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Wright & Wright's St Edmund Hall project - exemplar of sustainability

Above: Views of the Norham Gardens development project for St Edmund Hall, Oxford University (Wright & Wright Architects)

The creation of the 'intimacy of village life' is one aim of this newly planned scheme for St Edmund Hall, Oxford, by Wright & Wright Architects, where improved student bedrooms and landscaping has taken inspiration from Oxford's Gothic and Italianate architecture of the mid to late 19th century. Planning permission has been recently given to the project.

The Norham Gardens Development project features state-of-the-art student accommodation and public facilities for St Edmund Hall, one of Oxford’s oldest colleges. The scheme comprises 128 study bedrooms and communal spaces housed in a mixture of new buildings and a remodelled Victorian villa, on a landscaped site at Norham Gardens in north Oxford.

This project will bring together several strategic aims of the College’s: moving towards accommodating all its undergraduates in College, moving towards becoming net zero in energy use by 2030, improving access, encouraging biodiversity, and catalysing a creative and inclusive College culture. The project is a pioneering model of sustainability, with new construction designed to rigorous Passivhaus standards, and the Victorian villa retrofitted to equivalent low-energy EnerPhit principles. The landscape and ecology strategy is designed to improve and enhance biodiversity, with an 88% net gain over the site.

Wright & Wright describes the project:

'The Norham Gardens development will be an exemplar of sustainability, moving the College towards being net zero carbon in operation, with reuse of salvaged building materials where possible, and the use of low embodied carbon materials from inside to out. New buildings are designed to Passivhaus principles, and the existing Victorian villa retrofitted to an equivalent low-energy EnerPhit standard. A high-performing building fabric leads to user comfort, and negates the need to ‘top up’ heating or cooling over the course of the year. This, combined with the introduction of renewables on site, such as bi-solar semi-intensive green roofs and air source heat pumps, means the scheme requires little operational energy, reducing running and maintenance costs, freeing up resources for the College and its student body.

'The proposal also creates a landscape that is resilient and supports change, sustaining and developing a rich biodiversity throughout its lifetime. The main front entrance on Norham Gardens is clearly defined and animated by new landscaping, with space for cycle parking and a warden’s office. The scheme re-introduces gaps between the building frontage, adding to the sense of ‘planned openness’ characteristic of the NOVSCA, by structuring views through to University Parks beyond. To the rear, a cloister garden acts as a convivial outdoor room for study and socialising. Mature trees will be preserved, and an ecology pond and rainwater harvesting will encourage and support a range of flora and fauna. Imbued with strong biophilic qualities, through revealed views of nature, unexpected encounters and contrast between light and shade, the rejuvenated site will support the psychological health and well-being of the academic community.

'Bordered by the sweeping curve of University Parks, the site lies within the North Oxford Victorian Suburb Conservation Area (NOVSCA). Norham Gardens was one of the first parts of the Conservation Area to be built out in the mid to late 19th century, characterised by large Gothic and Italianate villas set in generous gardens, designed to replicate the country-house ethos on a smaller, suburban scale. Wide streets create a sense of ‘planned openness’, with the absence of formal vistas, but space between the buildings allows views through to gardens and mature trees.

'As well as expanding residential provision, from 56 to 128 bedrooms, the project will elevate the quality of accommodation, with modern, en-suite study bedrooms, amenity spaces and gardens. This will be achieved by embracing and elevating the site’s history and village-like quality, with buildings of different scales and eras, enriched by a biodiverse landscape, mature trees and views out over parkland.

'Tranquil and humanly scaled, it epitomises the conviviality and intimacy of English village life, providing communal spaces for the collaborative work and social life of the College's growing community. Inspired by historic precedents, the scheme strips away undistinguished additions and extensions to reveal the handsome grandeur of the original Victorian architecture, while adding new residential blocks. Within the expanded campus, cohorts of students occupy separate buildings, establishing a sense of shared identity for each. Within individual buildings, clusters of between six and eleven study bedrooms share communal kitchens and dining rooms, replicating the scale and feel of typical domestic houses in the locality. As well as different types of study bedrooms, other kinds of spaces for working and socialising are disposed around the campus, so students can change the scene, which will be important in the post-Covid era. Throughout the proposal, the needs of students to self-direct their experience on site has been prioritised, providing flexible spaces, a mixed range of study and residential options, and undefined outdoor spaces that can be used for various functions as suits hybrid work styles and schedules.

'In tandem with remodelling the original Victorian villa at 17 Norham Gardens, the scheme features three new buildings: Villa, a five-storey building located at the front of the site; Park House, a three-storey garden building located at the rear of the site; and West House, a three-storey garden building, with a gable fronting on to Norham Gardens. The Victorian dwellings employed a distinct language of architectural elements, including gable ends, towers, chimneys and dormer windows. The new buildings abstract these characteristic elements in a contemporary manner to help embed them in their setting, realising a reinvention of historic precedent that stands in dialogue with the College’s rich architectural history.'

Below: street-side view from Norham Gardens of St Edmund Hall scheme (Wright & Wright Architects)


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