Stanbrook Abbey, Wass, Yorkshire
Stanbrook Abbey was described in the RIBA National Awards citation as 'A truly extraordinary piece of architecture… To execute such a beautiful organic form suggests divine intervention. It sits majestically within the woodland, rising out of the ground to form the crescendo to the plateau’.
The Abbey is a new home for the Conventus of Our Lady of Consolation, a Benedictine community of nuns who devote their lives to study, work and prayer. It stands in peaceful woodland in the North York Moors National Park, a remote site, chosen by the community when they moved from their old Victorian home in Worcestershire, for its ‘special quality of silence and light’. There were other good reasons to choose Yorkshire; Benedictine orders were established there before the Reformation and there is a rich tradition of monasteries nearby including Rievaulx, Byland and Ampleforth.
The nuns live a simple, disciplined life, and the new building, designed by the architect Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios, reflects this in every way. The main living areas are set around a cloistered courtyard while the church and chapel, their sinuous roof forms clad with vertical oak boards, seem to rise organically out of the landscape. Internal spaces are simple, tranquil and filled with natural light, using a basic palette of sustainable materials including sycamore, Douglas fir and oak. As the nuns put it, this is a place devoted to contemplation, where they could ‘pray always’.
The nuns had a very specific brief; a monastery designed for the 20th century, which would be economical to run and sensitive to environmental concerns. Part of the monastery was to be entirely private and other areas were to be fully available and welcoming to the public. Access to the building is from the east side and the views and sunshine are to the south. All public, shared areas are therefore on the east side of the building, with service areas to the north, leaving the west and south sides to enjoy uninterrupted privacy and views.
The monastery was built in two phases from 2007 to 2015. The private monastic areas, including refectory and kitchen, Chapter House, Calefactory (common room) and other offices, are arranged around a central courtyard/cloister. It leads to a row of 26 private cells for nuns on two floors which run along the southern edge of the site, each with en-suite shower room, small outdoor space and beautiful views over the Yorkshire Wolds. Upper floors house workrooms and a temporary library. The public areas, including the ‘parlours’, where nuns meet friends and the public, are beside the main entrance on the east, next to the church and chapel which are open to the public.
The nuns attend church service six times a day from before sunrise to sunset. As the architect explains; ‘Our intention was that this space – their home for so much of their lives – should change throughout the day and with the light and the seasons. Morning light illuminates the curving wall to the north from a curved rooflight and a vertical shaft of glazing towards the east. As the sun moves round it is reflected off the timber columns which form the south glazed wall until in the afternoon light enters from the south-west to bathe the whole church in light’.
The north wall of the church rises from the congregational entrance and curves upwards to a high point above the altar, evoking what the nuns refer to ‘as a sense of transcendence’.
The south wall is composed of a series of slender spruce glulam columns with glazing between them. The columns are set at 60 degree angles along the wall to reflect and filter the light. The glazing frames are concealed so that the glass appears to span from column to column. To enhance its effectiveness as solar shading, each column has an integral non-structural glulam fin which extends externally, clad with vertical oak boards. At the ceiling the columns are fixed with concealed connections to a series of exposed glulam beams which support the roof.
The organic, curved forms of both the church and the chapel were formed from 250mm thick reinforced concrete walls, cast in-situ. The curved concrete wall of the chapel rises from 6 to 16 metres; it incorporates a glazed cross-shaped opening at its tallest point and then curves sharply back to form the north wall of the church, giving support to the glulam beam roof structure. On the south wall the glulam beams are supported by a series of glulam columns with curtain wall glazing between. The columns are narrow and deep; the structural section of each column is 884 x 295mm, and, together with its integral non-structural fin, measures more than 2.4 metres long. Both the glulam columns and beams are exposed and the connection between them was designed to be as minimalist as possible. The vertical shear of the beam is carried by direct bearing of the section onto each glulam column. Both column and beam are fitted with slots to incorporate a concealed steel dowel plate which transfers uplift and horizontal shear between beam and column. The bolts fixing the column and beam sections to the dowel plate are recessed and covered with timber plugs.
To accommodate a significant ground slope, the ground floors of the church and chapel consist of suspended precast concrete units spanning between masonry and the perimeter reinforced concrete walls. The concrete walls are simultaneously loadbearing, shear and retaining; they support the roof elements, compensate for the variation in ground level and provide overall stability.
The use of timber
The curved 250mm reinforced concrete walls of the church and chapel are clad with an insulated rainscreen of 125 x 25mm sawn untreated oak boards, PEFC certified and sourced from Germany. The boards are laid vertically and set 10mm apart, on treated timber battens and counterbattens laid to the curve of the concrete.
Inside the church, the walls of the entrance space are clad with sycamore boards and the ceiling of the main church is lined with tongued and grooved Douglas fir boards. Sycamore, sourced from the UK, is used for the church choir stalls and the enclosure and framework of the organ. All the timber within the church and chapel was treated with AURO natural organic wood stains.
The nuns were keen for the new Abbey to be both economic to run and ecologically sensitive in design. Preference was given to renewable, recycled or low embodied energy materials, and the nuns were particularly interested in minimizing their ecological footprint.
The building is highly insulated with plenty of natural light. Low energy appliances and fittings were installed; there is rainwater collection for flushing WCs and laundry, a woodchip boiler, solar panels to preheat hot water and a reed bed sewage treatment system. A sedum roof reduces water run-off.
Natural ventilation is used throughout the monastery, including in the church and the chapel. The suspended floor of the church forms part of a passive stack ventilation system; fresh air is drawn in from below floor level, passes into the church via grilles beneath the windows and is extracted through roof vents at high level above the altar. Three opening windows towards the back of the church provide additional individual control.
September 2015Building Type:
Spruce, Douglas fir, European oak, sycamoreAwards:
2016 RIBA National Awards, Winner. 2016 RIBA Regional Building of the Year Award, Winner. 2016 RIBA Yorkshire Awards, Winner, Yorkshire Building of the Year. 2016 Wood Awards, Winner, Education and Public Sector Award... Please see below for full listTimber Element:
Structure, external and internal cladding, furnitureClient:
Conventus of our Lady of Consolation, Stanbrook AbbeyArchitect:
Glulam Solutions Ltd, AberdeenMain Contractor:
Phase 1 – William Birch Construction
Phase 2 – QSP Construction
Phase 1 – Davis Langdon LLP
Phase 2 – Richard Cavadino
Phase 1 – Structures One
Phase 2 – BuroHappold Engineering
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