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Footprint focus on North West Cambridge

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How does a globally leading university tackle the sustainable city of tomorrow?

‘If you want to be selected because you have an interest in sustainability, you have be able to have a sensible conversation about it. Because of the expertise on the jury, we very quickly got to the bottom of whether people could think laterally about sustainability or were just spouting tick-box stuff. Ubiquitous diagrams with arrows and the sun somewhere on it don’t cut the mustard. Everybody does them and no one quite explains them. You have to be much cleverer about sustainability. Architects either have an interest in it and that becomes very palpable, or they pay lip service to it and that too becomes very palpable.’ Caroline Cole, Colander (responsible for North West Cambridge competition)

When planning permission was granted for the University of Cambridge’s £1 billion multi-phased North West Cambridge project last year, it was hailed as an exemplar of sustainable living. How far-reaching is it? How does one of the world’s leading universities, with an 800-year history, plan resilient neighbourhoods future-proofed for the next 800 years?

Vauban in Freiburg, Germany, Solar City in Linz, Austria, or Masdar in Abu Dhabi come to mind as boundary-pushing sustainable exemplars. But how do you proceed within the constraints of the UK planning system without the elbow room of the Olympics or the budget of the United Arab Emirates?

The line-up of design teams for the 150ha site 1.5 miles north-west of Cambridge city centre is indeed impressive, as is the leading-edge commitment to sustainability set out from the project’s inception. The second criterion of the competition brief called for a demonstrated ‘commitment to innovation in sustainable development’ (the first was ‘exceptional architecture and design talent’). Alan Short sat on the competition jury, and design quality and sustainability panels (now merged and chaired by Peter Guthrie) act as the project’s conscience to monitor progress.

Within the constraints of the planning system and a site bordered on its western perimeter by the M11, the university is delivering on its ambitions. The commitment to landscape and the quality of the public realm looks highly promising. Planning conditions stipulated that all new buildings achieve BREEAM Excellent and the new housing ambitiously target Code for Sustainable Homes Level 5.

Sustainability panellist Pooran Desai of BioRegional notes that some aspects of the project ‘are outstanding - such as the water recycling. Masterplanning for walking and cycling are very good. Yet the carbon reduction commitments, while very good by industry standards, don’t represent the step change needed.’

Heather Topel, deputy project director for North West Cambridge, will speak at Footprint Live on November 20.
Book your place here: FootprintLive.ArchitectsJournal.co.uk

Community Centre and Nursery by MUMA with Sarah Price Landscapes


MUMA’s Community Hall will be a gathering place for up to 180 people at the heart of the new NW Cambridge on the proposed Market Square.

The architect sought to create a building with exterior civic presence and interior gravitas; its reference was the Cambridge University dining halls, where high spaces allow stratification of air, so that the buildings are comfortable all year round.

We don’t badge ourselves as sustainability architects, but we do win sustainability awards. It’s a fundamental part of our thinking. We find ways to do things within an overall architectural idea - Stuart McKnight

The tall building required massive foundations, which provided an opportunity for labyrinthine cooling. The community centre will be able to cater to a full house without mechanical cooling. Behind the west-facing perforated brick facade, dampers within the roof allow louvres to open and close, depending on the direction of the prevailing wind.

The nursery wing references Cambridge’s cloister tradition. The rectangular plan of the classroom layout allows good cross-ventilation, supplemented by cedar-shingled turrets, whose vertical face is louvred to promote the stack effect.

University of Cambridge Primary School by Marks Barfield Architects with Colour Urban Design


Provision of a primary school formed part of the planning conditions for the NW Cambridge Development, and the proposed three-form entry school will be the first building completed on the site next year. The school is the first UK primary school to be awarded University Training School status by the Department of Education, meaning it will also provide teacher training and research.

We did not pitch ourselves as sustainability specialists. We spoke about how good architecture creates quality in the environment and for the user. - Julia Barfield

Julia Barfield of Marks Barfield Architects explains that intensive research of school precedents from Newcastle to Hampshire and abroad led to a circular-plan building which is non-hierarchical, democratic and inclusive. The idea was to create a school where every voice matters.

This translates in physical form to a one-storey building in which every classroom opens directly to the exterior into a covered outdoor space. The size of the internal courtyard was tested against some of Cambridge’s historic courtyards. Classrooms are organised along a double-handed corridor whose higher roof supports natural ventilation via the stack effect. Operable windows enable the teachers to control the classroom environments, though a basic BMS is also provided. Rooflights throughout bring light into the centre of the plan.

Landscape design is integral to the project, with a wild wood, an orchard and vegetable plots to supply the school kitchen. Water run-off from the roof is channeled into a rill where children can play.

The requirement for 20 per cent on site renewables means that PVs cover the south-facing portion of the circular roof form as well as the roof of the two-storey hall, which has hit-and-miss bricks on its western elevation to allow fresh air intake.

A cycle route into central Cambridge borders the site and the provision of 400 cycle spaces is a sign that Cambridge’s well-known cycling culture is expected to flourish here.

Market and Key Worker Housing by Cottrell & Vermeulen Architecture with Sarah Wigglesworth Architects and AOC


Lot 4 of the masterplan comprises 70 homes in a mix of tenures and typologies that enclose two communal gardens. The larger of the two gardens is based on the dimensions of Accordia, established in AECOM’s masterplan. The three practices jointly developed the early stages of the project and then each took responsibility for developing a certain number of units.

Our project was a genuine exercise in joint authorship and collaboration, a real palimpsest of ideas, and we agreed not to reveal who had designed which units - Sarah Wigglesworth

The units are organised in a mix of five-storey buildings and two-storey terraces, a number of which include home offices.

For reasons both of the aesthetics and durability, the university opted for brick construction, which, when combined with the planning obligation to meet Code for Sustainable Homes level 5, made achieving a highly efficient fabric a priority. Walls are up to 475mm thick in places to achieve the desired U-values and thorough attention to detailing was required to minimise thermal bridging around the concrete balconies.

The proximity of the M11 motorway to the project meant that west-facing balconies had to be enclosed as winter gardens for acoustic reasons.

The public realm of the street and the internal courtyards has been carefully studied to encourage neighbourliness among the projected demographic - new families with a fair amount of churn. Fences or balustrades to define semi-private patios were consciously avoided to promote shared use of the communal spaces.
Surface bins have been eliminated throughout the development and residents dispose of waste in shared underground bins, which accommodate recycling and must comply with maximum travel distances.

‘A lot of our work has been about bin distances, which we re-ran countless times,’ observes Wigglesworth.

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