The Fabric 2014

 In the summer vacation of 2014, the college undertook the largest student bedroom refurbishment of its entire history: all bedrooms in Dokett Building (staircases Q, R, S), and all bedrooms in staircases BB and FF of Cripps Court were stripped out and refitted: some 110 bedrooms in all, in three simultaneous contracts with two different contractors.

Dokett Building, first occupied in 1912, was the first in the college’s history to have been built with a mains sewerage system already available (previously, the river Cam served many purposes).  So Dokett Building was the first college building to have had the benefit of internal sanitation from the very beginning.  Alas, it seems that public taste was not ready for this novel experience to be placed anywhere near to the residents’ rooms, and so all the baths and WCs were consigned to the underground basement, while four storeys of accommodation were built above.  Since then, a century of Queens’ students have had to endure running up and down up to four flights of stairs between their bedrooms and their baths.  Queens’ seems to have learnt that lesson, and by the time of Fisher Building in 1936, the sanitation was very much in evidence on every staircase landing.

Over the years, a number of problems began to beset the Dokett Building.  It had been built of a very soft pink brick, which weathered quite quickly and severely: this was particularly evident on the very tall chimney stacks (now mostly unused), where some corner bricks had almost disappeared, leading to concerns about the structural stability of the stacks.  The tiled roof itself was a century old, a reasonable age at which to contemplate re-tiling as preventive maintenance.  The roof had no built-in thermal insulation, and none could be inserted from inside because the roof was full of attic bedrooms: the only way to apply roof insulation would be to take the roof off and apply it from outside.

But, worse was to come: time, and public standards, eventually caught up with Dokett Building.  The regulations relating to the standards of student accommodation (deriving ultimately from the Housing Act) were made stricter, and extended to apply to colleges: the latest standards specified no more than one flight of stairs between bedrooms and sanitation.  If we were to retain the Dokett Building for student accommodation, it would have to be made to comply, and the only way to do that would be to gut the building internally, and install sanitation throughout the four storeys above ground.

When Dokett was first built, most of the accommodation was in the form of sets of two rooms: a small bedroom (facing Queens’ Lane) and a larger keeping-room (facing Friars’ Court).  Some decades ago, the college doubled up the number of students in the building by converting each set to two study-bedrooms: one large, one small.  The present refurbishment has involved creating a shower/WC room between those two study-bedrooms, out of space taken from the previous larger study-bedroom: the new shower/WC is then shared by the two occupants of the pair of study-bedrooms.  In about half the cases, we have been able to re-arrange internal partition walls so as to increase the size of the former small study-bedroom on the Queens’ Lane side.  Should the college ever wish to un-double the two study-bedrooms back to a set, then every such set will be en-suite.  In a small number of cases (in the attics and at the extreme ends of the building), it has been possible to create en-suite study-bedrooms, and some of these are among the largest en-suite study-bedrooms in college.

Dokett Building was notable for the high standards of its oak panelling (the personal gift of President Dr Fitzpatrick) and fitted furniture: this refurbishment has respected that heritage, by reclaiming fitted furniture displaced by the shower/WC room, re-fitting it elsewhere in the bedroom, and re-creating matching panelling where necessary. Some interesting decorative ceramic tiles were discovered in blocked-up fireplaces, although most of them had been seriously damaged: there might still be a restoration exercise to be carried out here.

The works began immediately after May Week 2014, and, in the case of Dokett, ran into difficulties quite quickly.  The main problem was that the soft pink brick was too soft to secure the retaining bolts that prevent the scaffolding falling away from the building.  This delayed the establishment of a safe working scaffold for over a month, and resulted in a late start to all the external work and the roof, which eventually caused the external works to run late beyond the planned completion date of Christmas 2014.  Inside, the somewhat curious nature of the concrete of which the internal floor slabs were made meant that final design decisions on pipe, drain, and duct locations could not be made until the slabs had been cut open, and the location of the steel reinforcement determined.  While the roof was off, ventilation plant was installed into attic spaces, each with their own dormer vents above the line of existing dormer windows.  The ventilation supplies each bedroom with fresh air, which is pre-heated by heat-exchangers in the attics, from the heat of the outgoing extracted air.

Apart from the shower/WC installations already mentioned, the building’s services were gutted and renewed: central heating, hot and cold water, drainage, electrical power and lighting.  Thermal insulation was inserted under the new roof, and secondary glazing added to every window (except gyp-rooms).  Every gyp-room was refurbished with new kitchen equipment, worktops, and cupboards.  Sliding glass doors were added to each staircase entrance, to keep draughts out. Lightning protection has been fitted to the chimney stacks and roof.  The external brick and stonework has been cleaned: the impact of this is most dramatic on the Queens’ Lane side.

Completion of the internal bedrooms was a last-minute down-to-the-wire thing, with carpets being laid and furniture arriving on the day before students were due to return in October, or in some cases, shortly after they had returned.  Internal works continued on the staircases and gyp-rooms for a further week after first arrival, finishing at about the time that lectures began.

External works, delayed by the scaffolding problems described above, continued through to the end of January 2015.  This included noisy work to the exterior fabric which had been intended to occur during the Long Vacation, but had been delayed into term-time.  As I write, in February 2015, the scaffolding is now coming down, revealing the newly-cleaned pink brick and stone building.

Meanwhile, over in Cripps Court, staircases BB and FF were being gutted and re-fitted.  The work in BB had in fact started by the removal of asbestos-containing materials during the Easter Vacation, giving the contractors a flying start in the Long Vacation.  Staircase FF had never had any asbestos, being built years later than AA-EE, after regulations had changed.  The works done in BB and FF were similar in nature to those reported previously on staircases EE, DD, and CC, and the lessons of those earlier works were incorporated in the designs for BB and FF.  Internal services (electric power and lighting, hot and cold water, drainage) were stripped out and renewed, and new supply and extract ventilation added.  Heat exchangers in the roof pre-heat the incoming fresh air with heat recovered from the outgoing extracted air.  Gyp-rooms were re-fitted with new kitchen equipment, worktops, and cupboards.  The floors of the bedrooms and corridors were replaced with a material that is resistant to water spillages, unlike the earlier wood parquet.

When FF staircase was first built, fire regulations required a staircase bypass corridor, which took up space, preventing us achieving the normal density of bedroom provision.  With modern fire detection and alarm systems, such bypass corridors are no longer required: we were able to demolish them, and the added space enabled us to take four previously over-sized bedrooms and sub-divide them, creating eight study-bedrooms of the same size and design as the rest of Cripps Court, a net increase of four bed-spaces.


On BB staircase, the creation of full-sized gyp-rooms at the AA end blocked direct access from BB staircase to four bedrooms, so these four rooms have been re-classified as belonging to AA staircase.  These changes on AA, BB, and FF prompted a re-numbering of rooms on all three staircases.

The works in Cripps Court were completed on time, and most students were able to move directly in to their new rooms in October 2014 without any difficulty.  The addition of secondary glazing to bedrooms in BB and FF was deferred to the Christmas 2014 and Easter 2015 vacations respectively.

The college has now finished the first complete re-fit of Cripps Court since it was built: every staircase has been done.  Every student bedroom in Cripps Court now has its own private shower/WC: about two-thirds being fully en-suite, and the remainder across the corridor from the bedroom.  The importance of this for the future of the college is not only the amenity level we can offer to students, but also that we can continue a full scale of commercial lettings during the vacations even when one staircase is out of service for redecoration or refurbishment.

One factor in common between the Cripps and Dokett refurbishments was that the college has changed its lighting technology in bedrooms to LED, having previously been using compact fluorescent.  This is the first time that domestic LED lighting technology has been sufficiently far advanced to consider it for use in a refurbishment contract.  Doubtless, further conversions will follow.

I do not normally comment on financial matters, but this time I must.  Lest there be any misunderstanding, let me stress there is no way that Queens’ College could have afforded to refurbish 110 student bedrooms out of its own resources, or out of any benefactions or philanthropic giving.  Had we been reliant on those sources, then the works described here might have never been affordable, or might have had to be spread over six to ten years.  These works were only made possible by means of debt finance: Queens’ has taken out a large multi-million pound loan at a fixed interest rate, to be repaid over 40 years.  In order to generate the annual interest payments due on the loan, and to accumulate the capital in order to repay it in 40 years’ time, it was necessary to apply the loan capital as rapidly as possible to projects that would be revenue-enhancing.  In our case, that meant upgrades to accommodation, to provide increased revenue from lettings, both from students and from commercial customers.  It was the need to generate as much extra revenue as soon as possible which led to the refurbishment being for as many as 110 bedrooms in one summer vacation, when normal risk management would have suggested a maximum of maybe 30 bedrooms in one year.  So, do not, upon reading about such a large project, infer that Queens’ must somehow “be doing alright”, because the opposite is the case: it is a sign of our desperation to remain competitive with other better-endowed colleges that has led to this loan-financed building refurbishment.

The other projects this year will appear minor compared to the ones described above.

At Owlstone Croft, a disused nurses’ dining hall dating from the 1940s has been converted to provide six new en-suite bedrooms, one of which has enhanced accessibility (such as a walk-in wet room shower).  These will increase our stock of accommodation for graduate students.  Previously, there was only one en-suite bedroom at Owlstone Croft, and none with adaptations for accessibility.  Work started in April 2014, and was completed part-way through the Michaelmas Term 2014.  A further five new rooms are planned for next year, in association with the creation of a purpose-designed college Nursery in the former classroom block at Owlstone.  Also at Owlstone, the flat roof of the Common Room has been renewed, and the last of three ancient heating boilers has been renewed.

Before the BB/FF staircase refurbishment even started, we knew that the extra showers would overload the capabilities of the Cripps Court water system, dating from 1974.  At the beginning of 2014 we began making preparations for renewal.  A trench was dug from the Fisher boilerhouse to the Cripps underground plant room, bringing primary hot water from the boilers to the Cripps calorifiers via a shorter route, with higher-capacity pipes.  Then the 1974 calorifiers were replaced, one at a time, by modern higher-recovery calorifiers, fed from the new primary pipes.  Then a new larger-diameter hot-water ring main was laid around the basement of Cripps Court, which was to become the new hot-water flow supply.  Finally, during a two-week building closure during August, the new hot-water flow ring-main connected the new calorifiers to all the staircases, and the former flow ring-main was reconnected as the return ring-main, and the old return ring-main (now of too small a diameter to be of any use) was left disconnected.  This was a huge service infrastructure renewal operation (for over 180 bedrooms) which took place mostly out of sight, out of hearing, and largely unappreciated.  But by September, hot-water services were operational at full strength throughout Cripps Court, and the additional load of the new showers in BB and FF in October was absorbed easily.

In February, a damaged panel of stained glass in the Old Combination Room was repaired.  It depicted the heraldic arms of Queen Elizabeth Woodville, our second foundress queen, and had been broken for some time.  Other historic stained glass also remains in need of attention.

In Fisher Building, we had been having difficulty getting hot-water to circulate effectively to the furthest staircases, such as T, over the Porters’ Lodge.  The hot water was being generated effectively, and could be drawn through if one left a tap or shower running for long enough, but the circulation system that is supposed to provide instant hot water did not seem to be effective, even though the circulation pumps were running normally.  Air-locks along the attics were suspected.  We were advised that a pumped pressurisation system should clear these problems, instead of relying on static pressure from a water tank in the attics.  So we sacrificed the former Porters’ Lodge in the gateway of W staircase to house a new water pressurisation system for the whole of Fisher Building: quite a substantial piece of engineering, for 120 residents.  The moment that the new kit was switched on it became evident that there was a massive leak somewhere in the water system: so massive that the pumps could not in fact pressurise the system.  But no such leak was evident to the eye or ear.  By elimination of all other possibilities, it was concluded that the leak must be underground.  And, indeed, the hot-water return pipe runs the length of the building under all the ground-floor bedrooms, which was not a welcome prospect.  This pipe, in order to traverse under the W staircase archway, drops below ground level just outside the W arch, along the footings of the building.  It was laid there in 1936, and had presumably been slowly rusting there ever since, for that was where the leak was finally diagnosed to be, by pressure testing.  We never actually found the leak itself, because the pipe was buried too deeply in the foundations: we laid a replacement pipe at slightly higher level, after which a normal hot-water circulation system could be restored.  So the problem turned out to have been not an issue with air-locks in the flow, but a failure of suction in the return.  We were left with an uncomfortable feeling: if we had known about the leak beforehand, and fixed it, would we have needed to purchase and install the pressurisation equipment?  But it was only the pressurisation equipment that enabled us to discover the leak!

The main kitchen of the President’s Lodge has been completely refurbished, including the laying of a hygienic epoxy floor.  This kitchen is on the ground floor of the riverside range, built in the 1460s.  The new cooking equipment is all-electric, replacing gas, and includes electric induction hobs.  The power demands of the new kitchen required a new electric main feed to be installed: during the laying of this new main cable across Cloister Court, the remains of an underground tunnel were discovered.  The discovered tunnel aligns exactly with a large sealed arch visible on the waterfront of the riverside building, just above river level.  Judging by the direction in which the tunnel was heading, it might have served the cellars under the Old Hall and kitchens, providing a direct path for river deliveries to reach the cellars.  Further investigation of this tunnel will have to wait for the future.

During the early part of 2014, as part of our overall campaign of electrical infrastructure upgrades, large electric mains cables were run along Silver Street to feed the parts of the College east of the river from our dedicated substation between Fisher and Cripps, west of the river.  During August, the final change-over took place: the electrical supply capacity to the college east of the river has practically doubled, and has become more reliable, as the old mains supply had a tendency to cut out unpredictably.  This upgrade was a pre-requisite to being able to supply power for the new kitchen in the President’s Lodge, discussed above, and will enable future upgrades to the forward kitchens for the Old Hall.

Being the custodian of a half-timbered 16th century Long Gallery, one cannot be complacent about the possibility of building fires.  This year, two interventions were made to mitigate some identified risks.  The replacement of heating boilers had, according to current gas regulations, required insertion of a steel chimney liner all the way up one of the tall chimney stacks behind the Long Gallery.  But a conductive metal chimney liner would attract lightning to this spot, right beside the timber-framed gallery, and gas boilers are hardly an adequate earthing point to diffuse a lightning strike.  So, proper external lightning protection was fitted to these Tudor-style chimney stacks to mitigate the impact of any lightning strike on the gallery.  Another discovery, under the floorboards of the Long Gallery itself, was a main electric cable so old that is was sheathed in lead, and insulated with paper: the consequences of this cable developing a fault or bursting into flame did not bear thinking about, and it was replaced very quickly indeed.

In Erasmus Building, the entry to K staircase has always been open to the elements.  This year we installed a glazed enclosure for the entry to K staircase, with automatic sliding glass doors, just as we did a few years ago for the open staircases of Cripps Court.  This enclosure has removed a source of chill from the heart of the Erasmus Building.

Also in Erasmus Building, the fellow’s set L1 has been refurbished, including the creation of a small galley kitchen, where there was none before, and the installation of sealed-unit double glazing.



Robin Walker

Personal note: I retired as Junior Bursar at the end of September 2014, so this might be my final report on The Fabric. As things have turned out, this final year was also one of the busiest ever.  In my report on The Fabric, as a special concession to one of my contemporaries as undergraduates, I have included every year references to the drains.