29 May 2020
Christ Church has become one of Oxford’s most-visited attractions with about 400,000 visitors per year. In order to improve the visitor experience and flow, Christ Church needed to create a dedicated visitor centre including a shop, ticket sales area, interpretation space and a multi-purpose seminar space with yard facilities for the Landscape team looking after the green areas. The scheme centred upon the conversion of a nineteenth-century barn in the Grade I listed Meadow into visitor space. Purcell was appointed as lead consultant to provide full architectural services, heritage consultancy and project management for the full development.
With its sensitive setting, both environmentally and historically, the site provided several challenges. Its location within the listed park and gardens of Christ Church Meadow, the proximity of the Grade I listed buildings of Christ Church, civil war archaeology below ground, and its location in the Oxford flood plain all needed to be addressed during the design process. The original barn is unique within the city for having a thatched roof - this needed to be considered in a sympathetic manner as part of the new development.
One of the key tasks was to identify possible site constraints and related risks, and to eliminate or mitigate their impact. These included listed status, flood risks, protected species, archaeology, mature trees and services. Their proposed scheme went through a rigorous development and consultation process involving all interested stakeholders. By gaining a comprehensive understanding of the site through historic research and analysis of its current state, the design team led by Purcell were able to successfully gain planning and Listed Building Consent. They embraced the unique thatched roof and saw it as a design opportunity, incorporating it into the design of the new buildings. In doing so, the use of traditional building forms and materials ensure that the modern additions integrate with their surroundings and that the historic thatched barn maintains its importance.
In response to the yard facility element of the brief, Purcell’s designs created a new agricultural-style timber building situated within the Grade I listed landscape, with modern staff amenities, increased storage, and welfare facilities for the landscape team.
Purcell has worked with Christ Church on a framework of projects over the past decade. Christ Church has an experienced building surveyor who actively manages projects and was involved in the Visitor Centre project from its inception, and a clerk of works with a team of tradesmen. They also have an archivist who supported them with information about the site and the development of the buildings over the last 400 years. The retained consultant archaeologist worked closely with Purcell and the main contractors. The landscape architects worked closely with the Head Gardener, drawing on a substantial conservation management plan for the adjacent Meadows, ensuring a suitable and low-risk future.
Purcell used a traditional JCT building contract tendering to local and national construction firms, who had the specialist skills of working in a sensitive setting on a historic building. Having a close relationship with key sub-contractors/consultants is essential and they have incorporated a number of procedures into their Quality Management System for this selection and engagement. Their Quality Assurance administrators maintain a database of sub-contractors/consultants, who are given an approval rating which determines their use and suitability.
Heritage skills were integral to the care and refurbishment of the existing thatched barn. It is most evident in the thatched roof. The two thatched roofs gave an opportunity for multiple thatchers to work and for trainee thatchers to learn the trade. Traditional carpentry skills were required to make repairs to the pine timber queen trusses. These skills are also evident in the new oak trusses that have been installed to extend the main seminar space of the thatched barn. And to fit match the stone of Christ Church, a lime mix mortar was specified to ensure breathability and flexibility in the new stone and in repairs to existing stone walls.
Jon Down, House Surveyor, Christ Church
“Purcell’s creative yet sensitive response to this design challenge has resulted in a delightful range of buildings that provide new operational facilities and a wonderful new Visitor Centre, which greatly improves the experience for not only visitors but students, scholars, and staff as well. The skilled approach to conservation and repurposing of an existing thatched barn combined with a sensitively designed new thatched barn and link is evident in a scheme that sits comfortably and naturally within Christ Church Meadow. Purcell’s collaboration with our team, the design team, Oxford City Council and the contractor is evident in the care and quality of the building design and delivery. We are grateful to Purcell for their thoughtful and sympathetic approach to this key project for Christ Church.”
About the Conservation & Regeneration Award:
The conservation or rehabilitation of old or historic buildings and sites is often an important part of neighbourhood revitalisation, providing physical and psychological focus for the community and creating jobs and investment opportunities. Construction work that involves the conservation and regeneration of historic buildings requires great care and specialist skills and techniques.