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Russell Street Graduate Hostel, St Catharine’s College, Cambridge, by 5th Studio

[BUILDING STUDY + PLANS + PROJECT DATA] 5th Studio have created an intelligent response to a problematic existing site says Keith Bradley. Photography by Tim Soar

Peter Smithson often referred to the art of ‘good ordinariness’ in architecture. 5th Studio’s 22 graduate study rooms and two fellows’ apartments, added to an existing off-college site in Cambridge, represent the best of Smithson’s undervalued tradition of ordinariness. Working within the constraints a poor, but functioning, 1990s building, the practice has crafted the ordinary with delight.

The existing building created an awkward and restricted backland plot. This necessitated a careful response to maintain the privacy of the surrounding properties, and 5th Studio’s carefully planned new building re-focuses every room in the development around a shared collegiate garden court.

The manipulation of its section to create split-level rooms, with the use of borrowed light, allows the building to be right on the site boundary, maximising the perimeter and area of the courtyard garden. The design was an exercise in privacy and community, in terms of both the relationship of the shared life of the hostel and that of the surrounding residential properties.

The ground plan creates two new external spaces to the rear of the existing building. The first is an ‘anti-space’, forming an open courtyard as a secondary entrance alongside the back garden walls of the adjoining properties. A four-storey wing, perpendicular to the existing building, forms a colonnaded undercroft space, which links to the second, inner-courtyard garden space.

This building mediates between the outside world of the city and that of the rarefied interior world of the collegiate court. The outer wall is clad as a screen of larch timber, signalling the softer interior, and the inside brickwork face makes reference to the outside. This playful reversal makes a Janus building that forms the connection with the 1990s building and its formal street entrance.

Internally, graduate rooms face on to the courtyard, accessed via a single-sided corridor behind the timber and glass ‘privacy’ screen. On the upper level there are two fellows’ ‘penthouse’ duplex apartments that open out on to a shared roof terrace.

The inner courtyard is made up of 22 study rooms, relatively small by Cambridge standards, organised in groups of five around kitchen/living rooms. This arrangement hugs the irregular boundary on two sides with a single-storey larch and glass screen ‘cloister’ corridor overlooking the court. The lower-level bed spaces and upper-storey study pop-ups are clad in pre-weathered stainless steel. The embedded ‘cave’ bed spaces are lit only by rooflight, with the upper-level ‘nest’ workspaces looking out over the landscaped roofs and courtyard below. This inventive manipulation of the rooms, and the changing of the cloister and courtyard levels, is the resounding thesis of this project.

In order to meet the requirements of the client’s programme, which was determined by the academic year cycle, this project was planned around a prefabricated cross-laminated timber panel structure, manipulated to exploit the acoustic and fire-resistance qualities of the construction and allow the timber walls and soffits to be exposed in each space. The relatively slender structural profiles of the floor, roof and wall panels (being without downstand beams or ribbed structures) maximises the usable volume of the new building. The speed of assembly allowed the four-storey superstructure to be completed within four weeks on site.

The construction is highly sustainable, using renewable materials, which, assuming the trees are replanted, is carbon neutral. High insulation levels and an appropriate window-to-wall ratio keep the heating and lighting loads to a minimum. Solar-thermal panels, positioned on the upper-level roofs, are sized to provide 100 per cent of the hot water requirements for a typical summer day with full occupancy.

This is a responsible building in every way. An intelligent response to a problematic, existing site, which has created a carefully crafted ensemble as a new take on the Cambridge courtyard typology. In this project, 5th Studio encapsulates the qualities of that good Smithson ordinariness and, as his contemporary Aldo van Eyck said in a 1981 commencement address: ‘Now, if making a good building has become too difficult, the dilemma is indeed complete. But is it really all that difficult? Does it require a genius to avoid the mean and meaningless – or a sage to bypass foolishness? Is there nothing between a fool and genius – nobody in between to do the job nicely – well?’

Here in Cambridge, 5th Studio has tackled a difficult problem and made the result look effortless.

Keith Bradley is a senior partner at Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios

Project data

Start on site September 2008
Contract duration 48 weeks
Gross internal floor area 930m2
Form of contract JCT standard without quantities 2005, two-stage tender
Total cost £2,583,000
Cost per m2 £2,776
Client St Catharine’s College Development Company
Architect 5th Studio
Structural engineer Michael Hadi Associates
M&E consultant Max Fordham
Quantity surveyor Davis Langdon
Planning supervisor Andrew Firebrace Partnership
Main contractor SDC
Annual CO2 emissions 42kg CO2/m2

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