The Officers' Mess

Office Conversion, IWM Duxford, Cambridgeshire

The Officers’ Mess sits at the heart of the IWM’s Duxford ‘North Site’; a remarkably intact grouping forming part of one of Europe’s most significant and best-preserved wartime bases. An opportunity arose to sensitively repurpose this building for use by a third party and, subsequent to securing the commission by limited competition, CGA developed proposals for a ‘light touch’ conversion to serviced offices, infilling areas of past demolition with bright, contrasting modern spaces for congregation and breakout.

The combination of our expertise in conversion work with our long-standing and close working relationship with South Cambridgeshire District Council meant that we were able, with the support of the heritage consultant, to develop proposals which met with unanimous approval, having been carefully presented to local stakeholders via public exhibition. We engaged fully both with Planners and Conservation Officers to present and communicate the proposals with clarity and concision.

We took advantage of an area of past demolition and insensitive refurbishment by others, and justified its complete reallocation partly by analysis of the historic development of the building’s plan form. By infilling this void we give the building a ‘heart’; providing a marked contrast to the narrow, linear existing circulation spaces and predominantly modest, cellular spaces opening off them.

CGA was also required to balance the functional needs and aspirations of the end user with the IWMs obligation to safeguard this important asset and ensure its original form, use and finish could still be clearly ‘read’.

The character of the building also has to remain unchanged to avoid compromising its broader setting. The external fabric has been carefully repaired using traditional techniques and materials, and inappropriate, later clutter removed. Internally, finishes, joinery and sanitaryware all help tell the story of the site and how it was used, so have been retained. Performance of the building fabric has been enhanced without fundamentally changing its appearance and a new, highly sustainable primary heat source is being installed to the rear. This highly sustainable woodchip boiler will help compensate for the relatively low performance levels of the historic floor, walls and roof. Muted interior palettes have been carefully chosen to echo original RAF colourways.

The project exemplifies that delicate balance between careful conservation and pragmatic, sensitive enhancement and addition. The end result is a model in ‘stealth’ conversion in that the dynamic, modern space is entirely landlocked and obscured by historic fabric, and only reveals itself to building users. Externally, it appears exactly as it did more than half a century ago when the base was still operational, satisfying the IWM’s key criteria for the development and avoiding compromise of the visitor experience on flying days.

It has given CGA a fascinating insight into the building portfolio of IWM Duxford and the sensitivity required in adapting their assets for modern needs. The end result is set to be a great success, and could provide a template for future asset realisation, should the overall masterplanning exercise identify an operational space surplus, combined with a suitable building or buildings, in a workable location.

Structural Engineer: Roberts Hay Partnership

M&E Engineer: K J Tait

CDM: Firebrace Consultancy

Main Contractor: SDC