Flexibility and agility

A new sports centre forms a key part of an ongoing masterplan at Oxford University’s iconic Iffley Road Sports Complex, where Roger Bannister broke the four-minute mile. James Parker reports on a highly flexible space with an innovative glass floor

A new sports centre at Oxford University forms a sleek and high-tech milestone on a wider masterplan to redevelop a historic sports campus in the city. The Iffley Road Track is now world famous in athletics as the venue for Roger Bannister’s four-minute mile, recorded in 1954. Therefore, the phased redevelopment of the Iffley Road Sports Complex not only had a prestigious and diligent client’s expectations to meet, but also the challenge of a location with wider cultural significance. Luckily architects FaulknerBrowns have significant experience in high-profile sports sector projects, including several with Oxford University over the years. As with many such major sports complex redevelopments, the gestation has been long – beginning “around 2004 with high level masterplanning,” Ben Sykes, partner at FaulknerBrowns tells ADF. Sykes said that it was during this process that the architects “realised how finessed we were going to have to be in terms of our approach, because of the sensitivity of the site.” The cornerstone of the whole scheme, and completed first phase, is the Acer Nethercott Sports Centre. This large hall is a major addition to the main sports building on the site, and is named after an Oxford rowing cox who twice won the Boat Race but died from a brain tumour, aged just 35. Adjoining the west flank of the complex, Phase 1 also includes a multi-purpose gym and additional changing facilities, plus a refurbished cafe and reception. Subsequent phases are to include a replacement grandstand building (which overlooks the running track and will now incorporate a cricket school), plus a gym and wellbeing centre, rowing training centre, and Phase 2 of the sports centre.


There were some sensitive masterplanning challenges for the architects to consider in ensuring the process of adding a new sports hall minimised disruption to users. Sykes says it represented a “mini-masterplan,” itself phased in a way that would enable the complex to continue smooth running. “As we were building Phase 1, the rest of the building was being used; we had to keep the whole thing functioning.” The new multi-purpose space gives the client ample flexibility for programming activities from dance and spinning classes to TRX training and weights. However for the designers it presented a challenge, being located in “a really complicated knuckle of the building” where the main reception and both dry and wet changing rooms for the centre’s pool are located. A public access linking through to a track side access added further complicated the picture. The project team decided on using temporary portakabin-type changing rooms for the duration of Phase 1, which maintained operation and prevented the centre from having to close. In addition, a temporary reception and cafe were created while the existing ones were being refurbished. The architects needed to bear in mind the potential future planned phases of redevelopment throughout all of this. As Sykes puts it, “There were kind of hidden lines in the current work so that when the next phase comes forward, we’re prepped for it.” However, he adds that “it’s difficult to get the right balance in terms of the quality and resilience of the pieces that are going to be there for the long-term, but being quite circumspect on the areas that might only be there for a few years.”

A new hall

The brief from the client for the Sports Centre was for a hall that would accommodate four badminton courts (or a single basketball court) – this would double the capacity as the complex already includes a four-court hall. As FaulknerBrowns’ Sykes says, this extra capacity gives the client the “platform to deliver future phases of the masterplan” – there will be no need to close the building when the time comes for the refurbishment work to take place. In common with many such projects in Oxford, funding for Phase 1 relied on bequests, and Sykes admits that “sometimes the benefactor has a very strong view about what the building should or shouldn’t have inside it.” He tells ADF however that the masterplan “has to be strong enough so it holds together, and that the planning consent has continuing value, but loose enough to react to a changing world, whether in terms of funding, or sport.” Because the redevelopment will span “a lot of years,” the architects wanted to achieve a “quite neutral” look externally, to help the phases “harmonise with each other over time.” As part of this, the simple rectangular form echoes other buildings on the site, clad in a “well mannered” pale brick with lime mortar, and no movement joints. “We’ve tried to set a standard for future phases,” says Sykes.

A glass floor

Despite the complexity and challenges of refurbishing and adding facilities within the existing building, the new sports centre is virtually a stand-alone achievement, uncompromised by anything around it. It is a truly state-of-the-art result for the client, featuring the UK’s first full LED-lit, sprung glass sports floor. This is just one key element of a neat and classy finish that’s also something of a surprise for users familiar with the multiple criss-crossing lines common to most sports hall floors. Using this innovative laminated floor, produced by German firm ASB GlassFloor, court markings for a variety of different sports can be simply switched on or off, thanks to a maze of aluminium tracks under the black, etched glass panels; these contain white LED ribbons which illuminate to form the markings. These are arranged in a variety of configurations to form different courts and pitches and can be instantly switched over. Alternatively they can be switched off entirely leaving a ‘normal’ floor allowing the space to be used for other functions such as events and exams. As well as cycling between basketball, badminton, netball and volleyball, more esoteric sports (but potentially well used at Oxford) like futsal and korfball are facilitated. In addition, offset or centred basketball court versions can be produced, as well as central ‘show courts’ for some sports leaving room to bring in seating around them for exhibition matches. The floor is supported by a further aluminium structure below, sitting on rubber packs. The project team held discussions with national sporting governing bodies on the quality of this innovative floor system, to verify it was of a high enough standard to meet the requirements. These were led by senior project manager from Bidwells, David Jobbins, Jon Roycroft, who’s director of sport at Oxford University, and Jennifer Makkreel, deputy head of capital projects at the university. As part of helping reassure the university’s estates department on the fitness for purpose of this highly unusual solution in the UK context, the architects engaged with the manufacturers ASB to make some tweaks in a few areas. This included working with them on the detailing to ensure that goalposts and netposts could be mounted safely in a glass floor. “They needed to have a certain robustness as every day people would be inserting posts into sockets.” In addition, they challenged the firm to improve a degree of “line bleed” seen in floors they visited, making the line edges somewhat blurry. “It was a good discussion, we said we love it, the client loves it, but could this be better? With the floor being made of glass, in-depth performance questions were also naturally asked around slip resistance, and the impact feel for players – e.g. the height of bounce. “You wouldn’t want one of Oxford teams coming and saying they didn’t want to play here because it didn’t play right, too slippy or too grippy.” The panels’ purpose-designed dimpled surface addresses any such concerns. While Sykes is very pleased with the installation, which has proven its fitness for purpose so far, he admits it “won’t suit all situations.”

Walls & screens

The walls are required to be flush up to a certain height, to provide the necessary ‘rebound’ performance required by various sport according to Sport England guidance. Therefore doors housing equipment such as netting are virtually invisible, and all sockets are carefully recessed into the walls. Oak timber veneered plywood faces the entirety of the inner walls, not only offering the flush surface required at low level, but avoiding the need to detail blockwork and ensure a tidy surface further up for mounting netting and scoreboards. “Over several projects we’ve evolved a language of effectively carrying the line straight up,” says Sykes. He adds: “Timber brings a richness and it’s quite cost effective.” It’s treated with a pale grey wash, to reduce some of the grain and give some more visual uniformity, useful for player visibility. With acoustics being a difficult challenge to get right in sports halls, the walls are perforated above the rebound area to provide lower reverberation. Aside from the dominant materiality of wood and a dark glass floor, the other material in this precisely-crafted space is (contrastingly) transparent glass. The doors in and out are of glass, and flush glazing faces a central viewing area adjacent to the entrance “like the back wall of a squash court,” says Sykes. Above it is an open viewing gallery the same width. Rather than have the traditional netting dividers common to sports halls, with their heavy canvas bottoms, at Acer Nethercott there are roll-up screens which disappear into the ceiling, and feel a “bit more permanent” when they are down. Once areas are divided, the LED markings will only mark out the required court within that space, avoiding the normal problem of lines continuing under a curtain, making it clear to users the spaces are not separated in a fully ‘designed’ way. Here, by contrast, each divided space “feels very sport-specific.”

Light & ventilation

The building is naturally ventilated, thanks to eight cowls on the roof providing passive stack effect ventilation to keep the interiors fresh, at a ratio of two stacks per badminton court. The building has underfloor heating. A slightly unusual hybrid approach to lighting has been used, rather than relying on artificial lighting. However as Sykes says, there is a debate around using rooflights in sports halls, “because simply put, you’re better off without them in terms of controlling the light.” As the client wanted to use the hall for other non-sport functions, they were seeking a warmer light quality, so wanted natural and artificial light to “work in tandem.” Sykes said natural light “adds quality and richness without detracting from the sporting endeavours inside.” And, rather than the traditional approach of placing strips of rooflights between the badminton courts, across the hall, here there are two long rooflights down the side walls, which “wash the walls with light.” The artificial LED lighting has presented “interesting challenges,” says Sykes. It is located in norma positions, but “because there’s less of it, there were some contrast issues which presented learning points.” He admits that with the space having far less visual clutter than normal, it is something of a victim of its own success, its qualities serving to heighten users’ perception of their environment. Sykes explains why they are more likely to notice any small issues: “In a big, normal chaotic sports hall space, the roof and walls are busy, and everyone expects ‘normal’ performance. When it’s highly crafted and refined like this, people just become really attuned to the space.” However, he enthuses “that makes it a great learning project for us.” Luckily, with the lighting being LED, it only needed reprogramming to address the issues. With Oxford University needing to seek fundraising to ensure future phases of the redevelopment meet the level of quality seen here, the client wanted the Sports Centre to be “innovative and inspiring.” It certainly seems to have succeeded on both counts, as “something that people want to invest in and be part of,” says Ben Sykes. He concludes: “We like projects to be challenging in terms of the architecture and planning, and we like to find a client who’s interested and wants to innovate. This one has a bit of everything that we would want.”