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Durham Uni plans global contest to replace Brutalist students union

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Durham University is set to launch an international competition to design a replacement for its Brutalist students union building, Dunelm House, which the government controversially refused to list

Earlier this week culture secretary Karen Bradley rejected Historic England’s advice and turned down calls for a Grade II listing of the 1966 five-level concrete building next to the River Wear, designed by Architects’ Co-Partnership (ACP).

Bradley added that she was minded to approve a Certificate of Immunity (COI) from Listing for the ‘technically flawed’ building, a move that paves the way for Durham University to flatten the block next to Ove Arup’s Grade I-listed Kingsgate Bridge. 

The university insists the award-winning building would be too costly to adapt to proposed new uses outlined for the site under its emerging estate masterplan (see full statement below).

It estimates that the ‘redesign and repair’ of Dunelm House would cost nearly £15 million, and has begun talking to ‘statutory bodies and local residents’ about demolishing and replacing the building.

A Durham University spokesman said: ‘As the site is located in the Durham City Conservation Area and in the setting of the World Heritage Site adjacent to the Grade I-listed Kingsgate Bridge, the replacement building will necessarily be of high quality. It is envisaged that the opportunity will be subject to an international architectural competition.

‘We will work closely with the relevant statutory bodies, staff, the Durham Students’ Union and local residents to deliver a holistic and world-class design for this most sensitive location.’

The announcement will come as a blow to fans of the structure, including the Twentieth Century Society which yesterday released a statement warning that the minister’s decision had put the future of Dunelm House in jeopardy. 

An ‘extremely disappointed’ Catherine Croft, director of the Twentieth Century Society, said: ‘We consider the award-winning Dunelm House to be a remarkably intact survivor of its era, historically and architecturally significant, and to have group value with the beautiful Kingsgate Bridge adjacent.’

Dunelm House, described in 2011 by the university’s vice-chancellor Chris Higgins as one of ‘the finest examples of 20th-century architecture in the city’, famously features a bust of Arup on one of its outside walls. 

Architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner called the block ‘Brutalist by tradition but not brutal to the landscape … the elements, though bold, [are] sensitively composed’.

The building won both a Civic Trust award and the 1966 RIBA Bronze Medal, and was praised by the AJ as ‘uncompromisingly modern yet markedly respectful of the splendour of the site’.

Statement in full from Durham University

In April this year, Durham University applied for a Certificate of Immunity from listing (COI) in respect of Dunelm House, which is currently the base for Durham Students’ Union. The secretary of state, Karen Bradley MP, has recently made her decision not to list the building. There now follows a 28-day period for final comments and once any representations have been considered by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, the secretary of state will reach a decision on the application for a COI.

The Durham University Estate Masterplan, which has completed its first phase of public consultation, shows how the various elements of the university’s Durham city estate can be connected and integrated to create a more balanced community, and identifies those areas and buildings which are either at the end of their useful life or could be used to better effect.

A key recommendation of the emerging masterplan is that the university buildings on New Elvet should be redeveloped – including Dunelm House – to accommodate several departments in the Faculty of Arts & Humanities and a new performance space and cultural facility. The new development would be open to Durham University, local residents and visitors to the city, and would contribute to the provision of a student experience to rival the best in the world. The masterplan proposes to relocate the students’ union to the Lower Mountjoy area, closer to other student services.

Given that Dunelm House is not able to accommodate new uses or to endure without very considerable investment in its redesign and repair, estimated at £14.7 million, the university considers that the practical and responsible decision would be for us to work with statutory bodies and local residents to achieve the replacement of this building as part of the comprehensive redevelopment of the university estate on New Elvet. This in turn will be a significant step in delivering the university strategy, and would transform the urban landscape in this part of the city.

As the site is located in the Durham City Conservation Area and in the setting of the World Heritage Site adjacent to the Grade I listed Kingsgate Bridge, the replacement building will necessarily be of high quality. It is envisaged that the opportunity will be subject to an international architectural competition.

We will work closely with the relevant statutory bodies, staff, the Durham Students’ Union and local residents to deliver a holistic and world class design for this most sensitive location.

Dunelm House

Dunelm House

Reasons for refusal – excerpt from Historic England letter to the Twentieth Century Society

[The secretary of state] has decided that Dunelm House does not possess the special architectural or historic interest to merit listing. In particular, she considers that technical flaws mean that it does not exhibit sufficient design quality to be of special architectural interest, noting design and construction flaws that include:

  •  flaws inherent in the design of the building’s concrete roof – a late design change that has led to sustained problems concerning water ingress; and
  •  inadequate concrete cover over its external horizontal and vertical services that could necessitate the creation of a second external shall, thus changing its appearance.
  • 4 Comments

Readers' comments (4)

  • It would be interesting to know a good deal more about the concrete roof problems, and the 'inadequate concrete cover over its external horizontal and vertical services' - and just how thoroughly technical answers to these problems have been investigated and costed.
    Equally, it would be interesting to see the quality of the university masterplan - to understand how there's the need for 'a more balanced community', how the buildings on New Elvet need redeveloped, and just exactly why the student's union needs relocated to the Lower Mountjoy area.
    Perhaps then it would be possible to judge whether this all stacks up, or whether it risks going the same way as when Edinburgh University's grossly damaging 'empire building' in years gone by led to such crass interventions (the polite description) in the centre of that city.

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  • I don't understand this logic. Why is £14m preventative? It's a huge building, how much would a worthy replacement cost?

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  • I am also struggling to see the Secretary of State's logic.

    As a concrete Brutalist building its 'design quality to be of special architectural interest' should surely be the fact that it is a CONCRETE structure.

    Why then would one of its major flaws be seen as 'inadequate concrete cover over its external horizontal and vertical services that could necessitate the creation of a second external shell, thus changing its appearance'. Why would this be necessary to list a building?

    Or is it the inability to be yet another concrete building tarted-up with cladding the undoing of Dunelm House here?

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  • Will the competition jury accept entries that refurbish and retain large parts of or all of the existing building?

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