"We worked with Michael most recently on the renovation of Observatory House in Durham City. A house according to the planners of ‘significant historical importance’ - the brief was to take a period property and add a contemporary/modern seamless extension to satisfy the needs of conservation area planners and the requirements of the owners. With Michael we hit the ‘sweet spot’ - great listening skills, ideas and alternative suggestions when appropriate and a cost structure that was most sensible for the work he carried out, in summary a really great guy to work with and therefore we would have no hesitation both recommending him or working with him again." Andrea Riddell

Perched high on the edge of the city sits Durham observatory. Built in 1840 it has provided Durham university with views of both the sky and changing landscape. Earlier this year Hub Architecture was commissioned to transform Observatory House from it's academic past into a contemporary home with one foot in the future.

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Observatory House was originally an academic office facility

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Set within impressive grounds, the new design opens the ground floor to the outdoors

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Contemporary materials blend with historic features to create a unique perspective

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Strong architectural forms introduce a modern design feel to the outbuildings

Michael, this is an usual build in that at first glance it looks like an extension, but on closer inspection it's much more. What was the background to the project and how was Hub involved?

I enjoyed working on this. Hub had been recommended on the back of a previous job where we had really gone a little above and beyond. The starting point for this project was a rather grand former university office that was to be transformed into a residential home with a contemporary twist.

The approach came from a thorough understanding of building pathology that ensured sound detailing and preservation of as much of the original building as possible, combined with a design 'light touch' that introduced the modern flair that the client was looking for.

There is a risk that approaching projects of this nature simply as extensions that 'plug in' can really leave the end result falling short of it's potential as well as throwing up technical difficulties. It's very important to combine research and experience of a building's original structure from both an architectural and design viewpoint. Which is of course what we did.

How would you describe the design that you developed? Are there any elements that stand out for you?

The core approach was to blend the original character of the building with contemporary design. A great challenge. The building had been carved up into small offices with large corridors, just what you needed when it was a university building full of busy people. Not so appropriate for a family home though.

However, we were also blessed with fantastic original features that had remained unchanged through the building's history such as the amazing roofline and grand staircase. The design approach that we adopted was treat the modern appendages almost as a 'foil' that should blend in rather than stand out. Now, you may question that when you see the glass structure, however the use of glass was actually a way of extending the space without overly disrupting the original form of the building when viewed from afar. Of course when you are up close it has the 'wow' factor that the client was looking for as well as providing magnificent views of the university grounds that the building overlooks. You can see Durham Cathedral from the bijoux second floor balcony on the new rendered tower.

This house is fairly close to the centre of Durham, quite a traditional city. What challenges did you face in the design and planning process?

The key challenge was to deliver the home that the client had commissioned whilst respecting the building's heritage and context. At first glance, the planning authorities require quite a strict adherence to the existing vernacular, however there are ways to work within this that provide a little flexibility.

We had to introduce quite complex design and structural improvements within the fabric of the building however to the eye the end result was always simple details.

It must be more of a challenge to convert an existing property to a new use, than build from scratch?

In one respect you have a head start as there is something to work with. However, changing a building's use and applying contemporary regulations to an older building can be very difficult. The most pressing issue, that many aren't aware of, is insulation. It's not enough to simply apply insulation to internal walls and think that everything will be warmer. It won't, plus you will be creating a host of issues for the fabric of the building in the future. It takes a lot of experience to understand how to bring older buildings back to contemporary life.

The house has a real feel of quality to it. How did you make sure that the actual build lived up to the high standards of the design?

There is a phrase 'path of least resistance' that applies to all walks of life. The construction industry is no different. When you are designing and building something a little different it's so important to surround yourself with a team that are diligent and focussed and prepared to put the effort in. This starts with making sure that the detailed drawings are read correctly and that adhered to. It was a joy to see the client flourish in the role of project manager during the build, I believe this helped enormously.

Finally, the building is named 'Observatory House' and is a stone's throw from the actual observatory. Was this something you were conscious of in your design?

I was conscious in that the key design features are all about observation, though mostly at the garden and grounds rather than the sky!

The 19th Century Observatory House, is in the grounds of the university’s original astronomical and meteorological observatory, in Durham, which was founded in 1839. The university owned the Grade II listed observatory – which is still used by the Department of Geography to collect meteorological data – which is separate from Observatory House. The building was built in 1897 for Professor Ralph Allen Sampson with express instructions that the build cost was “not to exceed £1,500” and eventually came in £90 under budget.

While at Durham, Professor Sampson’s research included studying the motions of Jupiter’s four Galilean satellites, work for which he later won the Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society in 1928.

The property, which sits in a site between Windmill Hill and Observatory Hill, was later home to David Bellamy when he was a lecturer in the botany department of the university.


Project Name: Observatory House

Hub roles: Architectural design, planning submissions, building regulations, client liaison, site inspections


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