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Mg 3413col

Mg 3413col

Source: Sally Ann Norman

Dunhelm House as it is today


Saving Dunelm House: alternative futures for a Brutalist icon

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Ideas presented at a charrette held at Durham University’s demolition-threatened student union include turning Dunelm House into a boutique hotel. Kate Youde reports

Campaigners battling to save Durham University’s Brutalist students’ union building have stepped up their case for its retention and reuse by presenting alternative visions for its future, ranging from a boutique hotel to an artisanal training college. 

Five teams led by architects Levitt Bernstein, Hawkins\Brown, 6a Architects, Studio Shaw and Mawson Kerr were invited by action group Save Dunelm House to take part in a charrette held in the demolition-threatened landmark.

The five-level concrete building was constructed next to the River Wear between 1964 and 1966, designed by Richard Raines of the Architects’ Co-Partnership under the supervision of partner Michael Powers. It connects to Ove Arup’s Grade I-listed Kingsgate Bridge.  

Dunelm House may be in a poor state of repair now, but its quality shines through the dirt and disrepair

In November, then culture secretary Karen Bradley refused to reverse her decision not to list Dunelm House, which the university wants to pull down and replace through an international design contest.

Despite a re-examination of the case, Bradley upheld her department’s support for the university’s application for a certificate of immunity from listing.

The following month, supporters of Dunelm House launched a crowdfunding campaign to run events that built a case for its retention, including last month’s design charrette. 

The day-long design sprint brought together architects, structural engineers and building services consultants to ‘challenge the fatalistic route towards demolition’ by presenting viable alternatives.

Dh 2018 211

Dh 2018 211

Source: Sally Ann Norman Photography / Save Dunelm House campaign

Campaign organiser James Perry, director of Newcastle-based practice Harper Perry, said: ‘We invited creative, knowledgeable and experienced practices with the intention of using the skills that architects bring to think volumetrically, assess complex problems and, most importantly, to make visible different imagined futures for this building.’

Felicity Raines, widow of the late project architect, shared photographs of Dunelm House on its completion in 1966.

The teams later presented their ideas to a review panel comprising Twentieth Century Society director Catherine Croft, Newcastle University director of architecture Graham Farmer, author and AJ columnist Owen Hatherley and Durham University’s assistant director in the estates and buildings department Ian Ramage. 

Levitt Bernstein proposed repurposing the building as a teaching and conference centre while Hawkins\Brown favoured turning it into a boutique hotel. Studio Shaw suggested adding a public park and a hall for cultural events, and Mawson Kerr wanted to turn it into a national artisanal training college. 6a Architects’ scheme added a bold tower to the structure, creating more space so the building could retain its original use as a students’ union.  

‘Dunelm House may be in a poor state of repair now, but its quality shines through the dirt and disrepair,’ said 6a’s Tim Collett. ‘It was experimental, pushing technological boundaries as well as aesthetic and formal ones. The fact that it has changed so little in 50 years is a testimony to its success.’

According to Perry, each proposal was ‘met with guarded pessimism’ by the representative from the university

However, according to Perry, each proposal was ‘met with guarded pessimism’ by the representative from the university, whom he suggested engaged ‘somewhat reticently’ with the event. 

‘They cited cost and, above all, the need for adaptability to respond to the ever-changing needs of the university and its students,’ Perry added. 

‘From our point of view, this couldn’t have been more effectively challenged than by the variety of different uses and adaptations proposed.’

Durham’s chief operating officer Jane Robinson said the university welcomed open discussion on the building’s future. 

‘No final decision has been made regarding the future use of Dunelm House and we are awaiting a decision from the secretary of state with regards to the certificate of immunity from listing,’ she said.

‘We recognise that the building will hold special significance for some, but we are also considering the needs of future generations and the wider community. 

‘We are committed to our role as custodian of the university estate; however we must ensure it is fit for purpose.’

Team 1

Architect Levitt Bernstein 
Structural engineer Studio Horn
Building services consultant Skelly & Couch 

Lba scan perspectivestairsinternal

Lba scan perspectivestairsinternal

Levitt Bernstein’s restoration of Dunelm House addresses the building’s practical repair and maintenance and offers ways to overcome accessibility issues. The vision to repurpose the building as a teaching and conference centre was acknowledged as clear and sensible. Levitt Bernstein’s managing director Matthew Goulcher believes radical architectural interventions would compromise the building’s beauty. ‘Our approach’ he said, ‘is all about repurposing and making the building fit for a new or adapted university use, fixing the physical, functional and operational deficiencies, while restoring some of the key spaces to their former beauty – all perfectly possible and desirable.’ He said creative and innovative refurbishment could give the building ‘a completely new lease of life that would be sustainable for the university’. 

Team 2

Architect Hawkins\Brown
Structural engineer Studio Horn
Building services consultant Webb Yates 

Hb scan elevation hotel

Hb scan elevation hotel

This repurposing of Dunelm House as a 70-bed 4-star hotel accepts the need for the building to attract visitors and users aside from students. The panel appreciated the need for the building to become more outward facing, though panel member Owen Hatherley felt the sense of the building being multilayered would be lost if it were subdivided into hotel rooms. 

Founding partner Roger Hawkins and associate director Ewan Graham said: ‘Our proposal is to relocate the student union building at the heart of the university’s campus and to convert Dunelm House into a boutique art-hotel that offers cultural programmes alongside high-quality on-campus accommodation for visiting lecturers, parents and tourists alike. Dunelm House will become “The New BrutalHouse Hotel”.’ 

The hotel would have public function rooms, a riverside bar and restaurant, gallery spaces and conferencing rooms. 

Team 3

Architect 6a Architects
Structural engineer Newcastle University
Building services consultant Webb Yates

6a perspective2 tower

6a perspective2 tower

6a Architects’ scheme is based on a desire to retain the original purpose of the ‘underappreciated asset’ of Dunelm House as the home of the students’ union. The proposal relieves pressure on the existing space by relocating other functions and user groups to a new tower, which would be inserted into the building’s unused central courtyard. A lift and stairs would provide access to all levels, while the tower’s top floor would be a social space, providing views over the city and river. Tim Collett of 6a said: ‘The original architects were bold, inserting a Brutalist building into a medieval city, but doing so sympathetically and building strong relationships between the cathedral, river and Kingsgate Bridge. We propose a similar boldness with our new tower.’ The jury said it appreciated this continuation of the building’s radicalism.

Team 4

Architect Studio Shaw 
Structural engineer AKT II
Building services consultant Webb Yates 

Shaw scan montage cropped

Shaw scan montage cropped

Studio Shaw’s design transforms Dunelm House by adding an outdoor public park and indoor hall for cultural events. The panel raised the question of architectural integrity as the proposal would remove internal partitions. However, practice director Mark Shaw said: ‘We didn’t feel that there was necessarily a need to keep all elements of the building as they are, but we decided to maintain its qualities, both materially and volumetrically. Our solution is simple: to create an external public space with gardens, which has a more direct link to the bridge; a new volume adjacent with vertical circulation (to resolve accessibility issues); and to greatly enhance the existing hall to become a large and versatile cultural facility.’

Team 5

Architect MawsonKerr
Structural engineer Webb Yates
Building services consultant Skelly & Couch 

M+k scan perspective

M+k scan perspective

MawsonKerr’s vision repurposesDunelm House as a national artisanal training college in partnership with the university. Practice director Dan Kerr said: ‘The design is an approach to combatting the reduction in the skilled workforce in the construction industry, and creates a costed use for the building through government apprentice levy schemes.

‘The raw large spaces lend themselves to exhibitions, workshops and large teaching areas. The trainees would use the building itself as a training backdrop with a moveable “architectural scaffold” which would progress around the building to enable repairs. The “street” would be reinvigorated and further opened up, and accessibility issues also solved through the introduction of one main core.’

The jury liked the live-experiment element of the idea.

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Readers' comments (1)

  • Heroic guys! Part One or Part Two, end of Easter Term group project?! The University must react positively to some good ideas. 6a’s Tower is a great insertion, looks to match the Cathedral tower, and improves the nett to gross? Hopefully it won’t be finished with old railway sleepers, as at Churchill College Cambridge? Insulation and a coat of paint would improve the look of the greying concrete? And planting will improve the setting and outlook.

    Perhaps it will set a precedent for the continued use of these 60s and 70s buildings. And show our powers that be what can be done with imagination and investment?

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