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Thinking big in a small space

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A small area of land in the centre of Oxford has been used for an exciting housing development, offering a blueprint for the future

A building in Littlegate Street, central Oxford, shows how even the smallest area of derelict land can be reused to provide a valuable contribution to the housing stock by a positive approach and the use of creative architecture.

Called Norfolk House, the building is in Oxford's city centre, and consists of eight one-bedroom flats and two galleried penthouse-style apartments.

This high-density development on an urban brownfield site provides a blueprint for future sustainable development. The client's brief was to maximize the potential of the site to achieve a high-value development while meeting the strict planning policies of Oxford City Council.

The irregular-shaped site, of only 170m 2(the footprint of a former public house), and the proximity of adjacent buildings led architect Douglas H Riach Chartered Architects to a design strategy that put living accommodation and amenity space at the perimeter, with kitchens and common areas at the core. This approach allowed it to fit 10 flats into a space where the client, a Hong Kong development company, had originally envisaged having just two townhouses.

The architect won the support of the planning officers by responding to their preference for a landmark building to act as a catalyst in the regeneration of neighbouring properties. The resulting building blends traditional and contemporary materials in a highly individual and site-specific design. It is designed in a yellow brick that Douglas Riach found appropriate on two fronts: 'It gave us the flexibility we needed because of the shape of the building, and there is a tradition of using yellow brick in Oxford.'

The principal features of the building are the modelled brick facades, vaulted copper roofs, glass block panels, ash joinery and reconstituted-stone details.

The two penthouses are finished to a higher specification and have double-height spaces with open-tread staircases, giving access to the upper level. Every apartment has a balcony or terrace as well as access to a communal landscaped roof garden with views over the city and surrounding countryside.

The bricks are Melford Yellow from Hanson Brick. 'The reason for choosing it, ' says Riach, 'was because it met all the requirements of the project - the strength of the bricks, the colour, the overall appearance and the reasonable cost. We had used it before so we knew it was appropriate.'

Because the ingenious design resulted in a lot of odd angles on the building, the architect needed a number of specials, which Hanson supplied. It also made use of cutand-stick bricks, produced by a specialist company (yes, they are made by cutting the bricks and glueing them together).

The construction of the project represented a considerable challenge to the contractor, David MacLean. Riach explains:

'Everything had to be precise. The boundary of the building was the boundary of the site so there was no room for error. The project, including the bricklaying, had to be carefully and conscientiously managed. There was nowhere to put anything so there was an onsite hoist. Deliveries were carefully timed and managed.'

Neither Riach nor his client have any doubt that the effort was worthwhile. 'The client could see the benefit of spending a bit of extra money, ' says Riach. Unusually for an overseas developer, the client has decided to retain the building rather than selling it on.

This confidence in the building has been echoed by the award-giving bodies. It was a finalist in the Brick Development Awards, shortlisted for the Copper Roofing Awards and winner of the Downland Prize for architects, which recognises the best small and medium-sized buildings in the South East.

The Downland judges called the building, 'an elegant solution to an elaborate design conundrum in the middle of Oxford. This project is a shining illustration of the way that architects solve problems to fulfil their clients' brief.'

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