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First Look

Purcell completes new thatched visitor centre at Christ Church, Oxford

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The project incorporates the conservation and re-use of an historic barn, together with a new-build development on a sensitive site on Christ Church Meadow

The new visitor centre at Christ Church, Oxford, is designed to provide facilities and improve their experience for the more than 400,000 visitors who visit each year. It houses ticketing, an office, shop, visitor facilities, interpretation space and a multipurpose seminar space within an historic barn and extension.

A new-build timber barn-type building and yard accommodate the landscape team which looks after Christ Church’s grounds. The forms of this new thatched barn and the works compound are simple and traditional. They sit in their context to appear as a series of pitched-roof buildings, which might have been extended and adapted over time.

The materials used are natural: timber, thatch, slate and stone, designed to weather into its setting.

2.purcell christ church credit ross hartland

2.purcell christ church credit ross hartland

Source: Ross Hartland

Architect’s view

The visitor centre was a crucial development for Christ Church in order to improve visitor experience and flow. Christ Church needed to gather its shop, ticket sales area, interpretation space and seminar room in one place. In addition, there was a requirement for yard facilities for the Landscape Team that is responsible for looking after the green areas of Christ Church included on the Heritage Register of Historic Parks and Gardens of Special Historic Interest.

Purcell’s design for the visitor centre focused on the refurbishment and extension of a 19th-century barn in the Grade I-listed Meadow. With its sensitive setting, the site presented several challenges. One of the key tasks was to identify possible site constraints and related risks, and to either eliminate them or mitigate their impact. These included the location within the listed park and gardens; the proximity of the Grade I-listed buildings of Christ Church; Civil War-period archaeology below ground; and its location next to the Oxford flood plain and green belt.

The use of traditional building forms and materials ensure that the modern additions integrate with their surroundings and that the historic thatched barn maintains its importance thanks to the subservient nature of the new development. The once-isolated barn now plays a pivotal role in the visitor experience of Christ Church.

68.purcell christ church credit ross hartland

68.purcell christ church credit ross hartland

Source: Ross Hartland

The methods for repairing and adapting the original thatched barn were traditional and vernacular, but the methods for extending it were contemporary. The traditional Queen Post Trusses of the original barn become glulam portal frames in the new ticket office, still evoking the same natural feel but produced with factory precision.

Heritage skills were integral to the care and refurbishment of the existing thatched barn. It is most evident in the thatched roofs: giving an opportunity for multiple thatchers to work and for apprentices to learn the trade.

This project is a demonstration of Purcell’s commitment to prioritising the reuse of existing buildings and the final design has resulted in a more sustainable and unique project than would have been achieved through the demolition of the historic barn.

Rory O’Brien, project architect

79.purcell christ church credit ross hartland

79.purcell christ church credit ross hartland

Source: Ross Hartland

Client’s view

Christ Church appointed Purcell to help us solve two problems. The first issue was to help manage our significant number of visitors in a discreet but welcoming way whilst ensuring that student and ecclesiastic life can continue in the manner for which it was established. The second issue was to provide a purpose-built and fully functional works compound for our head gardener and his expert team that maintain, nurture, and develop the extensive Christ Church grounds.

Purcell’s creative yet sensitive response to this design challenge has resulted in a delightful range of buildings that provide new operational facilities and a wonderful new visitor centre, which greatly improves the experience for not only visitors but students, scholars and staff as well.

The skilled approach to conservation and re-purposing of an existing thatched barn combined with a sensitively designed new thatched barn and link is evident in a scheme that sits comfortably and naturally within Christ Church Meadow. Purcell’s collaboration with our team, the design team, Oxford City Council and the contractor is evident in the care and quality of the building design and delivery.

We are grateful to Purcell for their thoughtful and sympathetic approach to this key project for Christ Church.

Jon Down, house surveyor, Christ Church, Oxford

08 section through ticket office

08 section through ticket office

Source: Purcell

Section through ticket office

Project data 

Start on site Feb 2017
Completion date
October 2019
Gross internal floor area
1000m² (300m² existing and 700m² new)
Form of contract or procurement route
JCT Intermediate 2016
Construction cost
Christ Church
Structural engineer
The Morton Partnership
M&E consultant
Hoare Lea
Landscape consultant
Colvin & Moggridge
Catering Consultant
RDA (Restaurant Design Associates)
Retail consultant
Kit Grover
Civil engineering
Planning Consultant
Fairfax Planning
CDM advisor
Andrew Alder Associates
Main contractor
CAD software used
Heating and hot water load
44.86 kwh/m²/yr (heating), 35.84 kwh/m²/yr (hot water)
Annual CO2 emissions  
24.56 kgCO2eq/m² (under SAP 10.1 carbon emission factors)

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