge.

Charged with building the studio, and simultaneously remodelling Scroope Terrace, is Cambridge contractor Dean and Bowes. And from a glance at the timetable in its site office, it’s clearly going to be a logistical challenge. “Access is difficult, with 1,000 people movements an hour from the neighbouring department of engineering,” said contracts manager Steve Dockerill. “We’ll also have to take account of the engineering lecture times and the fact we’ve got a hotel the other side!”

The compact space means that the builders will have to use a mobile crane for the studio and a hoist for Scroope Terrace. They will also have to manoeuvre around three large trees with preservation orders. But, despite the challenges Dockerill, another timber building fan, was confident the work would be done on time. The principal structure, he said, will be up in seven weeks and the building complete in May next year.

Echenique is clearly enthused by what the finished studio will add to his department. “Students can learn a lot from just looking at and living in buildings and the studio’s structure will demonstrate how the materials and forces are working,” he said. “If they have prejudices about using and building in wood, it should help dispel those too.”