How to coordinate the delivery of 3,000 homes and community facilities – and keep it all eco-friendly

Heather Topel_Project Director_CROP

Some 800 years after it was founded, the University of Cambridge is once again dramatically shaping the built fabric of its city. First time round, the university introduced the colleges that were to become its famous seat of learning, but today it is developing not only new research facilities but also a community centre, children’s nursery, market square, hotel and 3,000 homes. This is the North West Cambridge Development, a new district on the city fringe where town and gown are being integrated by design.

The university’s driver for development is its need to house staff and students in a city afflicted by soaring property prices, but it is delivering with a placemaking vision that targets design quality, sustainability and stewardship, says the university’s project director, Heather Topel. Topel first came to this project in 2006 when, as a director at the project’s masterplanner and planning consultant Aecom, she was involved in early planning discussions. She moved client-side in 2013 when construction of the first phase began. That first phase, called Eddington, is coming to completion but Topel’s work is far from over.

How does the North West Cambridge development model work?

The university is the landowner and will be long-term steward because it is maintaining long-term ownership of many of the buildings and most streets and green spaces. It is important that this succeeds as a place, because we have an interest in attracting and retaining staff and creating a place where they will thrive and help the university to thrive.

The university has directly contracted some land parcels and delivered homes for staff and students, as well as local facilities. We have an overwhelming demand for staff accommodation so wanted that as early as possible, and we also wanted to set the standard for how the community will develop.

We have an overwhelming demand for staff accommodation so wanted that as early as possible

Other parcels have been sold to developers who then work within our framework, which is more like a master developer approach. For Phase 1, the model has been quite effective so far.

Who is building the market housing?

The first housing for market sale is being delivered by a third-party developer, which is Hill, and that’s under construction and being sold. We have four more land parcels coming to market soon, which will be for market housing and senior care.

You’ve delivered multiple buildings in Phase 1 – how did you handle that?

We set a very clear vision, and have checked on it every so often. It has been a challenge to make sure that the vision we communicate is what is delivered on the ground. Our approach has been to be a hands-on team. We have a team of 20-25 people, including operations, but we work closely with our professional consultants, the local authorities and stakeholders.

For the first phase we had a large team of architects, working under the guidance of the masterplanner, Aecom. We had integration workshops to ensure everyone was working effectively and in a coordinated way.

We had integration workshops to ensure everyone was working effectively and in a coordinated way

There was a lot of different work going on simultaneously, which was driven in part by the range of uses, and scale of development.

What makes this scheme so sustainable?

We set a series of sustainability principles, which has resulted in measures like the district heating network, rooftop photovoltaics, and the water recycling network, which is expected to cut water consumption to around half the Cambridge average.

For Phase 1, homes were designed to Code for Sustainable Homes level 5, but we are spending a lot of time thinking about what to do next, now that the Code for Sustainable Homes is not being used. We want to find something comparable to carry through our vision.

What is the key lesson from this project for you?

We have gone from having 200 flats on the site to 700 in a year, so we’ve had to make the transition from construction to operations. We’ve had a shift in our thinking from bricks and mortar to placemaking and stewardship. Now we have a community to work with and that will be an influencer in how future phases develop. The success of Eddington will hinge on how vibrant it is.

We’ve had a shift in our thinking from bricks and mortar to placemaking and stewardship

We’ve thought about how we activate Eddington and how we get it on the map – so when people see Eddington on the front of a bus, they know where it is. The Storey’s Field Community Centre has a broad range of events. We’re creating a framework to allow the community to take hold, and so have had to think about what happens from the ground up and what we do. 


Overall size of the North West Cambridge site: 150 hectares

Total number of homes being developed: 3,000 – half key worker housing for university staff and half for private market sale, as well as accommodation for 2,000 post-graduates. There will also be 100,000m² of academic and research space

Phase 1 Eddington homes completed to date: 700 university homes, plus 325 post-graduate student rooms, as well as community facilities including school, nursery, community centre, shops, sports facilities and parkland. Over 450 market homes are under construction.