University College Oxford, Boathouse


Belsize Architects
London, UK


University College Oxford, Boathouse

Project Description

The original 19th Century boathouse of University College Oxford succumbed to arson in 1999. It took the college almost eight years, partly due to difficulties related to the finding of solutions acceptable to the planners, before they organized an invited design competition to replace the former Grade II listed structure. Belsize Architects were one of four architectural practices invited to submit a proposal to meet the college’s requirements for a building which would provide rowing, social and residential facilities.

For Belsize Architects, the new boathouse did not need to be as traditional in appearance as its predecessor, but it still had to be able to support as much tradition and pride as was invested in the original building. Our proposal, having won the competition in June 2004, was completed in October 2007 at a cost of £2,100,000. The design had to meet the practical constraints imposed by the various authorities involved and a year long discussion took place with the local planning authority and the Environment Agency. In particular the entire site is on a flood plain, as well as providing a home for protected wetland species, such as water voles.

Creatively, the design concept for the new Boathouse draw upon two main principles, which are directly inspired by the sport of rowing:

Firstly, the boats, the oars, the water, all exhibited unique characteristics, which were manifested in the copper roof. The goal was to achieve a sort of blade cutting the sky, as the scull cut the river that first day we visited the site. The roof, like the shell of that boat, stretches over the entire building to provide shelter over the rowers and spectators. Strategic penetrations through it allow streams of light to filter into core areas. Keeping the roof as thin as possible and cantilevering it from the building gives uninhibited views to all sides, directing people's focus to the building's surroundings.

Secondly, we wanted the ground level of the building to carry a lot of mass for storage & security reasons, in as much as to prevent the occurrence of another arson attempt. Brick was an obvious choice of material for both its resistance to tampering, as well as its use as the predominate material of the previous building. In working with such mass, it was critical for us to open the building up at key points to ensure that it could also be a welcoming volume to the public during special events. The insertion of a void through the solid base, and vertically through the building, creates a space in which the landscape is allowed to enter, while presenting the internal activities to the surroundings. This atrium is an active place where all circulation passes, and whose generosity exposes views through and around the building.

The glazed clubroom is also an important extension of this space. Breaking free from the louvered first floor, it propels itself out from the main mass of the building towards the water. Flanked on two sides by the generous terraces atop the brick lower mass, it is a privileged vantage point, giving the occupant an active view of the river and all that is happening on and beside it.

The new Boathouse for the University College Oxford is a sporting facility that lifts its mass just above the ground - it is the shell of a boat, allowing water to pass beneath it while providing both sheltered as well as interactive space for participation in the rivers events

Belsize Architects. University College Oxford, Boathouse. Photo 1 Belsize Architects. University College Oxford, Boathouse. Photo 2 Belsize Architects. University College Oxford, Boathouse. Photo 4 Belsize Architects. University College Oxford, Boathouse. Photo 6 Belsize Architects. University College Oxford, Boathouse. Photo 3 Belsize Architects. University College Oxford, Boathouse. Photo 7 Belsize Architects. University College Oxford, Boathouse. Photo 9

Project Team

Architect: Belsize Architects

Client: University College Oxford

Planning Consultant: Barton Willmore

Structural Engineer: AKS Ward

Main Contractor: Kingerlee




British Gypsum



Concrete Pavers

Sapphire Balustrades


Pilkington Suncool


L & L Mechanical Steel Fabrication Services

External Staircases



HVP Security Shutters Ltd

Roller Shutters

Pickard Interiors

Ceramic Tiles

Boyland Joinery

Timber Cladding


Bricks (Staffordshire Blue)


Roofing (Copper)




Underfloor Heating