Henley Halebrown’s ensemble of student residences at Roehampton University is informed by layers of history, finds David Grandorge
Just over 20 years ago, during the final two years of my university education, I lived in a large converted semi-detached villa fortuitously sited halfway between the local train station (London was always calling) and the department where I studied. The villa accommodated 12 students in each wing. Our rooms were let to us at a very reasonable rent by the college to which we were attached and, as post-graduates, we were in receipt of a maintenance grant and our fees were paid by our local authorities.
North-east residence with a belvedere overlooking the garden
I was privileged to occupy a well-lit lower-ground floor room of about 20 square metres. There were shared kitchens and bathrooms on each of the four floors and the atmosphere promoted by this living arrangement was one of mutual support and conviviality. Today, the experience for students in the UK – excluding Scotland – is different in significant ways. The introduction of student loans and the decision by the last government to allow universities to charge students for the full cost of their courses has led to a generation defined by debt (student loans account for 42 per cent of all unsecured consumer debt).
North-west residence facing Alton West
The landscape of student housing has also changed; some of this is due to the large increase in the value of land, but also to the significant increase in student numbers and their transformation into consumers of education. Private operators have moved into this market, providing accommodation that is affordable to the few and most often resembles – externally and internally – a budget hotel. Given this background, it is a pleasure to visit an iteration of this type that eschews the prevailing cynicism and strives to use architectural design to allow student life to be lived richly – in terms of experience, if not financial savings.
The subject is Henley Halebrown’s design for Chadwick Hall, student residences at Roehampton University in south-west London. It is sited in the grounds of Downshire House, a listed Georgian villa that is set back from Roehampton Lane at its front and looks over a mature landscape of mixed deciduous trees, lawn and meadow to its rear. To the north-west, the site is faced directly by the five heroic modernist slab blocks of London County Council’s 1959 Alton West Estate.
The formal and spatial strategy employed by Henley Halebrown is one of similarity and difference. This is evident in the ensemble of three residences carefully placed to the north, north-west and south of Downshire House. The new buildings, all in red-brown brick, are divided vertically by similarly-hued precast concrete lintels and balconies expressed as continuous horizontal banding. Each is articulated differently depending on its orientation and adjacency to existing buildings and gardens.
The block to the north is a terrace of four-storey townhouses expressed as a villa, with two- and three-storey houses acting as wings. The townhouses are entered from an inherited belvedere on its western side that forms an edge to the newly formed courtyard below. A kitchen and living room are situated on the raised ground floor serving 12 bedrooms above, each equipped with its own shower room. The facade treatment is relatively flush on Roehampton Lane; the sheer-sided body of the building rises above the datum of the garden wall that gives privacy from the street.
Facing this building to the west of the courtyard is a T-shaped block that turns ninety degrees to run down into the landscape, becoming five storeys as it does so. Communal kitchens are placed at the end of each wing of the block to maximise daylight and give strong aspects to the external world. The bedrooms are reached from a generous stair and lift core situated at the meeting of the three wings. They have balconies to the eastern side facing the courtyard and on the southern side looking out to mature trees. These are formed by splayed reveals of load-bearing brick that work as a composite with the concrete balcony deck and bear on the foundation independently of the frame that they are tied back to.
There is (an unintended) variation in the hue of the precast concrete elements that gives subtle relief to the intended austerity of the facades – almost Brutalist in their treatment. Their visual weight and depth is best appreciated when seen obliquely from the wild garden below. On the northern edge of this wing is an interstitial garden space overlooked by windows that fold out from the facade at 45 degrees to catch western light, a result of architectural forethought and generosity.
The campus is unusually porous to Roehampton Lane, with four points of entrance – one vehicular, one directly into Downshire House and two open pedestrian entrances along each side of it, one surveyed by a porters’ lodge. It is at this entrance that the southern block is sited and orientated east to west. The eastern and western facades of this building are given the same balcony treatment described previously. The northern and southern sides are given large bay windows that grab light for the more centrally placed communal kitchens. Their form echoes that given to the generous octagonal stair and void that punctures through the heart of the building.
Octagonal stair core within South Court
Overall, the project is characterised by a sense of robustness and massiveness. The planning grid feels a little tight, but it seems that the intention has been to produce optimised cells that are supported by more generous shared spaces. There are strong thresholds evident, both internally and externally, and the relationship of the three buildings to the landscape in their scaling and disposition is rich. The architects’ use of a limited material palette, whose predominant colours echo those of the trees’ bark, is combined with clearly intentioned formal variations that serve to maximise daylight but prevent solar gain.
These are buildings that are fit for purpose, punctuated with moments of delight that learn from and integrate themselves with their context, qualities that are rare in this sector. I wish though – as I’m sure the students and their families must do – that they could be rented at a price that all could afford.
Buro Happold, Campbell Reith
Skelly & Couch
Floren, Vega Rustic Roehampton White
Ideal Combi, Futura