Sitting pretty with Mary Allan

April 4, 1997

Kate Pretty, the principal of Homerton College Cambridge, tells a tale of quads, tables, and natural ventilation to Peter Sandy

In her first five years as principal, Kate Pretty has turned round Homerton College, Cambridge, both physically and academically.

Before the first of her new buildings was opened by the Duke of Edinburgh in February this year, a visitor to the specialist teacher training institution might have struggled to find the porter's lodge, buried in a large Victorian building, down a side road. Now a modern landmark building provides a "front door" on to Hills Road and the porter's lodge is unmissable, sited within a gleaming new block, the Mary Allan Building.

"A key aspect of our mission has been to bring the subject of education into a more academic mode," says Dr Pretty, "and this is expressed in our new campus. With our architects, Sibley Robinson, we are changing what was an L-shaped campus into more of a square shape, with new brick and stone buildings enclosing green courtyards and mature trees, giving us a more traditional collegiate atmosphere."

This desire for tradition can be explained by Cambridge University's agreement last year, after much debate, to introduce a new BA course in education that was open to Homerton students and those from other colleges.

Dr Pretty has other academic trophies. "We took a strategic decision in 1992 to have more research-active staff, to bring us closer to the university's research mission, and it's paid off," she says. Research funding increased by almost 50 per cent to £507,000, with the proportion of research-active staff rocketing from 28 per cent to 84 per cent in four years. The quality rating has increased from an undivided 3 to 3a; the target next time is an "international quality" rating of 4.

Homerton has had to cope with the new Teacher Training Agency and much government interference, culminating in the national curriculum for teacher training. This requires teachers to know, among other things, their multiplication tables, reversing a trend of almost 30 years. A straw poll among Homerton's 18-year-olds revealed that only one in three had been drilled with tables at school. "I have no objection to making sure young teachers can spell and do mental arithmetic," says Dr Pretty. "It's just going to be quite interesting doing it so late in their development."

The other major event has been Homerton's success in capturing the contract to teach nursing and midwifery for the NHS Oxford and Anglia Region, bringing in more money and doubling the number of full-time equivalent students to 2,000.

Dr Pretty has steered the building programme personally, squeezing out the last drop of value in the process. Unlike most academic heads who find themselves clients of the construction industry, she has had lots of practice, chairing the university's arts building committee. "When I arrived there was £11 million of assessed work that needed to be done on the old buildings," she says. "In the first two years we persuaded the Higher Education Funding Council for England and the Treasury that instead of repairing our 1960s buildings, we should replace them with new structures that were better organised for what we were doing, more flexible for the future, and which could also earn money."

The HEFCE came up with £6.5 million to pay for the 4,000-square-metre Mary Allan Building, which includes a library, auditorium and teaching wing. That money also had to cover repairs to the large roof of the Victorian building, major stone and brickwork repairs, refurbishing the dining hall and providing new catering facilities. Doing all that for £6.5 million sets something of a precedent at Cambridge. Dr Pretty agrees. "We used a design-and-construct contract for the new facility because that is essential if your budget is very tight. What we have demonstrated is that the result can still be high quality if you combine good design with very careful selection of materials."

"But to achieve these things," she adds, "does require a close relationship between client and architect. Having been a client for the university and a client for Homerton, I know my relationship with Sibley Robinson has been very, very effective."

At a cost of around £900 per square metre, about half what the university might spend on a building, and with circulation space which allows people to mingle, but only takes up 15 per cent of the floor area, the Mary Allan is extremely efficient. The natural ventilation, which exploits its full-height spaces to draw air up through roof extracts, is another notable feature.

"But it's the quality of light that is such a triumph," says Dr Pretty. "The effect of making spaces in which people wish to work is so important. Sibley Robinson was keen to achieve transparency in their architectural design, and even as you approach from the street you get glimpses through the building of the lawns and trees inside the campus. It encourages you in, which is in contrast to some libraries which are more forbidding and chilly."

The project's next phase will be 284 high-quality, en-suite study bedrooms on the 25-acre campus. As well as providing security for the predominantly female students who live on campus, the rooms will complete Homerton's sales pitch for conference business. Dr Pretty aims to fill them for around 12 weeks a year with conference users.

Homerton has the potential to sell land to fund the remaining work required to upgrade its older study bedrooms.

"Looking at where we have come from, I'm happy with the past five years," Dr Pretty says. "We know things will change in the future, but at least we now have the right buildings to handle those uncertainties with greater confidence."

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