Cowan Court was needed to house Churchill College’s growing undergraduate numbers, many of whom had to live offsite. It was also important that the building would centre the students in the campus, would be environmentally sound and fit within its historic surroundings.
Churchill College, Cambridge, founded in 1958, was a pioneer in the radical expansion of university education and its ten brick and concrete courtyards, (or ‘courts’ to use the Cambridge term) were one of the first Brutalist buildings in the UK, designed in the 1960s by Sheppard Robson and now Grade II-listed.
Its now-picturesque Brutalism is echoed in a new building for Churchill College, Cowan Court, designed by the practice 6a Architects and described by co-founder Thomas Emerson, as ‘the first wooden Brutalist building’.
It shares much of the qualities of the Sheppard Robson buildings, while quietly emphasising the differences. Cowan Court was needed to house Churchill College’s growing undergraduate numbers, many of whom had to live offsite. It was also important that the building would centre the students in the campus, would be environmentally sound and fit within its historic surroundings. The new court re-establishes the college as the centre of its social and academic community. It is a 68 room hall of residence and like the original halls it is a courtyard plan, three storeys wrapping around an inner open space, planted with birch trees which shelter an informal garden for students. As the architects explain:
“Sustainability, accessibility, landscape and a new approach to communal and private space transform the raw sensuality of the brick and board-marked concrete courts of the original college into an innovative, contemporary, low-energy timber building.”
The student rooms, all en-suite, face the outer landscape and upper floors are reached via two staircases and a light-filled glazed cloister which runs around the courtyard side of each level, with deep window sills for students to sit and look out at the courtyard, and with kitchens at corners of each floor to encourage students to talk and socialise. The rooms at ground level, designed to be suitable for disabled students or DDAconvertible, open onto a concrete plank pathway around the courtyard, which mimics those in the original college courtyards and covers a services channel.
Timber is used in all elements of the building, most dramatically in its cladding of dark weathered boards reclaimed from French railway carriages and reminiscent of the board-marked concrete of the original courts. The main structure is of glulam and cross laminated timber (LVL); the large windows/ ventilation panels to the study bedrooms, together with internal fittings, are of new European oak.
Will York, project structural engineer at Price & Myers, describes the structure:
“Timber was an early choice; as well as its appearance and environmental credentials, a timber frame allowed the building to be constructed economically and quickly, on relatively shallow strip foundations rather than piling. The building consists of four similar, but not identical, timber wings which form a square. One wing has a basement and two opposite corners contain concrete stair cores.
As soon as each core was completed on site, timber framing started and proceeded clockwise round the building – allowing two teams to work concurrently. The primary superstructure of each wing consists of glulam beams set out at 925mm centres, spanning about 6.5 metres between glulam columns on the outside wall and the internal corridor wall and cantilevering another 1.5 metres inwards to support the corridors and glazed courtyard façade.
Using traditional beam-and-joist construction rather than CLT floor panels made it relatively easy to distribute services around the building without sacrificing space or ceiling height. The deeper beams also provide stiffness to the reasonably long-span floors and cantilevers and are an attractive warm element, exposed throughout the building.
The large primary beams are inherently resistant to fire; timber chars at a known rate and while a normal joist might burn away entirely in 40 minutes, the uncharred core of a larger beam retains a great deal of strength. By checking the fire case carefully, we were able to justify most beams for fire without any additional protection or any increase in size from the ordinary loading case. The secondary joists and columns are protected from fire by boarding.
The outside wall is cantilevered out at a different distance at each floor to create the distinctive curved and stepped external façade; the primary structure behind the curve is faceted in 3.7 metre long sections, from which the timber structure supporting the façade and windows is hung. The internal structural wall also doesn’t line up between floors, and changes direction often – but columns were carefully placed to line up between floors at every beam support without protruding from walls or requiring trimmers which would affect services distribution.”