Planning permission has been granted for a new, state-of-the-art residential campus for St Edmund Hall, one of the oldest colleges in the University of Oxford.
Designed by Wright & Wright Architects, the scheme comprises 128 study bedrooms and communal facilities housed in a mixture of new buildings and a remodelled Victorian villa on a beautifully landscaped site at Norham Gardens in north Oxford.
This is an important project for the college, as it brings together several strategic aims
The scheme will be a pioneering model of sustainability, with new construction designed to rigorous Passivhaus standards and the Victorian villa retrofitted to equivalent low-energy EnerPhit principles.
The landscape and ecology strategy is designed to improve and enhance biodiversity, with an 88% net gain over the site. Construction will commence in the summer of 2023, and the project is due to be completed in 2025.
The provision of new, high-quality student and staff accommodation is an urgent priority for St Edmund Hall.
At present, only 60% of students can be housed in existing college halls or houses, and very few undergraduates have the option of living in college accommodation for the entirety of their course – something which has educational and financial benefits, especially for less well-off students.
Remodelling the Norham Gardens site will transform it into a vibrant and welcoming academic community, enabling students to live more economically and relieving pressure on Oxford’s rented housing market.
Living on campus rather than in private accommodation has been identified as saving individual students around £2,000 annually.
In the long run, providing affordable accommodation is crucial in improving access to higher education; the 128 rooms on the redeveloped site will be available to all students, irrespective of background, ensuring a more diverse student body and a more equitable college experience.
The brief also stipulated that the scheme should be a paradigm of sustainable development, with exemplary ecological and energy use credentials, reflecting St Edmund Hall’s long-term ambition to become the greenest and most environmentally sustainable college in Oxford.
Bordered by the sweeping curve of University Parks, the site lies within the North Oxford Victorian Suburb Conservation Area (NOVSCA).
Norham Gardens was one of the first parts of the Conservation Area to be built in the mid to late 19th century, characterised by large Gothic and Italianate villas set in generous gardens, designed to replicate the country-house ethos on a smaller, suburban scale.
Wide streets create a sense of ‘planned openness’, with the absence of formal vistas, but space between the buildings allows views through to gardens and mature trees.
First acquired by St Edmund Hall in 1980, the satellite site at Norham Gardens was identified as offering the greatest potential for redevelopment.
At present, it houses undergraduates, graduates and staff in an incohesive array of properties from different eras, modernised in a piecemeal manner. As well as expanding residential provision from 56 to 128 bedrooms, the project also aims to elevate the quality of accommodation with modern, en-suite study bedrooms, amenity spaces and gardens.
The scheme embraces and enhances the site’s history and village-like quality, with buildings of different scales and eras enriched by a biodiverse landscape, mature trees and views over parkland.
Tranquil and humanly scaled, it epitomises the conviviality and intimacy of English village life, providing communal spaces for the collaborative work and social life of the college’s growing community.
Inspired by historic precedents, the scheme strips away undistinguished additions and extensions to reveal the handsome grandeur of the original Victorian architecture while adding new residential blocks.
On the street frontage, new elements follow the scale of the existing Victorian villas while stepping down to the rear, alluding to the more modest forms of garden structures and stables.
Within the expanded campus, cohorts of students occupy separate buildings, establishing a sense of shared identity for each. Within individual buildings, clusters of between six and eleven study bedrooms share communal kitchens and dining rooms, replicating the scale and feel of typical domestic houses in the locality.
As well as different types of study bedrooms, other kinds of spaces for working and socialising are disposed around the campus, so students can change the scene, which will be important in the post-COVID era.
Throughout the proposal, Wright & Wright has prioritised the needs of students to self-direct their experience on-site, providing flexible spaces, a mixed range of study and residential options, and undefined outdoor spaces that can be used for various functions to suit hybrid work styles and schedules.
In tandem with remodelling the original Victorian villa at 17 Norham Gardens, the scheme features three new buildings: Villa, a five-storey building located at the front of the site; Park House, a three-storey garden building, located at the rear of the site; and West House, a three-storey garden building, with a gable fronting on to Norham Gardens.
The Victorian dwellings employed a distinct language of architectural elements, including gable ends, towers, chimneys and dormer windows.
The new buildings abstract these characteristic elements in a contemporary manner to help embed them in their setting, realising a reinvention of historic precedent that stands in dialogue with the college’s rich architectural history.
The superstructure is a prefabricated loadbearing frame of cross-laminated timber (CLT) floors, walls and roof, which is renewably sourced, low in embodied carbon and can be assembled quickly and efficiently.
Finishes and materiality respond to either a street or garden condition, with new buildings faced in brickwork and tiles, creating a variety of tones and textures over a range of scales.
Details such as ornamental ironwork celebrate the Arts and Crafts tradition of making and craftsmanship, characteristic of the conservation area. Windows are designed with sustainability in mind; they balance optimum daylight levels while avoiding overheating, both now and in years to come.
The Norham Gardens development will exemplify sustainability, moving the college towards becoming net zero carbon in operation, with the reuse of salvaged building materials where possible and the use of low embodied carbon materials from inside to out.
New buildings are designed to Passivhaus principles, and the existing Victorian villa is retrofitted to an equivalent low-energy EnerPhit standard. A high-performing building fabric leads to user comfort and negates the need to ‘top up’ heating or cooling over the course of the year.
This, combined with the introduction of renewables on site, such as bi-solar semi-intensive green roofs and air source heat pumps, means the scheme requires little operational energy, reducing running and maintenance costs and freeing up resources for the college and its student body.
The proposal also creates a resilient landscape that supports change, sustaining and developing rich biodiversity throughout its lifetime.
The main front entrance of Norham Gardens is clearly defined and animated by new landscaping, with space for cycle parking and a warden’s office. The scheme re-introduces gaps between the building frontage, adding to the ‘planned openness’ characteristic of the NOVSCA by structuring views to University Parks and beyond.
To the rear, a cloister garden acts as a convivial outdoor room for study and socialising. Mature trees will be preserved, and an ecology pond and rainwater harvesting will encourage and support a range of flora and fauna.
Imbued with strong biophilic qualities, through revealed views of nature, unexpected encounters and contrast between light and shade, the rejuvenated site will support the psychological health and well-being of the academic community.
Founded in 1278, St Edmund Hall is one of Oxford’s oldest colleges. Until 1957 it was the only surviving Hall, the medieval halls originally being the hostels or ‘hosipitia’ rented by Masters to keep students as lodgers and teach them on the premises.
Today, St Edmund is known as ‘Teddy Hall’ and combines deep historic roots with a commitment to modernising the life of the college through a culture of inclusion, diversity and sustainability.
Despite being one of the physically smallest Oxford colleges, St Edmund Hall has become one of the largest and most diverse academic cohorts, with around 400 undergraduate students and some 300 postgraduates from over 60 countries.
St Edmund Hall’s current Principal is Professor Baroness Katherine Willis, CBE, Professor of Biodiversity in the Department of Zoology, Oxford University, and former Director of Science at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, who has been in post since October 2018.
Founded by Clare and Sandy Wright in 1994, Wright & Wright Architects is an award-winning practice based in north London. Its buildings are always a considered response to context, adding to and enriching the historical continuum with subtle but distinctly modern interventions.
The practice has a particular interest in working with historic structures and researching the meaning and evolution of sites over time. Specialising in buildings for culture and education, Wright & Wright’s Clients have included St John’s College, Oxford, Magdalen College, Oxford, the V&A, Royal College of Art and the National Gallery.
Recent projects include remodelling the Museum of the Home in Hoxton and a new library and archive for the Church of England at Lambeth Palace.