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Oxford’s Rhodes House goes underground to secure its financial future

Words:
Jan-Carlos Kucharek

Clever use of glazing brings daylight into all the corners of Stanton Williams’ largely subterranean new residential conference facilities for the Rhodes Trust

The south elevation of Stanton Williams’ garden pavilion on the west side of Rhodes House. Suggested at planning, it has now become a key element of the redevelopment.
The south elevation of Stanton Williams’ garden pavilion on the west side of Rhodes House. Suggested at planning, it has now become a key element of the redevelopment. Credit: Hufton + Crow

Oxford is the centre for one of the world’s most prestigious and exclusive scholarship programmes – the Rhodes Scholars. Since its founding in 1902 awarding funded places to male students, it has modernised over time to include women, people of colour and most recently non-binary students. The same could not be said of its 1929, grade II* listed home, Rhodes House. While concrete- framed, it was designed in the style of an Arts & Crafts Cotswold manor by Herbert Baker but when trustees insisted on a late change to incorporate a memorial hall for scholars who had died in WWI, he made this part of the main entrance, curiously designed as a Greek neoclassical rotunda – entablature, columns and all.

In carrying out the Trust’s £38 million modernisation, refurbishment and extension of the building, not least to address one of the last barriers for scholars – accessibility – the trustees were aware that its physical estate could be assured only if it remained free of any reliance on scholarship funds. Architect Stanton Williams allows the Trust to do just that – with a new, 300-person convening hall, associated spaces and offices, all invisibly set into Rhodes House alongside 37 bedrooms in the old east wing and new bedroom block in the east gardens, and new glass pavilion. The project will generate income to secure its future with its overlay of a state-of-the- art residential conference facility.

Key to the transformation were the basement level archives under Baker’s building, built in the 1950s for the Bodleian Library’s Commonwealth collection but left empty when that was taken off site. Mat Davies, Rhodes Trust director of estate, recalls the striking simplicity of the architect’s proposal to bring these back into use by directing conference delegates from the entrance down to them, via support spaces, to the new convening hall below the south side terrace. This unlocked the building’s new programme with barely a change to it, ‘separating delegates from the scholars, alumni and staff using upper levels’.

  • The Portuguese limestone self-supporting stair leads delegates down to the main conference spaces at basement level.
    The Portuguese limestone self-supporting stair leads delegates down to the main conference spaces at basement level. Credit: Neil Keynon
  • Thick concrete walls in the basement had to be broken out to allow easy circulation from the north ‘stair’ end to the south side, where the hall is.
    Thick concrete walls in the basement had to be broken out to allow easy circulation from the north ‘stair’ end to the south side, where the hall is. Credit: Hufton + Crow
  • Its sculptural timber roof has helped ensure the pavilion’s popularity for both formal and informal events.
    Its sculptural timber roof has helped ensure the pavilion’s popularity for both formal and informal events. Credit: Hufton + Crow
  • Herbert Baker’s entrance portico on the north side, based on a Greek Temple, leads directly to the circular memorial hall.
    Herbert Baker’s entrance portico on the north side, based on a Greek Temple, leads directly to the circular memorial hall. Credit: Neil Keynon
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But that demanded a new access stair in Baker’s memorial hall, which required buy-in from local planners and Historic England. ‘Their initial reticence forced us to address their concerns with something as good as it could be, and though bold, it was absolutely the right solution,’ says Davies. Stanton Williams associate Tom Fotheringham adds that the firm’s handsome, self-supporting limestone stair, designed with engineer Webb Yates, has both a functional and architectonic purpose. ‘Part of the justification was that the alternatives were more harmful to the building and that it could enhance the quality of the volume by making it feel less transitory – giving it gravitas.’

But if gravitas at this lower level pre- supposes darkness or weight, visitors may be surprised, for the architect has used cleverly inserted roof glazing to bring unexpected lightness, beauty and utility to formerly unlit spaces. The dank external lightwells either side of Parkin Vestibule were closed in with Schüco FWS 60 units on structural steel sections to allow daylight into new catering and serving spaces for delegates. This brought other benefits for the listed structure, says Fotheringham: ‘We couldn’t add internal or external insulation, so glazing over the lightwells improved the building’s form factor and its overall thermal performance.’ With high level louvres, they also aid extract and smoke venting and help brighten the most light- starved, central portion of the basement, where new breakout spaces are placed. Two lines of 1m thick concrete walls, set beneath the wall line of the main dining hall above, needed to be broken out to link these and the convening hall with a pair of stairs at the south end. All new timber doors, reveals and walls in this space are lined in walnut to reflect the building’s historical materiality – the architect’s strategy was consciously to use different timbers for new additions on the site. The approach is evident on moving around.

The convening hall, a 23m by 11m space dug out at the basement’s south end, can hold 300 delegates but can also be split into three separate meeting spaces. Their delineation is marked by the central arched concrete roof, bookended by two flat, 3.3m high coffered concrete slabs; all of which are new (the old roof and its 24 columns were removed in their entirety). This involved hefty engineering, especially for the dining hall’s Oriel window, where Pynford Stools were used, removing sections of existing structure to insert temporary steel props. Says Fotheringham: ‘The new concrete structure was cast into this, including the steel supports, to become part of the permanent structure. Remaining existing structure was then removed below, leaving the bay above supported by a new concrete beam with steelwork cast in.’ This also allowed for Roofglaze rooflights to the antechamber below it.

  • The conference centre has been cleverly sunk on the south side of Rhodes House. Its Diocletian window is seen beyond the new lightwell with emergency escapes.
    The conference centre has been cleverly sunk on the south side of Rhodes House. Its Diocletian window is seen beyond the new lightwell with emergency escapes. Credit: Neil Keynon
  • In a bold move, all accommodation is sunk below grade to create clear views east to the remains of Oxford’s medieval city wall.
    In a bold move, all accommodation is sunk below grade to create clear views east to the remains of Oxford’s medieval city wall. Credit: Hufton + Crow
  • Accommodation block looking south. The visual relationship between Rhodes House’s east elevation and the landscape in front is virtually unaltered.
    Accommodation block looking south. The visual relationship between Rhodes House’s east elevation and the landscape in front is virtually unaltered. Credit: Hufton + Crow
  • Comfortable and warm en suite bedrooms are fitted out in oak veneer, contrasting with more traditional maple joinery in conference areas.
    Comfortable and warm en suite bedrooms are fitted out in oak veneer, contrasting with more traditional maple joinery in conference areas. Credit: Hufton + Crow
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The arch creates the highlight of the clear span space – a huge Schüco FWS60 glazed unit. Contractor Goldmax had to dig out 4.5m further into the garden to make the lightwell for the hall’s escape stairs while this low Diocletian arch makes the relationship with the garden immediate. ‘We did look at flat beam with clerestory here, but it didn’t allow the garden to be experienced as it is or for the hall to enjoy the light that it does – it’s amazing,’ says Davies. He seems as happy with other specs here too, such as the elegant timber coffers and London Wall sliding acoustic partition system. Fotheringham notes that contractor Goldmax worked hard on the concrete package – both the muddy groundworks and the high quality surface finishes the architect demanded.

Standing at the Milner Hall’s Oriel window, it’s hard to imagine that you might have been facing a three- storey suite of guest bedrooms, when the view to the remains of the city’s Civil War defensive wall across the way is so tangible. It was certainly a planning concern, driving Stanton Williams to take the radical step of sinking guest bedrooms into the garden to make them virtually invisible. There is more engineering here with a retaining structure next to the old wall and the liner wall aside Rhodes House’s foundations, but the result would not look out of place in Tolkein’s Shire; 16 guest rooms hunkered into the gardens, looking across at each other from their own cobbled courtyard. The architect chose English oak veneer for doors and windows, retaining a sense of tradition but bringing lightness that counterpoints timber specification in the main building. Double glazed units, each with an opening side vent panel, were procured from the now defunct Gelder Joinery, to be installed by Braden Timber. Their low U-value and rooms’ high thermal mass makes en suite spaces warm using nothing more than a low output radiator. Brick reveals sloping down and back to lintels increase light into and views out of rooms. A lift in the east lodge reception gives access to two Part M compliant bedrooms here – in all six new lifts make the building fully accessible.

The conference room’s wide, shallow arch strategically admits natural daylight to an otherwise subterranean space.
The conference room’s wide, shallow arch strategically admits natural daylight to an otherwise subterranean space. Credit: Hufton + Crow

The most visible element of the development was not even asked for. Proposed by the architect after a site visit saw study groups using the garden, the new pavilion, in the centre of the west garden, ‘is something we now couldn’t imagine being without,’ says Davies. First proposing a faceted timber structure atop a floating concrete plinth, Stanton Williams moved to a curved soffit to meet the roof’s LVL ribs, and needed to use a timber that could be easily team bent. It deferred to the expertise of Braden Timber who was delivering it, choosing ash for the battens and panels. Most striking is the fact that it is completely glazed on all sides. IQ Glass was responsible for the mighty 5m by 2.5m, 52mm thick Guardian Extraclear triple- glazed structural glass units running round the pavilion. Davies explains that it is part of a service engineering strategy, treating it as a solar collector, to supply heat from it to meet the old building’s demand. Fotheringham adds that this led to novel choice of glass. ‘We looked at G-values and solar coatings and found that better performing glass in fact resulted in greater carbon use by the building’s heating system, restricting solar gain so it was more carbon intensive; we had to take a holistic approach here.’ So the firm chose a SunGuard SNX 60 layer. Heat and light doesn’t bother users, says Davies: ‘with only mechanical cooling, we’re blown away by how comfortable it is, even in summer.’

If you think the pavilion sits on grass, think again, as extending from below it to the north boundary are Rhodes House’s admin and meeting spaces. Schüco ASE 60 glass doors open to a north lightwell and more Schüco FWS 60 glazed units at garden level run in line with structural beams to let daylight fill the new subterranean offices. Accessed from the old basement level, it’s another sequestration that allows the building to perform private and corporate functions concurrently.

Surely all that digging out cost a fortune? Initially, we’d thought so, admits Fotheringham, noting that subterranean buildings are rare in Oxford. ‘But once we’d agreed on a below ground approach, despite excavation and groundworks, we saved on the costs of creating facades and high-quality finishes, so there was little difference to the bottom line.’ But, along with the refurbishment works, what it has done is allow the old building’s purpose to be completely re-imagined. And, sunk within its gardens, it’s all been done almost without trace to ensure it is profitable and future-fit.

Credits

Client Rhodes Trust
Architect Stanton Williams
Main contractor Beard Construction
Conservation architect and heritage consultant Pendery Architecture & Heritage
Heritage assessment Marcus Beale Architects
Structural engineer Webb Yates Engineers
Building environment and services engineer Skelly & Couch
Landscape architect Bradley-Hole Schoenaich
Fire consultant Arup
Lighting designer Studio Fractal
Acoustic engineer Sandy Brown Associates
AV/IT consultant Hewshott International
Cost consultant Gleeds Cost Management
Planning consultant Savills
Ecologist Applied Ecology
Arboriculturist Heritage Tree Services
Archaeology consultant Museum of London Archaeology

  • Section.
    Section. Credit: Stanton Williams
  • Sketch isometric showing new additions.
    Sketch isometric showing new additions. Credit: Annie Castle
  • Ground floor plan and landscaping.
    Ground floor plan and landscaping. Credit: Stanton Williams
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