North West Cambridge Development – MUMA adds a sense of community


by Rob Wilson, The Architect’s Journal, 22 February 2018.

At the eastern edge of Phase 1 of the North West Cambridge Development, MUMA’s Storey’s Field Centre sits in outline against the sky, backing on to the green open space from which it takes its name. But even from far off its façades exude a textural richness which comes further into focus as you approach across what will be a public square, later to be animated by the forthcoming main Ridgeway cycleway streaming between here and the city centre.

The prominent bulk of the centre’s 180-seater main hall sits adjacent to this, with its entrance across a podiumed entrance area, its long, low tail of administrative offices and attached nursery school running northwards up Eddington Road. This sense of tactility comes in part from the type of brick used, a Wienerberger stock with far more colour variegation than that seen on adjacent buildings, such as the Marks Barfield-designed primary school beyond. But it also comes from the variety of ways in which it is used – projecting here and there in vertical ridged patterning, or its surface modelled, cut back around details such as the indented stainless steel rainwater pipes. Details like this, thrown into relief by the winter sun on the day I visited, lend the building’s urban presence a moulded solidity appropriate to its role as a civic building – the only one in the development.

The most evident element on the façades is the ribbon of benches that wrap around the foot of the building, one forming an indented suntrap on the southern flank, while others project along the west-facing façade, stepping gently up towards the nursery school’s entrance. With their seats formed of fossilised Purbeck grub stone, these benches offer an invitation for people to engage with the building – whether waiting to collect kids, resting from shopping or watching the world go by – a human-scaled threshold to these buildings which touches the life of the city around.

Underlining its public role and presence, the civic-sized single volume of the main hall is revealed through a vertical window in a façade that rises 15m in height, exceeding the masterplan’s original 10m limit. MUMA argued successfully for this increase, nicely justifying it as much from the inside as out, since it improves both the hall’s passive ventilation and its acoustics. Nevertheless, while it holds its corner strongly, it is still relatively slight in bulk compared with the five-storey Stanton Williams-designed mixed-use block opposite, let alone the large hotel that is to come.

In plan though, the building clearly chimes with masterplanner AECOM’s intention to bring the urbanity and grain of central Cambridge – its college cloisters and courts – to this development. The nursery school forms three sides of a cloistered court, with the community centre forming the fourth side. This layout, rather than just echoing a convenient template, is grounded in function, with the court providing an extensive but secure external play space for the nursery school – enclosing but not defensive.

It is an intelligent mix of functions too, which will give the building a rich diurnal rhythm – the daily drop-off and pick-up of children at one end of the building shifting to a busy evening schedule of concerts, classes and lectures at the other.

The nursery’s entrance is at the north end, where, due to the building line canting away from the road, a wider pavement allows for milling parents. You enter through reception, with administration to the right, and then out again, under a timber-framed covered open cloister that connects all classrooms – a simple move allowing glazing to both sides as well as cross-ventilation.

“The classrooms, arranged in pairs, are joyous spaces; lofty and light-filled”

The courtyard play space, designed by Sarah Price Landscapes, provides a sensory feast of materials and environments both natural and artificial: knolls, slides and even an orchard of ‘retired’ apple trees, replanted here after their commercially productive lives. The architecture adds to the fun, with the downpipes from the cedar-shingled roof replaced by chains, intensifying the sight and sound of water for children when it rains.

The classrooms, each designed for 25 children and arranged in pairs around services and WCs, are joyous spaces; lofty and light-filled, not least due to their ceilings rising pyramidically to a skylight above, à la James Turrell. At ground level though, they are low-waisted, with child-level horizon lines and floor-level glazing to the courtyard, opposite primary-coloured niched windows in simple geometric shapes, again lined with built-in seats, here at child-friendly height.

The savings made by using open cloisters for circulation have enabled the creation of an extra corner communal room. Glazing wraps around two sides, with views out to the adjacent school’s play area – giving the children a glimpse of their next step in life.

One of the classrooms, divided into two sections and catering for the youngest children, has a ‘sleep room’ leading off it. This carries on the theme of playful geometric openings – this time small pinhole windows describing the constellations of Aquarius and Gemini, while the calming lilac colour of its walls is inspired by those depicted by Vincent van Gogh’s painting of his bedroom. Coming out again, I suddenly realise what the courtyard reminds me of: continuing the cosmic scheme: a child-scaled version of the Jantar Mantar observatory in Jaipur.

The topping and tailing of community life that this building accommodates moves from children’s first social interactions at one end to – at the other – the community centre’s cluster of spaces. These will cater for the high days and holidays of Eddington life (with several weddings booked already) and all events in between. All three are accessed down a corridor off a generous lobby entered at the building’s south-west corner, its floor laid in vividly marked Purbeck capstone.

“The medium space looks out on to a rather magical walled garden, its brick walls punctured with idiosyncratic, geometric openings”

Each of the three spaces engages along one of its sides with an outside space – an inside/outside dialogue found throughout this architecture.

First on the left is the smallest and most generic: the 20-seat room, looking out on to a small court, a threshold between the glazed back wall of the lobby and the nursery school’s play court, allowing glimpses through.

Straight ahead is the medium-sized 50-seater space, designed for yoga classes and the like and lined with copious cupboards for equipment. This looks out on to a rather magical walled garden, its brick walls again punctured with idiosyncratic, geometric openings, in particular a large, round Kahn-meets-Lutyens opening to the south, which the architects describe as a ‘sunhole’. It is surrounded almost decoratively with what looks like a ruff, or the gills of a mushroom – in fact a grilled intake for the passive ventilation system for the large 180-seater hall, feeding air down into a basement ‘labyrinth’. There it passes around a system of concrete walls, where it is cooled, before being delivered at floor level into the hall.

The hall itself is a quietly dramatic yet dignified space fitted with a sprung oak floor and lined with oak linen-fold panelling echoing that found in Cambridge colleges. This is soberly decorative, marking the hall as primary public space, while also softening the acoustics.

Above it, a slender structure of glulam portal frames defines the roof structure, its irregular spacing also damping the acoustic. The eastern end looks out through glazing to Storey’s Field ‘collecting the landscape for the hall’, as the architects term it. At the western end, a balcony above the entrance is accented by a slim sculptural timber spiral service stair disappearing up into the ceiling. This accesses a second, heavily acoustically baffled ‘labyrinth’, attenuating any noise leakage between inside and outside.

Sandwiched between these two ‘labyrinths’, the hall is an example of how passive technology, when orchestrated with a lightness and sureness of touch, can be used to help form the language and even poetics of the architecture. This building is an inspiring model for how a green agenda can enrich architectural form and public space.

Project data

Start on site September 2015
Completion January 2018
Form of contract NEC3: Engineering and Construction Contract, option B: priced contract with bill of quantities
Gross internal floor area Total 2,248m(ground floor and balcony: 1,803m2, attenuation/technical level: 193m2, basement/labyrinth: 252m2)
Construction cost£8.28 million (includes labyrinth and attenuation zone, excludes performance equipment, staging, containment, external works)
Architect MUMA
Client University of Cambridge
Structural engineer AECOM
MEP consultant AECOM
Landscape consultant Sarah Price Landscapes
Theatre and Acoustic consultant (community centre) Sound Space Vision
Façade engineering FMDC
Clerk of works Calfordseaden
Lighting design Lumineer
Building physics AECOM
Acoustic consultant (nursery) AECOM
Fire engineering AECOM
Access consultant Centre For Accessible Environments
BREEAM consultant NHBC
Project manager Turner & Townsend
CDM co-ordinator Faithful + Gould
Approved building inspector 3 Shared Services, Cambridge City Council
Main contractor Farrans Construction

Sustainability editor’s view

‘I love building physics,’ MUMA’s Stuart McNight says during a visit to the Storey’s Field Centre. Yet few visual clues hint that this is a highly sustainable building on target for BREEAM Outstanding certification. Sustainability measures, including a rooftop photovoltaic array, are all but invisible.

Two bold moves define the passive approach here. Firstly, eliminating internal corridors from the nursery means that dual-aspect classrooms are cross-ventilated. Simple horizontal clerestory windows on actuators are manually controlled. Children, staff and food trolleys circulate via external covered porticos in the nursery courtyard, whose size reflects those of nearby Cambridge colleges.

Secondly, increasing the height of the community centre to 15m enables natural ventilation for its main hall as well as improving the acoustics. The additional height marries with the architectural intent of creating a building with civic presence.

The increased height enables the introduction of critical service spaces above and below the 21m-long main hall. Below lies a thermal concrete labyrinth integrated with the foundation, which on warm days will cool incoming air before it enters the hall. An attenuating loft above the hall draws air through its latticed ceiling via the stack effect, thence to be evacuated through louvres or a perforated brick parapet.

The main hall is designed to accommodate up to 250 people without mechanical cooling, its detail design refined using CFD modeling to ensure appropriate air flow throughout.

In an unusual move, MUMA has introduced passive ventilation throughout the building using a series of handsome ventilation grilles. In particular, a striking circular sunburst design worthy of Lutyens disguises louvres in the external brick wall of one of the courtyards and draws fresh air into the labyrinth below the building. This is sensitive architecture combined with intelligent passive design, using the same principles MUMA trialled at the Whitworth in Manchester. To persuade more clients to pursue this integrated design approach, it would be worth calculating the payback period for the Storey’s Field Centre’s passive strategy. How does the increased capital cost of the attenuated loft and below grade labyrinth compare to the savings derived from smaller mechanical plant and reduced operational energy loads? My hunch is that the payback will take less than a decade – a good investment not only for a university but for any clients interested in future-proofing their buildings.


Hattie Hartman

Architect’s view

The community centre will provide a gathering place for all aspects of life in the new community, from marriages or memorial services to yoga and Zumba. The brief, which was developed through community consultation, called for three main spaces of varying scale, with the mid-sized room having its own secure garden space. The largest space, the 180-person hall, captures views to the open landscape to the east. Its high volume flanks an entrance terrace to the west, facing the town centre and creating a marker in the new urban realm.

As the community will benefit from existing nearby sports facilities, the brief developed a strong focus on the performing arts. The main hall’s volume allows for variable acoustics that can be adjusted to suit events ranging from chamber music to film screenings. Its height is key to achieving a passively ventilated, acoustically attenuated space.

The Cambridge college courts and dining halls are an important reference for the design; their courtyards offering private green spaces and their halls a place of gathering. Our courtyard creates a sheltered play garden for the nursery children, solving the need for security without fences. A cloister wrapping the play garden provides external circulation to the classrooms and covered play. With no corridors, the classrooms can engage directly with the garden and also have views towards the school playground.

The building can be viewed in the round and each façade is carefully composed and further articulated, with patterned brickwork, inset sheltered entrances and carved stone seating.



Engineer’s view

The main hall has been designed to be ventilated using a below-ground labyrinth and high ceiling in order to encourage buoyancy of air, which assists its flow through the hall.

We used computational fluid dynamic modelling to develop the design and find the best configuration of supply to the space. Based on a worst-case scenario when the ambient temperature is 27°C, the predicted amount of cooling achievable is approximately 20kW, which will provide an internal supply temperature of 22°C to the space. The outside air is cooled as it passes through the underground labyrinth before being introduced into the space at low level. The labyrinth consists of a number of features that increase the turbulence of the air passing through it, increasing the heat exchange between it and the surrounding ground.

In summer, cooler air than the external ambient is supplied through the labyrinth into the hall via a number of perimeter floor grilles, and is distributed within the space at floor level. As the air picks up heat from the space, its buoyancy increases and it rises towards the ceiling zone, where it is extracted to the atmosphere via a bank of outlets on either side of the parapet walls.

The floor grille assembly also consists of a number of modulated low-temperature hot water heating coils fed from the site-wide district heating network via a plate heat exchanger in the plant room. These coils heat the incoming air if required to meet the comfort conditions of the main hall space.



Working detail

The volume of the community centre’s main hall was established to enable a full range of acoustic performances and a passive ventilation strategy using the stack effect. Fresh air is drawn from the walled garden and cooled before entering the space at floor level. At high level the air is extracted through openings concealed within a layered ceiling of ash joists, battens and veneered plywood. The acoustic attenuation zone above controls noise break-in and break-out before the air exits through a combination of perforated, patterned brickwork and louvres at each end of the hall.

Just like Cambridge’s dining halls and chapels, the main hall uses the elements of a timber-lined base, clerestory light and exposed, articulated structure to establish datums and modulate the scale of the space. The finishes and structure are carefully designed to improve the acoustic; with patterned internal brickwork at the ends of the space, carved oak ‘linenfold’ panels to the base, a layered ceiling structure and irregular spacing of the glulam portal frames.

These portal frames, which spring from the timber-lined base, are pulled clear of the walls to allow a zone for adjustable acoustic banners behind. The resulting depth of wall created is taken advantage of in the south-facing façade, where a seat is recessed into the brickwork – a stopping point for passers-by.

During the day, the clerestory and large glazed openings to the east and west offer natural light and views to the landscape. At night, lit from within, the hall acts like a lantern in the new town.




The Architect’s Journal, 22 February 2018


Rob Wilson

Architects’ Journal Storey’s Field Centre MUMA