Upgrading the Rare Books Library at Newnham College

The Kathryn Stevens Rare Books Library at Newnham College was completed in 1983, and was one of the first buildings by Jo van Heyningen and Birkin Haward to be widely known and appreciated. As a distinguished exemplar building of its time, it was Grade II listed in 2018.

Forty years on, the use of the building had subtly changed, conservation standards had become more stringent, and elements of the building fabric and services had reached the end of their service-life. Most critically, this included the ageing plastic glazing of the rooflight, which potentially threated the security of the collection.

To reglaze the rooflight, the whole collection needed to be decanted, and our short feasibility study set out the case for using the opportunity offered by the decant to undertake a holistic retrofit. We were then invited by Newnham College to revisit the design, to see what could be improved without diminishing the special character of the building.

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As designed, the building was envisaged as a library, where researchers could come and study the collection in-situ. The use of the building has evolved, and it is now used as a secure archive, with books taken next door to readers in the main library (by Basil Champneys, and beautifully extended by John Miller and Partners). Crucially, this means the large rooflight is no longer functionally necessary.

Working with the College librarian and Tobit Curteis Associates, we established the optimal criteria for the collection’s environment. We then tested the existing fabric and proposed enhancements, with QODA running WUFI and thermal bridge modelling, and comparing these results with the monitored conditions in the room.

  • Project Details

    • Location: Cambridge
      Client: Newnham College

The results revealed that the swings in temperature and humidity that damage the collection were largely caused by the rooflight. Given the current use of the building this led to the decision to remove it, and combined with upgrade of the windows and the insulation of the fabric. Our careful justification of the impacts of these changes, supported by monitoring data and modelling, led to granting of Listed Building Consent.

The proposals replace the rooflight with a lead-clad barrel to the same profile (this could easily be removed and a rooflight reinstated). Walls, roof and floor are upgraded with woodfibre internal insulation, with secondary glazing and the addition of thermal breaks to all the gallery steelwork (which passed straight through the original insulation line). The interventions increase the air tightness and insulation of the room, and increase its humidity buffering, maximising the stability of the collections environment by decoupling it from external conditions.

The electric underfloor heating and small dehumidifier are replaced, like-for-like but with better sensors and controls, to maintain the desired RH and temperature range. The improvements to the building fabric mean that less energy will be used, lowering the operational carbon impacts too, and the collections environment will be maintained for much longer should the active systems fail.

The design process and strategies adopted will improve the long-term safety of the collection, and equip the building for another 40 years of use. They also exemplify how an evidenced-based approach to the historic fabric of listed buildings can be used to argue for beneficial change, keeping the building useful and preserved.