St Albans Learning & Welcome Centre
ARCHITECTURE: Public Building
Simpson & Brown
The Dean & Chapter of St Albans Cathedral
The ‘Alban, Britain’s First Saint’ NLHF-supported project at St Albans Cathedral called for a new Welcome and Learning Centre to be created by connecting the Grade I listed Cathedral to its Chapter House building, built in the early 1980s to a design by Sir William Whitfield. This provides much-needed additional accommodation and upgraded facilities designed to support the varying needs of the Cathedral congregation, education groups, visitors and staff.
Set within the archaeologically-sensitive Monks’ Graveyard site in Sumpter Yard, the new building provides an uplifting visitor entrance and reception, retail space, interpretation and exhibition areas, and the relocated Vestry. It also resolves the previous difference in floor levels between the Cathedral and Chapter House by creating level access between the two.
Extensive internal remodelling of the Chapter House has also been undertaken in order to repurpose the refectory, provide additional education and library spaces, modernise building services, and improve accessibility with new washroom facilities and a 3-door lift.
The new entrance elevation is designed as a low-slung ‘garden wall’ in a carefully regraded and pedestrianised planted landscape, so as not to compete with the massing of the Cathedral building, and in homage to the former graveyard wall which bounded the site.
Perimeter roof glazing provides a ‘light touch’ connection between new and old, giving the opportunity to appreciate the soaring elevation of the South Transept and Crossing Tower elevations from within. Previously concealed historic fabric has been carefully restored and left on show to allow further understanding and interpretation of the historic site.
The sensitivity of the site context demanded careful consideration of materials and the need for a high-quality finish. Research was undertaken in the Cathedral’s extensive archives to determine suitable material specifications for all new-build elements and repairs to the existing fabric.
The original bricks of the Chapter House were carefully matched to carry out repairs to the existing brickwork and form the new walls, openings, and quoins. Site-salvaged flint nodules were used alongside; laid in courses over breathable lime render and self-insulating clay blocks to provide thermal efficiency and complement the solidity of the Cathedral fabric.
Ancaster Hard White limestone, used previously for Cathedral fabric repairs, was sourced for all dressed stonework.
Internally, spruce glulam beams form the primary structural ceiling grid, with joiner-made oak acoustic coffer panels set between. Yorkstone flooring, oak joinery, dark grey painted-steel, glass and bronze complete the key materials palette.