North West Cambridge Development – A Brave New World


by Rob Wilson,The Architect’s Journal, 21 February 2018.

An impressive assembly of architecture practices is involved in designing Phase 1 of this scheme, masterplanned by AECOM. The roll-call includes, among others, WilkinsonEyre, MUMA, Mecanoo, Marks Barfield and Maccreanor Lavington. So preparing to visit the newly emerging Eddington development for the first time made me wonder whether it was going to be difficult to see the (urban) wood for the (architectural) trees.

Not that these are practices one might suspect of grandstanding, but they represent a healthy enough range of design approaches to suggest that competing chunks of architecture calling out for attention might drown out those more subtle qualities that lend a place a centre of gravity – even that elusive and slightly hackneyed thing: a ‘sense of place’.

The site sits on former farmland out on the north-west flank of Cambridge adjacent to the M11. Approaching it for the first time – in a bracing wind off the surrounding fens and a theatrically sharp winter light – the development is lent a slightly unreal air. Emitting a collective tan glow on the horizon – due to the riffs on the colour of classic buff Cambridge brick of which it’s built – it actually looked, conversely, almost too much all-of-a-piece, like a Potemkin Village strung out along the horizon.

“The spirit of Gordon Cullen’s Townscape is alive and well here. Sightlines are designed to catch views to key urban elements”

As you approach closer, the detailing and texture of the different elements begin to define themselves, but it serves to underline how one of the key challenges of building a bit of instant urbanity is how to steer between competing architectural noise and cookie-cutter monotony. In establishing unifying design codes, such as for brick colour or height restrictions, where do you leave the space for individuality? How can you design, off-the-peg, the complexity and contradiction of urban grain? As AECOM director Jonathan Rose succinctly puts it: ‘How do you make a piece of city?’

It has certainly been a huge task, with the fast-completing Phase 1 of the 150ha site due to deliver around 1,100 of the projected 3,000 homes. Built on land owned by the University of Cambridge, 1,500 are for market sale, while 1,500 will be for lease to university staff; and there will also be accommodation for 2,000 postgraduate students. The university’s motive was the need to retain its ‘key workers’ – those who keep the university functioning and feed its world-beating research efforts – and enable them to live in a city with massive pressure on housing and house prices that have long excluded young people. Of course the lack of affordable housing is itself due to the success of Cambridge as a centre of research, particularly with respect to the high-tech industries it serves – underlined in this development by a planned 100,000m2 of new academic and research space.

The common cause of local economic and social need saw the university work closely with two local planning authorities, Cambridge City Council and South Cambridgeshire District Council, not least to ensure that the new community created would be self-sustainable and not pile extra pressure on existing services elsewhere. This has ensured the inclusion of community facilities such as a primary and nursery school, health centre, hotel, supermarket and shops. Future development will include elements such as a care home, while the planned market housing will have a wide mix of units: flats to which older local people can downsize, for instance. The most significant element in Phase 1 is a community hall, the one fully civic building, to be run by the city and university in a joint venture – one of a very few joint town-and-gown partnerships for centuries.

“You begin to appreciate some of the smaller idiosyncratic spaces architects have eked out of their plot footprints”

So the scheme is certainly no ivory tower, but rather based on hard economic necessity. It is being developed by the university through a separate organisation it has set up – North West Cambridge Development – which is delivering large elements of it on a commercial basis. This includes working with housebuilder partner Hill Residential, which will deliver the open-market housing element.

Of course, the main client-cum-developer here is still ultimately one with relatively deep pockets and, more importantly, a very long-term view – 800 years so far. Reflecting this, the thoroughness of the planning and implementation process, managed with AECOM, has been impressive, not least in the selection of architects. It began with a competition, which attracted an extraordinary 358 submissions from 158 practices. Through an intensive selection process this was whittled down to a dozen or so, nine of which currently have buildings completed or completing across seven Lots of Phase 1. They are: Marks Barfield, Maccreanor Lavington, Mecanoo, Mole Architects, MUMA, RH Partnership, Stanton Williams, WilkinsonEyre and Witherford Watson Mann. Rose, in an interesting aside, says: ‘We started by looking not so much at their design skills, as their ways of working.’

Of these practices, two pairings developed, working together on shared Lots: Maccreanor Lavington and Witherford Watson Mann and WilkinsonEyre and Mole Architects, a testament to the prolonged shared process of design development via workshops. All designs have since been through an intense winnowing by various design review panels – the University’s Quality Panel, the University’s North West Cambridge Development Board and the Cambridgeshire Quality Panel.

Promisingly, Hill Residential has commissioned Alison Brooks and Pollard Thomas Edwards Architects to design the first phase of market housing, which is still on site.

One notable design driver embedded in the masterplan guidance has been the principle of designing to the highest levels of sustainability. This has included a site-wide requirement for Code for Sustainable Homes Level 5 for the housing, as well as a minimum rating of BREEAM Excellent for all other buildings – and the stipulation of a 120-year design life. Other innovations include a district heating network, an underground bins system and the largest water recycling system in the UK.

The latter has been cleverly used by AECOM – which is also acting as the main landscape architect – to create animating elements in the plan, such as a bridged swale for storm-water run-off, which runs down to landscaped reservoirs. From these, water is pumped back up for toilet flushing and the like, while the excavate from them has been used to build shielding berms to mitigate the noise of the nearby M11.

The requirement for sustainable transport provision also defines the layout. The main traffic route, the Ridgeway, is a shared cycle and pedestrian route linking to Cambridge City Centre. General vehicular traffic, including a bus service, is kept to the periphery. The commitment to providing high-quality shared public space sees a generous series of linked squares that help define the urban grain, and opens out on the eastern side into a park and sports fields.

On the ground, the spirit of Gordon Cullen’s Townscape is alive and well here. Perimeter blocks define the streets and sightlines down them are designed to catch views to key urban elements such as the community centre or the chimney of the combined heat and power plant: the latter acting as both orientation point and appropriate symbol of the shared religion of sustainability here. But, with much of the development still to come, it still mostly feels to be on the way to somewhere else, not quite gelling to give any sense of a centre of gravity – only the knuckle of blocks at the north end of the market square as yet offering any sense of urban intensity.

In terms of the articulation of the blocks themselves, the use of parapets to shield photovoltaics, and the common use of ubiquitous vertical window openings mean several of the blocks – like those by Maccreanor Lavington and Witherford Watson Mann – verge on stripped-back Neoclassical. Elsewhere some architects have incorporated passive green elements, in particular, noise and attenuation grilles – such as the leaf-like structure ones of RH Partnership on its graduate housing or WilkinsonEyre’s projecting bay windows –  as expressive elements that animate the window layouts, with varying degrees of success.

As you walk around, what is striking is the consistent quality of the materials used, but you also begin to appreciate some of the smaller idiosyncratic spaces that some architects have eked out of their plot footprints, digging into the grain of their blocks. Thus there’s the skinny, lofty ‘cathedral’ of a bike store space behind Mole’s housing, the glazed red-tiled cut-under space with a bench that Witherford Watson Mann has carved out from the lee of its block, or the walled garden with its round oculus-cum-vent feature at the back of MUMA’s community centre, each of which add complexity to the urban grain.

Like so much that is back on the political agenda at the moment – such as nationalisation of public services – aspects of this scheme like the provision of decent key-worker housing and communal space are hardly novel rocket science. But here they are done exceptionally well, providing quality bones around which a community can grow.

This isn’t, of course, just any new community but one already with the tendrils laid through a shared university background. Whether this rarefied semi-academic model of masterplanning and development can be easily repeatable is a moot point. With its ancient, deep-pocketed client/developer, it seems about as useful a model as that provided by the Barbican for general inner-city local authority housing provision.

But it is an exceptional achievement as a piece of new town-making, containing myriad lessons on good practice – developer/local authority co-operation, collaborative design working, integration of a green agenda – that will be drawn on by other schemes long into the future. Architecturally, in particular, the use of passive sustainable elements has begun here, intriguingly, to create and enrich the design language and perhaps even in time create a sense of place.

Project data

Start on site 2013
Completion 2018
Phase 1 elements Approximately 700 homes for key workers, 325 student rooms, community centre and nursery, school, supermarket and retail, energy centre, GP surgery, parklands, sports pitches and infrastructure, as well as 700 homes for sale
From of contract NEC Option A (except Lot 7)
Architects Lot 1 WilkinsonEyre and Mole; Lot 2 Stanton Williams; Lot 3 Mecanoo; Lot 5 RH Partnership; Lot 6 Marks Barfield; Lot 7 MUMA; Lot 8 Maccreanor Lavington and Witherford Watson Mann; Lots M1-3 Alison Brooks Architects and Pollard Thomas Edwards Architects
Masterplan team lead AECOM Masterplanning
Landscape architects AECOM Landscape/Townshend Landscape Architects
Client University of Cambridge
Structural engineer AECOM/URS
Quantity surveyor Gardiner + Theobald
Sustainability consultant AECOM SDG
Transport consultant Peter Brett Associates
Legal consultant Berwin Leighton Paisner
Market housing adviser Bidwells
NEC supervisor CalfordSeaden
Access consultant Centre for Accessible Environments
Public art consultant Contemporary Art Society
Project manager Turner + Townsend
CDM coordinator Faithful + Gould
Approved building inspector Cambridge City Council
Main contractors Skanska (infrastructure), BAM (Lots 1 and 3), Wates (Lot 2), Graham (Lot 5), Willmott Dixon (Lot 6), Farrans (Lot 7), RG Carter (Lot 8), Hill Residential (market housing).
CAD software used AutoCAD (AECOM)

Masterplanner’s view

To maintain its international reputation and competitiveness, the University of Cambridge must provide for its future growth, including vital affordable university housing, to ensure it can continue to attract and retain the best researchers and staff. That this is also of benefit to the city meant that university-owned land at North West Cambridge could be released from the green belt. The masterplan’s challenge was how to develop on land at the edge of the city while delivering significant affordable housing, a meaningful sense of community and a new, contemporary context, which builds upon the richly layered, collegiate urbanism that defines Cambridge.

The transformation of the 150ha site will eventually provide up to 3,000 new homes, half of which will be affordable for university staff. The development will also provide accommodation for 2,000 postgraduates and 100,000m2 of academic and research space, all set within extensive parklands and playing fields with a pedestrian and cycle network.

The first phase of the development provides a genuine mixed-use centre from the outset, including a primary school, a community hall and nursery, an energy centre and a supermarket, as well as housing. The university has selected a group of renowned architects, who have worked collectively with the masterplan team. Buildings and public realm are being designed to the highest standards of environmental sustainability, celebrating the natural environment and incorporating a framework of materials and new technology. As the masterplan comes alive, one of the world’s most beautiful cities will continue to put quality of life, education and research, and community at its centre.

Ailsa Gunson, principal, AECOM Masterplanning

Architect’s view

The masterplan for Lot 1 included plot width and roadway dimensions and a notional 3D massing which highlighted five storey-high points on the corners but didn’t necessarily solve the adjacency challenges of mixed-use development: energy centre, supermarket service yard, housing and GP practice all tightly packed together with different operating hours and noise sensitivities.

The design review process was extensive with university and local authority scrutiny committees as well as all-day reviews with the other seven architects working on different lots. While initially quite guarded and subtly competitive, they evolved into mutually supportive problem-solving sessions once teams realised they were on different paths. Architectural aspects, such as how the single-storey volume of the supermarket addressed the new market square and was cloaked on one side by single aspect housing but left with a blank façade on the other side, were hotly debated. Within the 3D masterplan constraints we were able to reposition the energy centre and place its chimney at the bend in the road, placing the cluster of nine flues in a brick chimney so it became a marker in the townscape, visible across the flat landscape.

The masterplan guidelines include the requirement for Code for Sustainable Homes Level 5. Building physics calculations therefore became a key driver during RIBA Stage 3 – it is unusual to have to be so scientific so early in the process. With common elements, like ‘blue roofs’ with photovoltaic panels needing to be concealed behind a parapet wall, there was a sense that, while eight architects were involved, there was an overarching estate aesthetic, reinforced by subtly different brick detailing and tone within a controlled materials palette.

Stafford Critchlow, director, WilkinsonEyre

Client’s view

What makes this project unique is the university’s long-term investment and role in the new community. The university’s position in the city offers over 800 years of architecture and civic pride in Cambridge, and guiding the decision-making of the project is the fact that this new place, Eddington, will be enshrined in the history of both the city and the university for many years to come.

This vision runs through to the architectural briefs for the different lot architects. Masterplan consultant AECOM provided the strategic framework and design guardian role for the architecture. Colander ran a competition to appoint a group of complementary architects for the first phase who would bring expertise in their relevant fields and a common desire to work collaboratively on this project to meet the vision for this new part of Cambridge. These architects were novated under the construction contracts, which has allowed us to be faithful to the original design intent.

For Maccreanor Lavington, working with Witherford Watson Mann, the brief was purely to create high-quality homes, which goes straight to the heart of the project’s strategic need to provide much-needed, high-quality and affordable homes for university staff: key-workers who are essential in driving forward the research agenda, and who are priced out of the Cambridge housing market.

WilkinsonEyre, working with Mole Architects, had the challenge to design a complex mixed-use lot, combining the energy centre, foodstore, retail, healthcare and homes, at the heart of Eddington: facilities which support existing and new communities at an early stage in a central location.

MUMA’s design for the community centre and nursery building responds to the high expectations that come with creating a civic building at the centre of the community developed through extensive consultation with local user groups and the local authorities – feedback that informed the architectural and technical brief of this special building.

All of these teams have contributed to this new place, which has coherence and complementary architectural character: together this forms the heart of Eddington and a new chapter for the University – and city – of Cambridge.

Heather Topel, project director, North West Cambridge Development

Quality panel’s view

The Cambridgeshire Quality Panel was established in 2010 and that April the relatively small group of 12 members walked the virgin North West Cambridge site as part of our induction. Since then we have seen the masterplan twice, the design code, the streets (twice), the Western Edge park, the primary school, the community centre and nursery, and 13 development ‘lots’, some twice; and the process continues. This constitutes the most complete use of the Cambridgeshire Quality Panel thus far.

The panel works to the ‘Quality Charter for Growth’ that identified the four Cs which frame all our discussions: community, connectivity, climate and character. We have found that the multidisciplinary nature of the panel working to this agenda is a model both for the UK and for export, and now we are hoping to research the evidence of the panel’s impact.

While there are inevitably some niggles, North West Cambridge is a remarkable high-quality, high-density urban extension and is rightly attracting a lot of attention from government and abroad. It is gratifying to see a good development (or building) resulting from the combination of an ambitious client, a high-quality masterplan team, excellent architects, good contractors and a supportive planning team.

There is so much that other developers can learn here and that later phases can test.  One such innovation could be designing streets and dividing the sites mid-block instead of dividing the site up into blocks divided by streets. The next stage is to understand the energy performance of the buildings, the benefits of the innovative refuse collection, the effectiveness of the heat network and the general resident satisfaction.

Robin Nicholson, chair, Cambridgeshire Quality Panel 

Landscape architect’s view: water management

A pioneering water management system has been built to capture, store and naturally treat storm-water runoff from the development.

Planned as one of the UK’s largest and most advanced sustainable urban drainage systems, it incorporates a combination of swales and lagoons carefully graded and integrated into green corridors and public realm. These provide navigable routes where pedestrians, cyclists and wildlife can be part of the water’s journey through the development to a new country park, the Brook Leys, in the lowest part of the development, where it becomes part of a new and maturing riparian environment. The green corridors also form local routes to connect community with public services and recreation, such as sports, play facilities and public transport.

Captured from rooftops, courtyards and paved surfaces, the network of sustainable drainage swales, planted with native grass and wildflower species, carries rainwater to the Brook Leys, where holding lagoons store water for reuse in the development. The first phase in the construction of these lagoons, set within a locally inspired landscape design, has already established significant wildlife, ecological and amenity benefits to the area, dovetailed with required flood and noise mitigation.

Once in the lagoons, the water is cleansed naturally by reeds. A pumping station then filters and pumps water back into the development for non-potable use. This has contributed greatly in creating a development that achieves Code for Sustainable Homes Level 5 and is aiming to reduce potable water consumption in the development by at least a third.

Warren Osborne, associate director, AECOM Landscape


The Architect’s Journal, 21 February 2018


Rob Wilson

Architects’ Journal North West Cambridge Masterplan