Vandersanden bricks ensure student accommodation blends with Oxford heritage

  • 17 May 2024

An eco-friendly development targeting the Passivhaus Low Energy Building Standard, Castle Hill House provides undergraduate accommodation for students of St Peter’s College, University of Oxford. To ensure the scheme sits comfortably within the historic environment adjacent to Oxford Castle, Design Engine Architects specified Vandersanden’s Chaucer Suffolk and Majestic bricks.

The prestigious scheme provides 54 bedrooms on a challenging site. On one corner is Canal House, the Master’s residence with a large garden, on the other, the Law Centre. It is bounded by New Road, a main route into Oxford, and Bulwarks Lane; between the two, there is a one-storey level change in the topography

To address the level change, a podium was created across the site which houses a bike store, plant rooms, toilets and offices. On top of the podium are the two residential blocks with the front building standing three storeys above the podium and the rear four storeys, the building stepping up as the natural ground gradient increases. Between the two is a central courtyard with bedroom windows of both buildings facing across it. This space also allows connection to the main university campus on the other side of Bulwarks Lane.


The scheme is in a conservation area that includes listed buildings and Castle Mound, a scheduled ancient monument. Quite a variety of materials are evident in the surrounding buildings but, within the material hierarchy, brick was the most appropriate and Chaucer Suffolk was an ideal match to the ashlar, ‘Oxford’ buff colour of Canal House and the Law Centre. Vandersanden’s Majestic brick matches the greyer rusticated base of Canal House, so was ideal for the podium that runs into the wall at the rear of the site.

‘Incredibly successful’

Richard James, associate at Design Engine Architects, comments: “We were struggling to find bricks of the right colours, particularly for the grey bricks where we were looking for a very specific match but, once we found Vandersanden’s Majestic, we didn’t look back, they’ve been incredibly successful.

“The Chaucer Suffolk provided exactly the right buff colour, not only matching the existing stone of the surrounding buildings but having the texture and tonal variety that gives it a warmer feel.”

A fairly natural mortar colour was used throughout for both brick types, helping to blend them together and add a little more warmth to the overall tone of the two bricks.


A variety of brickwork details have contributed to the success of the scheme. Within the brick piers of the faceted facades are areas of hit-and-miss brickwork that leave out the headers. These allow the window panels in the bedrooms to be left open to create natural ventilation and also provide some rain protection and security. Panels of hit-and-miss brickwork have also been used to fill in and repair existing walls, including the old stone wall on New Road. A staggered zigzag pattern was employed to replicate the texture of the very rough old stone walls on Bulwarks Lane.

‘Cut stuck’

The buildings follow the site’s irregular shape so a large number of ‘cut stuck’ brick specials were employed to deal with the changes in direction of the walls. Pre-cast, brick-faced lintels and support units were also used at various points across the facades.

The development targets the environmental standard ‘Passivhaus Institute Low Energy Building’. Passivhaus buildings are characterised by especially high levels of indoor comfort with minimum energy consumption. This is achieved by significantly improving the building fabric in terms of thermal insulation and airtightness, thereby minimising energy loss to a level that minimum space heating is required.


Richard adds: “We’re really pleased with the bricks, the colour match has been even better than expected and the quality of the brick is probably one of the best I’ve seen.

“They’re not the cheapest brick on the market but the effect and the quality is much greater than their expense. Vandersanden will be the starting point for future projects requiring this level of quality.”

For more information about this project and on Vandersanden’s Chaucer Suffolk and Majestic bricks and the wide range of high-quality bricks available from Vandersanden, visit the website. Details on Design Engine Architects can be found here.

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