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51 Hills Road, Jesus College by Gort Scott

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Brick is the dominant material in this high-quality commercial accommodation in the centre of Cambridge, which marks a coming of age for the practice

BRIEF • WORKING DETAILCLIENT’S VIEW • PROJECT DATA

In recent years brick has once again dominated material palettes across the country. In the sybaritic boroughs of London, its selection has become a shorthand for familiar, tactile permanence, rooted in the abundant supply of public nostalgia. It plays well with the planners, too, and there is something innately primal about visually identifying both the sum and the parts, allowing the heavy blow of Modernism to be softened just enough for the man on the street to roll with the architectural punches.

But the brick is humble no more. Having dragged itself from the rural outhouse to the city penthouse, it has acquired a taste for the high life and a social standing that could prove difficult to usurp. In Louis Kahn’s day, all a brick wanted was an arch; but today’s brick won’t get out of bed for anything less than a single malt whisky and a view of the Thames. So, to escape the gaze of corpulent foreign investors, we retreat to Cambridge. Here, Gort Scott, at the behest of Jesus College, has put manners on the highfalutin clay clod with an accomplished majesty that belies the practice’s relative youth.

Gort Scott has drawn upon a reservoir of thrifty architectural guile to produce a design with the principles of poetic pragmatism

The site, surrounded on three sides by listed buildings and ensnared within a conservation area, is tucked between the bipartisan boundaries of Eric Lyon’s Highsett estate to the north and the stunning 19th-century Claremont model houses to the east. While the brief required the conjuring of exemplary commercial office accommodation, the budget was not of a parity sufficient to grease the wheels of haughty specification. Gort Scott has, instead, drawn upon a reservoir of thrifty architectural guile to produce a design with the principles of poetic pragmatism at its core.

As you approach on foot from the east end of Station Road, the curve of the former Grand Union Hotel encourages a racing line, pulling you on to the straight of Hills Road, where the scheme reveals itself in an oblique snapshot. Fleetingly, the perspective seems almost too perfect, like an exaggerated field of view, and the convergence of several notional datum lines visually propels you towards the centre of Cambridge. From the site, Hills Road cuts a confident stride towards the north-west as it bleeds into Regent Street and then St Andrew’s, where it forks at the city’s geographical centre; its identity as a vital urban artery provides an additional contextual constraint. On first impression, the scheme’s casual introduction is as disarmingly familiar as an old friend’s handshake.

Smaller projects can often suffer the ignominy of environmental add-ons, but this building’s sustainable aspirations are cleverly exploited to shape a composed architectural strategy and it wears its BREEAM Excellent badge without a hint of irony. The cooling strategy relies on two dominant brick chimneys which enable that classic stack-ventilation diagram; we’ve all drawn it (you know the one), but it is so rarely cajoled into reality. Thankfully, this element of the design never succumbed to the perils of value engineering, which says a lot about Gort Scott’s effectiveness as ambassador for its own architecture.

The two ventilation stacks bookend the scheme, and their status as clean-living role models does not preclude them from casually flattering their redundant Victorian cousins. The chimneys are accentuated with a hit-and-miss snapped header brick detail, articulating a ruffling of the building’s feathers as fresh air billows through its concrete lungs. The haptic mottling of the grey brick was carefully selected, and this brick is made to earn its keep as an honest, hardworking material. The vertical lines of the stacks are used to secrete the building’s only perceivable movement joints, and beyond this subtle division the same grey brick regresses to the norms of a regimented running bond, but the homogeneity of the tiny module brings everything together with the reassuring distinction of an ample salt and pepper beard.

Above all this industrious brickwork, a bespoke story of white cast concrete is draped over the structure like a fine linen table cloth, each window cut from between the folds of its pleated valance. Meanwhile, on the ground floor, the facade is treated with a darker, more unassuming brick, which offers a gentle sense of continuity to the configuration of the established shopfronts adjoining the site. But, even here, the reveals of the large commercial windows are tastefully picked out in the same white concrete finish, ensuring the cuffs match the collar, so to speak.

There isn’t a stray line of shuttered concrete to be seen; each board location has been painstakingly orchestrated

The building’s layout is arranged around two embracing brick wings, one set forward, one set back, each relating to the elevational line of its immediate neighbours. The crank of this negotiation is resolved with a pleasant walled garden, which completes a square boundary to encapsulate the sturdy L-shaped plan. At what could, functionally, be described as the rear elevation, the building bashfully sucks in its belly to emulate the toned physique of the Claremont model houses that sit perpendicular to the Hills Road. Here, rather than the typical ‘arse-end’ afterthought of commercial plant and bin storage, Gort Scott has celebrated the theatre of this often reluctant space. During my visit it was a hive of everyday activity, framed and detailed with the same care afforded to the rest of the building while enhancing a sense of shared utilitarian symmetry with the rear of the adjacent Hills Road terrace. The overall effect helps to elevate a potential service yard to an animated courtyard.

The building’s entrance is signalled by a chamfered corner to the base of the southern wing. Here the brick has been hewn away to carve a brief processional colonnade which draws you from the street, through the walled garden, to the reception. Once inside, the quality and consistency of the craftsmanship is apparent. The palette is confined principally to exposed in-situ concrete and oak, both of which have been forged with the shrewd eye of an artisan. There isn’t a stray line of shuttered concrete to be seen; each board location has been painstakingly orchestrated by the project team.

Even the concrete walls seem to fold themselves obediently at 90° to form generously high exposed ceiling slabs, a luxury rarely seen in commercial projects, and made possible only by the ousting of mechanical ventilation. The office spaces themselves appear to seamlessly unfurl from around the circulation core as you ascend the concrete stair until, finally, an oak-lined run of timber steps creeps inconspicuously away from the uppermost landing to reveal one last office space and a concluding crow’s nest panorama.

This project marks a coming of age for a young practice, and a tantalising taste of things to come. A building like this can restore your faith in architecture’s capacity to enchant, even if the prodigal superfluousness of a mega-budget is nowhere to be seen. 

51 Hills Road, Jesus College by Gort Scott

51 Hills Road, Jesus College by Gort Scott

51 Hills Road, Jesus College by Gort Scott

51 Hills Road, Jesus College by Gort Scott

51 Hills Road, Jesus College by Gort Scott

51 Hills Road, Jesus College by Gort Scott

Working detail

51 Hills Road, Jesus College by Gort Scott

51 Hills Road, Jesus College by Gort Scott

Susie Hyden, associate, and Gareth Puttock, project architect, Gort Scott

This working detail through the top floor of the office at 51 Hills Road, Cambridge, illustrates the holistic integration of the design with the sustainability strategy.

As part of the sustainability strategy the majority of the building is an in-situ concrete frame with exposed concrete soffits to utilise the thermal mass and thus enable passive night-time cooling in the summertime. The building envelope is an extremely well insulated and airtight timber frame inner leaf with brickwork outer leaf.

For structural and aesthetic reasons the top floor office has a lightweight structure, with precast concrete slabs supported on exposed glulam beams. The thermal mass of the concrete slabs is utilised and left exposed. The non-load bearing cross-structure of the coffered ceiling incorporates acoustic panels. Exposed conduit for the centralised globe lights was carefully set out. The top-floor envelope is made up of deep, chamfered precast stone cladding and large composite timber and aluminium windows to maximise natural light into the space. The oak internal linings to the windows incorporate blinds to mitigate solar gain.

51 Hills Road, Jesus College by Gort Scott

51 Hills Road, Jesus College by Gort Scott

Source: David Grandorge

Brief

51 Hills Road, for Jesus College, Cambridge, provides high-quality commercial accommodation on a college-owned site in the centre of Cambridge. The building needed to be a lasting asset to the college, making a positive contribution to the surrounding area. It is designed to be flexible, allowing for different internal layouts, and sustainable, using high-quality robust materials to create a building with a long life span and low-running costs. 

51 Hills Road, Jesus College by Gort Scott

51 Hills Road, Jesus College by Gort Scott

Source: David Grandorge

Clients’ view

Alex Gray, director, Tucker Gardener, the building’s tenants 

This project makes for a great working environment, engaged staff, better morale, improved attendance and team spirit. We are all pleased and proud of the green credentials.

CL Pratt, fellow and bursar, Jesus College

Jesus College is delighted with the appearance, the green credentials and the economic outcome of the building. Both informed observers and passers-by as well as neighbours have praised the quality and variety of the brickwork and the restrained but stylish facade materials, while professionals and tenants alike have warmed to the natural ventilation and the excellent internal layout. It is a notable and noted addition to the college portfolio in a prominent Cambridge location.

51 Hills Road, Jesus College by Gort Scott

51 Hills Road, Jesus College by Gort Scott

Source: David Grandorge

Project data

Start on site May 2014
Completion September 2015
Gross internal floor area 780m²
Form of contract Design and Build
Construction cost £2.3 million
Construction cost per m²  £2,948
Architect Gort Scott
Client Jesus College, Cambridge
Structural engineer Solution Consulting Engineers
M&E consultant Max Fordham
QS Quantem
Landscape architect JCLA
Low-carbon consultant  Orchard Estate
Clerk of works Andrew Merrick
Project manager Bidwells
CDM co-ordinator MLM
Approved building inspector MLM
Main contractor Ashe Construction
CAD software used Vectorworks
Annual CO2 emissions 42.6 kg/m²

51 Hills Road, Jesus College by Gort Scott

51 Hills Road, Jesus College by Gort Scott

 

 

 

 

  • 1 Comment

Readers' comments (1)

  • Industry Professional

    Nearly £3000/m2 for a spec office?!... Beautiful concrete yes, but at that price it cannot be considered an achievable precedent for similar developments.

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