The Dorothy Garrod Building is a contemporary addition to the architectural heritage of Newnham College Cambridge, which is much admired for its inspirational design, the quality of its intricate brickwork and its deep sense of craftsmanship.  

Named after the university’s first female professor and the first woman to hold an Oxbridge chair, the Dorothy Garrod Building has created an impressive new civic face for Cambridge’s oldest and most prestigious women’s college, known for its distinguished alumnae, who include Sylvia Plath, Germaine Greer, Iris Murdoch and Mary Beard.

Designed to meet the educational needs of its students while providing an inspiring environment for the college, the building includes a new main entrance and welcoming Porters’ Lodge, 86 generous en-suite student bedrooms, conference facilities, staff offices, meeting and supervision rooms, student kitchen/social areas with plenty of space to cook and eat together plus a new café, roof garden and glass rooftop gym.

Since its opening in 2018, the Dorothy Garrod Building has received numerous accolades* including 2019 RIBA National Awards and RIBA East Award, RIBA East’s ‘Building of the Year 2019’.  The brick architecture has also won three 2019 Brick Development Association (BDA) ‘Brick Awards’, including the ‘Supreme Winner’ as well as ‘Craftsmanship’ and ‘Medium Development’ categories.

The design vision

In 2014, Walters & Cohen Architects won an invited competition to design a much-needed new residence for the university’s growing student accommodation needs. The brief was to create a world class building, with 21st-century facilities, that would neither mimic nor detract from its beautiful setting, but sensitively integrate with the College’s historic buildings and gardens.

First, the architects proposed the demolition of the existing outdated 1960s Strachey accommodation block and the old Porters’ Lodge and to partially demolish Fawcett, an office and student accommodation building in much need of refurbishment.

Close consultation with Newnham’s project team, Historic England and the Planning Authorities, plus various special interest groups, students, staff and Fellows, ensured that the scale, mass and form of the new building were appropriate to its surroundings, while also meeting the College’s requirements for a building that would be entirely unique to them.

Sympathetic design

Without imposing on its surroundings, the new building has created a stronger frontage for the College on Sidgwick Avenue, forming a link in a chain of buildings that wrap round Newnham Gardens and the back of the old Fawcett Building.

Respectful of its surroundings, it succeeds in discreetly knitting itself among the original buildings, which were designed by Basil Champneys over 100 years earlier, by seeking to complement rather than copy their Queen Anne-style architecture.

The elegant design presents a delicate balance of solidity and transparency.  The external façades are made up of five materials: beautifully crafted, handmade red brick; anodised and natural bronze window and door frames; Portland stone surrounds to the windows and doors to the Porters’ Lodge; high quality granite to the Sidgwick Avenue frontage; and generous areas of glazing that maximise views over the College gardens.

Dr Judy Quinn of Newnham College said: 'Throughout the project, the architects were able to combine their design vision with a tireless capacity for engaging with [Newnham] in order to keep the focus on the value of using durable materials and on finding the right suppliers of products.”

Inspirational brickwork façades

Walters & Cohen studied the brick facades of the other buildings at Newnham, looking at the mortar and bonding, the colours, textures, rhythm, articulation, decoration and other details that make this site truly unique.

Central to the design were the full-height panels of dogtooth brickwork, their rich detailing Inspired by the same Arts and Crafts tenet of ‘truth to materials’ - that materials should be used where they are most appropriate and without their innate qualities being concealed in any way - as the surrounding Champneys buildings.

The contemporary herringbone pattern and ‘hit-and-miss’ detail in handmade brick weaves seamlessly into the form and texture of the elevation, while lighting behind the open brickwork on ground floor level gives a gentle night-time glow, adding further interest.  Special bricks around the large bronze-framed windows also add richness and depth to the façade

The success of such an elaborate façade was dependent on the detail of the design, quality of the materials, and highly skilled craftsmanship. 

Traditional brickmaking

In order to develop the right brick type for the new building, Walters & Cohen worked closely with Northcot Brick’s ‘Master Brickmakers’ based in Gloucestershire, who have been making handmade bricks and brick specials for over 100 years.

Following several visits to the brickworks, a bespoke blend of red handmade bricks was selected, which would complement the surrounding university brick heritage, while ‘lifting’ and modernising with a brighter look. 

The ‘Newnham Sidgwick Blend’ comprised a mixture of four different handmade bricks (25% Lyneham Red, 25% Lyneham Red Antique, 25% Plumstead Orange and 25% Plumstead Antique), two of which were further ‘antiqued’ or weathered.

“We created a blend that is entirely unique to Newnham College, with each brick individually hand thrown and then fired in a traditional kiln in order to provide complete harmony between standard and special shapes, and to achieve an authentic rustic character and aesthetic appeal that will continue to improve with the passage of time,” said Michael Brown, Managing Director of Northcot Brick.  

A successful collaboration

A number of sample boards were built so that the exact colour of the brick and the mortar could be signed off by the College, design team, planners and Historic England. Then a full-scale sample bay of the façade was built on site to test the construction details, sequencing, movement joints and finishes.

A total of 165,000 handmade bricks were laid, using a natural cement lime mortar, in a variety of stretcher and English garden wall bonds. A further 12 different types of handmade special shapes (totalling 92,000) made up the intricate panels of ‘hit-and-miss’ and areas of decorative brickwork.

Critically, early involvement of the manufacturer at the planning stage not only facilitated the design process but enabled significant cost savings for the client as - at the manufacturer’s recommendation - the solid bricks (without a frog) that make up the ‘hit-and-miss’ brickwork were supplied with five instead of the six faces originally thought necessary.

The role of the contractors, SDC, their brickwork company Caxton Brickwork and their team of highly skilled and dedicated bricklayers was also critical in providing a level of craftsmanship that was outstanding.

Cindy Walters, Director at Walters & Cohen Architects, said:

‘It has been a huge honour and privilege for us to work with Newnham College to deliver their bold strategic vision. Since winning the design competition four years ago, we have worked with students, administrators, College interest groups and Fellows to ensure that the new building meets the needs of the College, fits into its very unique context and delivers twenty-first-century facilities. The new Porters’ Lodge and entrance was the greatest challenge. It offers a warm welcome, connects the street to a new garden, connects the College to a new café, conference facility and offices, and contains art and artefacts that are specific to Newnham. In the new entrance we have created a space that could not be anywhere else in Oxbridge or the world.’

World class building

Run under a Design & Build contract, the project is a masterpiece of collaboration and unified commitment by all parties, which was constructed in a single phase, on time and on budget.  

Holistic in design, it achieves a BREEAM ‘very good’ rating and is also considered to be an exemplar of Universal Design for its sensitive ease of access and use. 

Professor Dame Carol Black, Principal of Newnham College, said:

“This is a building worthy of celebration, one which gives the students of Newnham College a sense of pride and aspiration. It embraces our glorious gardens, with the new en-suite bedrooms looking out over trees on every side. Walters & Cohen Architects have designed a building at once modern and forward looking, and in sympathy with Newnham's original Champneys buildings and gardens. The new conference centre is an exciting venture for Newnham, and our students are delighted by the stylish public café with its space for group working and relaxation.”