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OSA Review: Alistair Browning from Niall McLaughlin Architects

By Emily Holland

Courtyards, corridors, CLT and a cat’s cradle – this was a few of the many themes covered by Alistair Browning from Niall McLaughlin Architects in this week’s OxArch lecture.

Niall McLaughlin Architects located in Camden, London, pride themselves on high quality, modern design with an emphasis on the relationship between the building and its surrounding context, as well as light and material qualities being key drivers of design.

Browning’s talk spoke of four projects, three student accommodation related projects within Oxford’s Somerville College and a Pavilion in the Isle of Wight overlooking a tidal saltmarsh. With each project, Browning spoke poetically about the inspiration and design process for each, giving the audience a strong impression on how their values emanate into the final built form.

Somerville College: Student Housing

The first project was a student housing block for Somerville College that also contained new teaching spaces and a library, located just north of Oxford’s historic centre. The proposal forms a boundary between the existing college quadrangle and the southern edge of the Radcliffe Infirmary site redevelopment. Inspiration was derived from the streets of Oxford itself, by analysing key dimensions and spatial qualities such the rhythm of pinch points, courtyards and corridors. This then informed the placement of these elements around Somerville College described by Browning as an ‘episodic walk’, to celebrate views of neighbouring landmarks such as the Radcliffe Camera.

Browning then draws upon the work of Sir Phillip Dowson, a founding partner of Arup Associates in the late 1950’s. Browning identified that the Wolfson Building, designed by Dowson in 1966 for Somerville College, was a crucial reference in their design and was inspired by the distinctive precast concrete frame and projecting bay windows. The frame was both structurally and symbolically important to McLaughlin Architects as to them, it represented the individual student within their room but also united the wider student community within the building. In their design, timber boxes punch through brick walls that provide opportunity for increased social connection and gave the ability to frame key views – a design element core to their values. From the interior, the large window bays maximise natural light and provide opportunity for bespoke units that combine a desk and window seat.

More recently, Niall McLaughlin Architects revisited the Student Housing block to understand what has and hasn’t worked within their design, as a ‘lessons learnt’ evaluation. Browning explained that it was an opportunity to assess the details, as it became apparent the cill was not performing as it should. Therefore, this provided an opportunity for a flashing piece to be added, helping to improve the future building performance. This interjection identifies the importance of architects carrying out post occupancy and performance evaluations to be a ‘testing ground for developing our practice’ and improving the built environment quality.

Student Housing - Somerville College

Somerville College: The Wolfson Building

The practice was then delighted to work with the Wolfson Building in a ground floor refurbishment and extension to add an additional function space. With sustainability and embodied carbon in mind, timber was used to reduce the amount of concrete utilised by the extension, whilst aesthetically, greying overtime to match with the existing concrete frame. Browning dived into the critical design decisions and discussed how the function space was to be a light addition to the building that explores the junction between new and old. This was achieved with glass to illuminate the existing concrete façade that has inspired the practice so greatly.

Wolfson Building

Somerville College: The Catherine Hughes Building

Set in the redbrick quarter of Somerville college, an additional student housing block was proposed on a challenging back of house, existing school site with an old service yard. Browning identified that the site was beginning to gain prominence as it was the most direct route to the train station, pin-pointing the requirements of a multi-faced and welcoming proposal. Additionally, the proposal needed to relate to the institutional scale of the neighbouring buildings including the Oxford University Press but simultaneously to the domestic scale of Victorian Jericho’s small brick cottages. This was achieved by setting the building back allowing for a green frontage and using brick cladding with staggered corbel reveals around the windows to bring prominence to the façade.

Delving into the history of the street, Niall McLaughlin learnt of the modest Victorian shops that once were a key part of the site’s atmosphere. The practice decided to revisit this with their proposed graduate reading room to create a connection between the street and the building by recreating the shop front typology. This then provided an opportunity to look into the college and see activity taking place from the streetside, which challenges the existing inward facing Oxford Colleges that hide behind their high walls.

Interestingly, the proposal was tendered as both a concrete frame and CLT (cross laminated timber). The practice found that the CLT tender came back cheaper, identifying that low carbon doesn’t necessarily mean high cost. CLT then became an important design feature throughout the building in both circulation spaces and student bedrooms to portray to its inhabitants of its low-carbon, natural origins.

Isle of Wight Pavilion

Having fun in the Isle of Wight ‘where the English Channel becomes the Solent’ was how Browning described the next project of a small Pavilion for two people to bird watch and spend the night overlooking a tidal saltmarsh. Conceived of a delicate steel frame on stilts, the design was inspired by the historic glasshouses originally found on the site. Browning compared the expanse of lightweight steel trusses as a ‘cat’s cradle’ that spans over the building and perimeter veranda.

The audience were guided through the design process and challenges the practice faced when understanding how to express the structure both internally and externally. One steel column was to sit externally on the structure, with three columns internally, separated by a glazed corner. This introduced a thermal break and so the challenge began to design this out. 1:1 scale testing and model making became the solution to this to gain a life size understanding of the issue.

An additional design challenge was that the building had to be ‘ferry-able’ to get it across the Solent. Therefore, this involved the collaboration with specialists such as Millimetre, to design unique joints within the steelwork; Cambridge University to test the joints to destruction and finally a thermal specialist to analyse the thermal performance of the building.

Isle of Wight Pavilion

Alistair Browning’s captivating talk thoroughly gave the audience an understanding of beautiful, poetic design that is inspired by historic context and relationship with surrounding architecture. It undoubtedly gave the students valuable inspiration to take forward into future design projects.

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