Keeping Cambridge Special

Post date: Oct 16, 2016 7:09:47 PM

The Cambridge Association of Architects took part in the stimulating Keeping Cambridge Special event at the Centre for Mathematical Sciences in early October.

Alongside Nicola Padfield, Master of Fitzwilliam College; David Cleevely of Cambridge Ahead; and Wendy Blythe of the Federation of Cambridge Residents Associations; CAA secretary Tom Foggin spoke on behalf of the CAA on the important input Architects and other professionals should have in the design process.

You can watch his talk, and the other speakers’ contributions, on YouTube.

Transcript / View the slides (6.64Mb)

My name is Tom Foggin and I am an Architect who has lived and worked in Cambridge for the past five years. I work for a practice which has been based in Cambridge for over 40 years and has designed projects for more than 15 of the Cambridge colleges.

Today, I’m here representing the Cambridge Association of Architects, the local branch of the Royal Institute of British Architects covering Cambridge and Cambridgeshire. Some of you may already be familiar with the CAA as we hold events throughout the year to promote local architects to the wider community, including our annual Spring Launch events and other activities. We are currently preparing an outreach programme to work with local schools, and twice a year we publish the Cambridge Architecture gazette.

The purpose of the CAA is to give representation to local Architects and promote the goals of the RIBA, namely to “champion better buildings, communities and the environment” and “to improve the design quality of public buildings, new homes, and new communities.”

The CAA was invited to contribute to this morning as a professional body and to offer insight into the Role of the Architect in “Keeping Cambridge Special” however I must emphasise I am standing here this morning as one individual and the views I am sharing might not be held by all Architects across the city, or even those in this room. When thinking about what role Architects play, it is hard not to think in terms of built projects.

We spend the majority of our time working on projects across a broad range of sectors, from housing extensions to masterplanning, from church surveys and refurbishment work, to new schools and university buildings. However, the role that Architects play on a day-to-day basis is more than practicing “Architecture with a capital ‘A’”

So, to make things easier, I thought we could look at the role of the Architect in the context of a hypothetical project “Keeping Cambridge Special.”

As some of you may know, the RIBA publishes something called the Plan of Work which acts as a framework for running projects, and it seems like this could be a helpful way for breaking down how Architects might play a role in this project. So let’s take a look. Here’s one I prepared earlier.

This might look a little complicated, but I’m going to talk you through it step by step. The point of the Plan of Work is to set out the core objectives at each stage of a project, starting from initial briefing stages through to developing the design, construction, and eventually the in-use stage.

STAGE 0 - 1

So let’s start at the beginning. Keeping Cambridge Special. What does this mean exactly?

Stages 0 and 1 focus on strategically defining what the project is about. The first question is “why?” What is the business case, and what are the strategies for achieving it? This stage also covers another crucial question: “who is the client?” To be honest, when I was thinking about this, I wasn’t sure who the client is.

Are all of us, in this room today, the client? Are future generations? Who exactly are we keeping Cambridge special for?

What is it about Cambridge that makes it special? Is it the fantastic award-winning architecture? Is it the public open spaces? Is it the way in which the city has always been at the forefront of the national economy? Why else would it have doubled in size from 1900 to the year 2000 as this map by Peter Bryan demonstrates?

As part of every architect’s training, we learn how to analyse context and get to grips with understanding the parameters of a project. If we are answering the question “how does one keep Cambridge special” we need to understand the current situation in order to develop ideas of how to achieve the brief.

Whenever approaching a project, these are all questions that have to be addressed. Realistically, can we achieve the goals?

When we break into groups later, we need to work out these questions. Why are we keeping Cambridge Special? Importantly, we need to listen to each other’s ideas. What one person finds special about Cambridge might not be the same as someone else. That’s part of the beauty of the city, and of sharing ideas.


Moving on, we come to Stage 2: Concept Design.

Stage 2 looks at developing the project at a more strategic level of diagrams, working out the project conceptually, some working models and initial layouts to explore form and adjacencies. This is a vital stage, as it helps set the parameters for a project, the framework for pushing the project forward. Ultimately, this is the embryonic stage where key decisions get made based on the brief to ensure initial ideas meet the client’s aspirations.

I must emphasise the importance of these first stages. Unless we get the brief right, and properly understand what we are trying to achieve, then the entire project will be fundamentally flawed. This becomes apparent in schemes where there isn’t a clear strategy; you get bitty, piecemeal answers which don't add up. This is why a clear brief is so important. Not only to guide the process, but to give a clear set of real-world constraints for designers to work within.

The same is true here. If we are to successfully develop Cambridge as a city for the future, we absolutely must have a clear, coherent strategy with justification for the decisions made. It is only then that we can establish the concept of what we are trying to achieve.

And what are we trying to achieve? Is encouraging growth on its own enough of a brief? I don’t think so. But it can be seen as a reflection of the socio-economic success Cambridge has experienced. Is this what we want to see more of? If so, how do we achieve it in the next hundred years?

There are major developments across the city right now:

- Down at the Cambridge Biomedical Campus led by the university, Addenbrooke’s hospital, and private investment.

- There is of course the major new North West Cambridge masterplan taking shape, led predominantly by the university, which has already won international masterplan awards and promises to deliver an exciting new quarter of the city.

- Down at the train station the CB1 development is creating a new business district and gateway to the city from the rail network.

Conceptually these are all discrete interventions. What is the big picture concept for Cambridge moving forwards?


The next steps are what architects do, really, spend a lot of their time working on. it’s the bread and butter, in a way, of any project, getting it from initial concept stage through to a more detailed, technically resolved set of proposals.

At some point during this phase, the project will be submitted for planning.

This is a critical point in any project for a number of reasons.

Firstly, it is important for any client because without Planning permission, no development can take place.

Secondly, it’s important for the architect and design team as it acts as a benchmark for the project. Typically, whatever you submit for planning is what eventually gets built.

For the city, however, the planning process is also an opportunity not to be squandered.

It is a time when schemes actually come under scrutiny, particularly here in Cambridge where we have the City’s Design and Conservation Panel, and the county’s Design Quality Panel acting as independent checks and balances.

In the last edition of the Cambridge Architecture gazette, we praised Planning Officers as “guardians of the built environment” and this has never been more relevant. We, as architects, place our trust in the local authority to act as curator for the city and to uphold the highest standards for quality. In return, the local authority should trust us too, as architects, design professionals and a construction industry with a vested interest in Keeping Cambridge Special.

What is absolutely clear is that, whatever happens in the next five to ten years, it is imperative that proposals should still be scrutinised, reviewed by peers, and deemed of appropriate quality for a city as highly regarded as Cambridge.

By the end of Stages 3 and 4 we will have a scheme which has been developed from a clearly defined brief, through a well-developed concept, to a well resolved solution. There may be many different aspects to the project, many different stakeholders involved, but the important thing is the proposals should form a coherent whole and respond holistically across the city.

This is where architects, and other design professionals, play an important role. We have been trained in realising projects from conceptual stage through to the technical details of actually delivering them.

But equally important, if not more so, is communication and understanding the complex challenges of dealing with different stakeholders: ranging from local residents, to the universities, businesses, the local authority, national investors and central government. That is an important aspect of everything we are talking about today. We are not dealing with a simple question, to which there is a simple answer.

We can extol the virtues of keeping Cambridge special but whatever future projects the city undertakes, there needs to be people with the right skills to not only come up with exciting new concepts, but also to see these through to deliver successful sustainable solutions. Sustainable not just environmentally, but socially and economically, for the long term.

It feels like I have already moved on to the next stage, but here we go.


Stages 5 and 6, which I’ve grouped together as ‘delivery.’

To be honest, I don't have a huge amount to say on this. Once we have developed a set of well-refined proposals, then delivering it should be, in theory, a piece of cake.

Of course, there may be difficulties along the way, but with clearly defined goals and strategies from the earlier stages the process should continue and any hiccups can be dealt with.

The important thing I would like to get across is that, during the stage of delivery, it is important not to lose sight of the original brief and concept.

We often speak about the golden triangle of Cost / Time / Quality and invariably, through the course of a project, the priorities shift. At the start, we all focus on the Quality. The reason we undertake any project is to make things better, like this new tap for my bathroom. Then, as we progress, budgets come under scrutiny and we worry about the cost. Perhaps we need to make some savings? Then we get on-site and start to deliver the proposals. There is a contract in place, so time and cost become essential. So we focus on just getting things done.

Then, in the final few weeks of the project, we realise we are going to meet the deadline, and we are just about on-budget. But… what happened to the quality?

Unless the team behind Keeping Cambridge Special are committed to seeing it through and upholding the values of the original brief, then there is little chance it will be a success. This requires buy-in from all of the stakeholders, as well as the designers and those responsible for delivering the project.


Once the project has been delivered, the final stage the RIBA talks about is the “in use” phase. Here, we monitor what has been created, track the performance of the project environmentally, socially, how it has impacted on its users. In the context of “Keeping Cambridge Special” this will be very important. You could see it as the feedback stage.

How have the choices we made affected people living in the city?

Have we made public transport easier to use, greener, cleaner?

Have we enhanced our neighbourhoods and given our communities new opportunities to grow?

Some of you may have noticed, or maybe not, that the Plan of Work diagram is circular. This is intentional, reflecting the way in which each project should inform our judgement and the decisions we make for the next one. We can learn a lot from our experiences, not just what has been successful, but what mistakes we have made.

Equally, then, we could view Stage 7 and the ‘in use’ phase as the very first step on the journey. It’s an opportunity to look at precedents from other cities to inform the very start of the process.

What has been done in other cities to develop their existing urban realm into somewhere fit for the future?

What lessons can we learn from the rest of Europe?

If we are looking to Keep Cambridge Special, is there anything cities like Strasbourg, Amsterdam or Copenhagen can teach us?


I’ve already touched on the fact that Cambridge roughly doubled in size between 1900 and 2000. That we are looking at further development and expansion in the years to come. The question is how do we deal with this?

There is no clear answer, no simple solution. But what is important is that we shouldn’t be afraid. We need to ensure that whatever form development takes, design professionals with the right skills are involved to guide the process and assist the inevitably broad range of stakeholders express their concerns, articulate their ideas, and deliver projects successfully with joined-up thinking.

We often forget that change is part of life, and that includes changes in the urban realm.

It’s all too easy to stick our heads in the sand and refuse to consider new ways of thinking. But then, we risk repeating the mistakes of the past. When new ideas are proposed, why don’t we run towards them, and look at what opportunities they might bring? When managed properly, with a thoroughly developed brief and careful planning, change can be a positive.

And one of the ways I think Cambridge is so special is its constantly changing, evolving character.

We have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, right now, to shape the future of this city and I hope everyone here today embraces this as a chance to do more than build new roads and pavements, but to create a city which sustainably meets the needs of tomorrow’s residents, and for the next hundred years to come.

Thank you.