Building a Story

Dr Patricia Martin del Guayo

Patricia is an architect and masterplanner at Shepheard Epstein Hunter and her experience includes Space Park Leicester, Warneford Hospital and other university projects. She holds a Master of Architecture in Urban Design from Harvard, and a PhD in Sustainable Urban Design from the Architectural Association in London.

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One of the founding principles of our practice is that buildings and places are about people, and therefore people must be involved in their design and making. But when the project brief is complex and the stakeholders many, the consultation can become almost more important than the architecture. Our job then is to build a story, not a design.

At the Warneford Hospital in Oxford, we are working with the Oxford Health NHS Foundation Trust and the University of Oxford to develop the masterplan for a new ‘powerhouse’ of mental health expertise. Researchers and clinicians will work alongside each another on the same site, completing a feedback loop between practice and care.

On a project of this complexity, finding out the best people to talk to in the earliest stages of the masterplan can be the most difficult task. At this point we are establishing the overall ‘plot line’, listening carefully and reiterating the story to check that we have understood it correctly. We are also testing and refining it, not just because we are getting to know more of the detail all the time, but because our stakeholders are also adjusting and moulding their ideas as the masterplan begins to take physical shape.

At Warneford our first task was to ensure that the client bodies – health trust and university – were aligned in their vision, and that we fully understood their space needs and opportunities for collaboration. However, the nature of the site (and the sheer ambition of their vision) meant that many other people contributed to the story. Central to these were those who currently work at the hospital – researchers, clinicians, administrators, and the estates team – and of course the patients and their supporters.

There were also near neighbours, local groups such as the Headington Neighbourhood Forum and the Friends of Warneford Meadow, who successfully saved the protected meadow to the south of the site from development, registering it as a town green in 2009. Given this history, we were aware that local stakeholders might potentially be hostile to further development, and we were careful to consider their views about this important local green space.

Oxford City Council and Oxfordshire County Council, as planning and highways authorities, and Oxford Brookes University, which has a campus close by, were also important consultees on issues to do with the broader cityscape. There were also those who contributed to the scientific and clinical vision for the masterplan – government representatives, future funders and philanthropists.

Our challenge was to distil the many, many words and ideas we gathered throughout the consultation process down to a central thread which would inform the shape of the physical estate, and develop from it a masterplan which was sufficiently robust to withstand changes of context over the longer term – possibly several decades or more.

We never know which conversations with our consultees will be the most useful or critical ones; sometimes a casual remark by a stakeholders, which they may think has no importance, can shine a light on something that we wouldn’t have learned in any other way. This might be in terms of the broader vision of the project, or to do with a small, yet critical, detail of its day-to-day operation.

At Warneford, for example, we spent just half an hour with Sir John Bell, the Regius Chair of Medicine at the University of Oxford, but this short conversation helped us to think big and consider how masterplan might flex and become something quite different in the future. At the other end of the scale, a couple of more practical visits to the existing hospital and the Whiteleaf Centre for mental health care enabled us to talk to staff in fine detail about how they work with patients on a daily basis, with them explaining, for example, the lengths they go to to avoid any opportunity for ligatures.

These conversations – regular board meetings, tours and visits, staff meetings and updates – culminated in a consultation day in summer 2017 which was open to everyone with an interest in the project. Many of the key project stakeholders were filmed talking about the masterplan, making a digital record of the proposals which could be accessed at any time. Central to the presentation were our masterplan proposals.

The Warneford story may have been informed by many people, but it now has a clear plot – in the form of the masterplan – for how it will take physical shape in the future.