David Attenborough building takes home three Cambridge Design and Construction Awards

BuroHappold Engineering has won three prestigious accolades at the Cambridge Design and Construction Awards. All three were presented for the outstanding refurbishment of a 1960s Brutalist icon, now named the ‘David Attenborough Building’; the ‘Engineering and Sustainability Project of the Year’, the ‘Best Conservation, Alteration or Extension’ and the ‘Considerate Contractors’ awards.



he David Attenborough Building – previously known as the Arup Building – was originally built to house laboratories for the University’s Mathematics, Metallurgy and Zoology Departments. It includes a 500-seat lecture theatre and an internationally-renowned Museum of Zoology. The project reinvents this Brutalist icon as a multi-disciplinary academic and research conservation campus. It provides a vibrant hub for the newly-established Cambridge Conservation Initiative (CCI), new research areas for the university’s Department of Zoology and transforms the museum into an exciting destination for the public as well as a world-class academic facility.

BuroHappold worked closely with Nicholas Hare Architects in the complete transformation of the building into a beacon of sustainability, including a soaring atrium with a green wall and a new ‘green’ roof which will be used by CCI as an external laboratory to monitor different species colonising the building.

“We wanted to create a low-energy, adaptable and efficient structure whilst preserving the integrity of the original Sir Philip Dowson design. We’re honoured that our innovative sustainability framework for the refurbishment of this magnificent structure, including biodiversity measures such as a green roof, rainwater harvesting and even a bee hotel, has been recognised with three awards,” commented Andy Keelin, Partner at BuroHappold Engineering.

Mike Rands, Director of the CCI, added: “The project demonstrates the highest levels of environmental sustainability and will be an exemplar of how to enrich and conserve biodiversity in an urban setting.”

The judges made a particular point of highlighting how the project captured the essence of the challenge faced by the industry: the need to adapt and upgrade 80% of building stock. They also highlighted how the project embraced these challenges extremely well whilst dealing with complexities such as new users, a change in use and a hugely complex building. The panel was also really impressed with the energy metering throughout the building and the all-encompassing ‘Sustainability Framework’.

Project background

This project involved the major refurbishment of the David Attenborough Building, a 17,000m² mixed-use University of Cambridge building, originally constructed during the 1960s. Focusing on conservation research, it comprises multiple tenancies with a diverse range of space requirements including the Museum of Zoology, laboratories, lecture theatre and offices.

Project details


University of Cambridge


Nicholas Hare Architects

Project value:


•40% reduction in operational carbon

•£200K annual energy savings

•82% reduction in embodied carbon

Improving the sustainable credentials of this energy-intensive building was high on the client’s agenda. With this in mind, the team needed to drive the design to improve thermal performance of the building fabric and introduce new and more efficient building services systems and strategies. A key driver in achieving this benchmark was the development of a bespoke sustainability framework.

The design adapts the building to its new and enhanced uses through a series of simple but bold architectural interventions that match the scale of the original design intent:

A dramatic new entrance to the museum showcasing a fin back whale skeleton provides an exciting introduction to the new exhibitions and education spaces and gives the museum a new visitor-friendly identity. The museum entrance was previously largely invisible.

A new forecourt creates an inviting external space that also helps to make the previously unwelcoming and inaccessible podium an enjoyable and usable place. New external lifts take visitors up to the main podium – now a largely level surface. A soaring atrium with a living green wall replaces a dark and windswept undercroft. It unites the CCI levels and creates a collaborative hub at the heart of the building.

A new roof, incorporating photovoltaics, features a green roof that will be used as a living laboratory by CCI to monitor biodiversity in an urban environment. It also forms part of the rain garden strategy that irrigates planting and temporarily stores rainwater.

Passive and low-energy design strategies focused on the use of natural ventilation in areas where feasible, along with the use of exposed thermal mass. This enables the building to absorb and release heat in order to aid internal conditions.

A highly efficient lighting scheme was adopted throughout the project, incorporating daylight linking systems along with photovoltaic panels on the roof, providing electricity back to the building. These solutions have significantly reduced running costs. Due to the phased nature of the construction, the services solutions also required the design and coordination of a number of temporary plant solutions to allow certain areas within the building to remain in operation and fully occupied while other areas were being refurbished.

The purpose of the refurbishment was to create a low-energy, adaptable and efficient structure whilst preserving the integrity of the original Sir Philip Dowson design. This included meeting the expectations of key external stakeholders.

A passive design approach made best use of the building’s existing assets. The flexible structure and high levels of exposed concrete were used to promote a natural ventilation strategy. Phase change materials have also been incorporated into the new lightweight roof structure. New double-glazing respects the original fenestration pattern but provides much greater free area. New internal insulation is concentrated in areas of the building that are less visually sensitive in a holistic approach to the upgrading of the building fabric to meet modern standards.

Together with the new building systems which deliver environmentally-controlled environments to the museum and lecture theatre, this has resulted in a 31% reduction in regulated CO2 emissions over Part L2b 2010, now equivalent to a 25% reduction over 2013 regulations. It is estimated that over 82% of the building’s embodied carbon has been saved through refurbishment works.

The project pioneered a bespoke Sustainability Framework which reaches beyond BREEAM by setting ambitious project specific targets across 10 headline themes and 50 sub-themes. These targets were developed in a series of workshops with building users and the University Estates and FM teams and now form part of a post-occupancy, collaborative operational action plan. Headline targets include a 40% reduction in operational carbon emissions, 30% reduction in water use per person and 60% total roof coverage for biodiverse green roofs.

The result of the work on the David Attenborough Building refurbishment has led to the creation of an outstanding environmental benchmark for refurbished developments. This iconic building now serves as an exemplar of sustainable design and acts as a vibrant hub for the conservation community within Cambridge and beyond.

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