Sultan Nazrin Shah Centre, Worcester College, Oxford University

Introduction

In the secluded and ancient grounds of Worcester College, overlooking the college cricket pitch, stands the Sultan Nazrin Shah Centre, a beautifully crafted stone and oak pavilion. It is carefully positioned to enhance this idyllic setting and engage with neighbouring buildings, but also fulfils the college’s need for more teaching space. Above all, to quote the RIBA Award citation, ‘It is the natural materials, superbly honed, that ground the building and make it belong. It is the architectural design – the timeless pursuit of ordering space and light and form – that makes it a thing of pure joy.’

Níall McLaughlin Architects has carefully integrated the new building with the college’s existing buildings alongside, in particular MacCormac Jamieson Prichards’ 1980s Sainsbury Building, which backs on to Worcester Place and includes a gatehouse entrance to the college grounds. The architect has created a new open court next to the Sainsbury Building, framing a view of the college lake and the new bridge to the cricket ground, which leads to the main entrance of the the Sultan Nazrin Shah Centre.

The single storey interior spaces are lofty and flooded with daylight; they comprise a large lecture theatre/auditorium, an informal ‘e-hub’ student learning space, two seminar rooms, a dance studio, and kitchen, server and toilets, all arranged around a generous foyer.

To avoid flooding from the river and college lake close by, the building is raised on a podium above the flood plain. Its dominant south-west elevation, looking out over the cricket pitch, is a symmetrical composition – a wide central set of steps leading up to a terrace flanked by two seminar rooms, their windows framed with tall fins of Clipsham stone. The terrace is shaded by a pergola of delicate Siberian larch slats and is backed by tall glazed oak doors which lead to the foyer.

The auditorium is a quarter circle segment in plan, creating a curved form defined by a series of tall fins, also of Clipsham stone, with full height oak doors between them. The doors can be folded back flush into them, allowing auditorium and foyer to form one seamless space. The fins rise above the roof to create a glass clerestory, with blinds integrated into all glazed openings.

Throughout the building, the materials used – timber, stone and glass – have been designed and crafted with exemplary care, achieving a quality for which it has won many awards and reached the Stirling Prize shortlist.

The use of timber

The Bishop Edward King Chapel at Cuddesdon, an earlier building by Níall McLaughlin Architects, was also shortlisted for the Stirling Prize and won a Wood Award in 2013. Although very different in design, the architect’s approach to the use of materials and the care and craftsmanship in the design of stone and timber elements was similar. The architect took the client to visit Cuddesdon to demonstrate this, and it subsequently formed a major part of the brief: a simple palette of materials – oak, stone, glass – and the highest quality of craftsmanship.

The interior circulation spaces, the foyer, the e-hub and the two seminar rooms are all 3.67 metres high and have exposed oak ceiling structures; the oak creates a rich upper plane, warm and textured while also regulating the acoustic quality of the spaces.

Sophia McCracken, structural engineer at Price & Myers, describes the ceiling structure: ‘Using oak within an unfinished building runs the risk of warping and water damage, and so a basic roof structure was developed of joisted timber softwood with a ply deck and single ply membrane finish. Once watertight the ceiling was then placed, with the oak joists at 500mm centres running parallel to the western elevation, and a secondary layer sitting directly over at 90 degrees. This creates a latticed grid structure that is fixed to either side of a series of oak-clad steel T-section beams. The T-sections are supported by internal walls and three cylindrical glulam oak columns, 150mm in diameter.’

The oak ceilings of the foyer and seminar rooms were fabricated and installed by Inwood Developments using finger-jointed PEFC-certified European oak. They were prefabricated into panel sections, taken to site, lifted into position and fixed to the steel T-section beams with concealed fixings and biscuit joints. The prefabricated panels included an oak-faced plywood lining fixed above the lattice grid and drilled with holes to create an acoustic baffle. The oak ceiling joists were pre-finished with a 2-part clear water-based lacquer, spray-coated before being delivered to site.

In the two seminar rooms, the tall metal-framed sliding glass panels set between the Clipsham stone fins are lined with oak, matching the oak doors and the boarded oak floor. They are triple-glazed to withstand possible cricket ball impact and to achieve very high acoustic protection. The window heads are lined with oak cover frames, removable to access the roller blind, and the jambs are also lined with oak. The oak sills incorporate covers to the trench heaters and align with the oak floorboards. Externally the glazing frames are concealed by the Clipsham stone fin panels. The pergola is made of FSC-certified and machine sectioned Siberian larch, coated with SI00 timber treatment.

The dance studio has an oak sprung floor and looks out over the lake through a triple-glazed window/wall. As a column free space of around 10 metres, it required a different roof structure. A series of exposed glulam beams, 90 x 405mm (GL28h) at 500mm centres, rest directly on the blockwork walls at either side of the studio.

The auditorium

The oak doors between the foyer and auditorium are also 3.67 metres tall and fold back flush with the stone fins in their open position. When closed, to prevent sound travelling between the auditorium and the foyer, they are fitted at their bases with drop down seals and have double rebates at the jambs and meeting stiles.

Seven stepped tiers of oak benches follow the curve of the auditorium enclosure. They were fabricated by Benchmark Furniture to a design developed with David Colwell Design Studio. Both backrests and bench seats have curved profiles so that they are comfortable to sit on without the use of upholstery.

Each bench seat was formed of 12 x 40mm deep oak strips, glued together to form the curve on plan. The curved profile on the upper surface of each seat was then cut with a CNC router.

The curved back support and bottom board of each backrest are made of solid oak, steam bent to create the curve on plan and in section. The boards were steamed and then fixed with cramps in a jig to the curved profiles. They were then moved and cramped to a similar jig, and left for several weeks to dry. The bench seats and backrests were secured to oak leg frames, fitted with pull-down desk panels and finished with clear Osmo oil.

The side and rear walls of the auditorium are lined with vertical oak boards. The side wall linings conceal a 0.5 metre wide void containing extract air at high level and supply air at low level. The boards are spaced with gaps and backed with acoustic lining and at the rear of the stage the boards are grooved; this helps to scatter the sound, modulating the acoustic.

Awards

Stirling Prize shortlist 2018

RIBA South Award 2018

RIBA South Building of the Year 2018

RIBA National Award 2018

Wood Awards: Education and Public Sector 2018 Winner

Oxford Preservation Trust Award 2017

Completion Date:

January 2017

Building Type:

University college

Location:

Worcester College, Oxford

Architect:

Níall McLaughlin Architects

Structural Engineer:

Price & Myers

M&E Consultant:

Arup

Main Contractor:

Beard Construction

Oak Ceiling Fabrication and Installation:

Inwood Developments

Joinery:

Barn6

Timber Doorsets:

Principal Doorsets

Auditorium Seats:

David Colwell Design, Benchmark Furniture

Timber Elements:

Ceiling and roof structure, internal finishes, doors, furniture

Timber Species:

FSC- and PEFC-certified European oak, Siberian larch, spruce

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