Filling SOAS with light, space and people
We turned the SOAS (School of Oriental and African Studies) building - the north end of the iconic Senate House - into a space well lit by natural light to enhance learning and improve the overall student experience.
The Paul Webley Wing: SOAS into Senate House Project summary
- Start date
- August 2012
- End date
- August 2016
SOAS is a Grade II* listed building in Bloomsbury and part of the University of London. To turn the existing Charles Holden designed Senate House into a more useful space for its students, SOAS appointed our team to design the transformation of this part of Senate House that had lain empty for five years.
It was important that the space directly encourage students to further their learning on campus. The space is designed so that students can meet up, grab a coffee or food and participate in discussions with fellow classmates, long after their lectures have finished.
The development included a number of challenges, such as the need to protect heritage elements and the excavation of spoil that could fill two Olympic swimming pools from the centre of the building, all removed through a window. Close design collaboration has delivered a double curvature, double glazed roof, supported by glass fins and revamped and refurbished accommodation. There was a tight programme of work, driven by the need to complete in time for SOAS’s centenary celebrations in autumn 2016. The final piece is a stylish rebirth and refurbishment for this iconic London building, on budget and on programme.
Points of note
Conservation AreaThe existing Grade II* listed building in the Bloomsbury Conservation Area was empty for five years, and because the existing courtyard was seen to be historically significant, the team proposed building a low-level roof and digging out the centre of the courtyard to basement level, making it easier to obtain planning permission.
Views and spaceThe unused basement now contributes to nearly 7,000 sq m of space in total that now spreads over five floors, arranged around a large, central light well. A ground floor perimeter balcony also offers views down into the café and improves circulation though the building. Steps link the basement and ground floor level, providing a well-lit seating area.
Double curved and double glazed roofThe £1m roof with double curvature double glazing panels acts as a shell structure and cuts down the amount of support needed. This also enhances views of the courtyard elevation above. The curved primary roof beams are steel and the secondary beams are laminated glass to increase transparency.
CollaborationThe extent of collaboration between our team and subconsultants is exemplified by the fact that all the teams worked together to ensure a seamless and transparent sharing of ideas, resource and knowledge.
RegenerationBefore the team began redeveloping the space it was completely abandoned. It had been unused for five years and there were no heating or water services. Everything was powered by electricity, which was not environmentally friendly. The team worked closely with English Heritage to design a solution that would regenerate the original building, while protecting its architecture and historical aspects. Part of the building - the Paul Webley Wing - has been named after the previous director of studies for SOAS who sadly died of cancer a few months before it was completed. It was his vision and he will be well remembered.
Structurally superThe structure pulls away from the walls and consists of eight columns that double up as supports for the perimeter ground floor balcony. A short 3m wide span of glazing connects the wall to the primary roof beams supported on the columns. These beams include concealed rainwater drainage, enabling the perimeter glazing to slope away from the wall leaving a simple flashing detail.
“Before we took on this building the heating didn’t work, there was no water and it was just used as churn space. Now the space is light, bright and being put to good use – positively impacting on SOAS’s students. The idea was to retain the original spaces and slot in a whole new set but create visual links between each of the floors. We went through various iterations of roof types and looked at the relationship between people and spaces to make the right decision.”
“From the very start we knew we didn’t want a big glass atrium that people didn’t use – we wanted something practical but also something architectural to compliment the old building. Mace and Rocktownsend have overcome some difficult challenges – when they started the project they found four old concrete bases where a crane once stood – but they worked together and we couldn’t be happier with the outcome.”
“The extent of the team’s collaboration is exemplified in the fact that we shared and encouraged resources to move between the practices during the project, so during the Stage B process two of our architects were ‘embedded’ within Mace to assist in the day to day process and to ensure ideas were shared. Then during Stage C a member of the Mace team worked in our studio to similarly ensure a seamless and transparent sharing of resource and knowledge.”