£3.3m vision is transforming iconic Cambridge church

Work is progressing well on the £3.3million transformation of one of Cambridge’s most iconic churches.

Downing Place United Reformed Church was formed in June 2018 from the union of Emmanuel and St Columba’s URC.

The sale of the Emmanuel building means the redeveloped St Columba’s site will become the springboard for a renewed mission in the heart of Cambridge to create an open and inclusive church, and a community centre which is welcoming to all of the city’s residents.

Construction of the significant project is under way and the prominent city centre site on the corner of Downing Street and Downing Place is to be transformed by the work.

The church enlisted the help of experienced architects ArchAngel to provide the vision for the project, while the main contractor, Coulson Building Group, was handed the task of turning it into reality.

Nigel Walter, director at ArchAngel Architects, said it was the most exciting project in which he had been involved.

The practice works primarily on community and residential projects, both refurbishments and new builds. Previous projects have included St Barnabas Church on Mill Road, St Andrew’s Centre in Histon, various projects at Clare College and Shelford Deli alongside numerous private homes in and around Cambridge.

He told the Cambridge Independent: “In one sense this is business as usual for us because it is addressing the same issues as we address in all different church situations and communites. But here it is more prominent because it is bang in the middle of Cambridge and a bigger scale, so I would say this is certainly the most exciting project I’ve been involved in.

“This project presents a significant opportunity for creating a positive impact on Cambridge in so many ways. It has been inspiring to work with Downing Place URC to help them create a building to deliver their mission.

“The church is really embracing this opportunity to significantly reduce its carbon emissions through the building fabric, efficient services and renewable energy.

“It is the sort of work we do in terms of taking a church and enabling it to accommodate its life better. That often involves incorporating community activities within the building in a different way.

“The church was built with no views into it from the front. In our current culture, it looks like some secret cult, so we are introducing windows in the main elevation facing Downing Street and a new entrance because the process of welcoming wasn’t very good. We are creating a lobby space straight into the main church space so it opens up the life of a church, that is the aim of the project as a whole. The opening date we are working towards is November 13, 2020.”

Virtual reality technology from the architects has allowed the contractors to follow the build process in a more modern way than could have been imagined when the foundations for the church were laid down hundreds of years ago.

Stuart Humphrey, senior quantity surveyor at Coulson Building Group, added: “The beauty of technology nowadays is that it is so interactive, and easy to work from and update. The 3D model is all linked to the drawings. It vastly improves the speed and the delivery process and allows us to quickly adapt things and quick changes can be made. We can look at things from any angle.

“However, with two out of four elevations land-locked, six neighbouring properties, no parking and a limited site compound area, it is a challenging construction project.”

The redevelopment of the site will create a space with improved visibility and accessibility for everyone. A new glazed entrance on Downing Place will provide an inviting and accessible front door to the church.

A flexible internal room will provide a new secure space for NightLite – the drop-in safe space run by Cambridge Street Pastors from 10pm-4am every Saturday night – and additional meeting space.

Internally, the St Columba’s Hall area is to be extensively altered, to create a generous partially double height circulation and coffee space, a new catering kitchen, and a series of small meeting rooms.

The Group Therapy Centre, commissioned by the NHS, will be returning once the new church is fully open.

The Gibson Hall will be enlarged to seat 110, and the church itself will have flexible seating for up to 200 and all rooms will be linked with video screens.

The courtyard will be transformed into an ‘oasis garden’ in the middle of the city. The opportunity has been taken to lower the energy usage of the site wherever possible.