dRMM’s Oldham Maggie’s is the first CLT hardwood building in the world

Designed by dRMM Architects in the grounds of the Royal Oldham Hospital, the centre has also completed during Maggie’s 21st year of operation. Funded by the Stoller Trust, the centre will offer psychological support, benefits advice, nutrition workshops, relaxation and stress management, art therapy and yoga to cancer sufferers. 

The structure itself is the world’s first hardwood CLT building, with the interior walls and glazing curving around a central garden space above which the entire centre hovers. Once fully established it is estimated that the centre will support around 10,000 visits every year. 

Architect’s view

In addition to the central programme of providing free practical, emotional and social support, Maggie’s buildings variously serve as oasis, message bearer and inspiration, but have not explicitly addressed the relation between the built environment and causes of cancer. One of the unanswered questions cancer sufferers ask is, ‘What caused it?’ The increasing evidence of cancer in developed countries points toward carcinogenic elements in our food, drink and air, and material components of our built environment.

dRMM is immersed in the orchestration of materials and the built environment, and how design makes people live and feel differently. Our pioneering work in timber construction included the UK’s first cross-laminated timber public buildings at Kingsdale School, London 2006-9. Why wood? In wood there is hope, humanity, scale, warmth, and nature’s clever plan to absorb carbon. Wood is a non-toxic, versatile, benign, anti-carcinogenic material. People like wood, but steel and concrete are the industry default.

dRMM collaborated with AHEC and ARUP for Endless Stair in 2013, and a key new material which outperformed existing cross-laminated timber was the result. For Maggie’s Oldham, dRMM re-present this new material in an integrated design for a public building, carrying a message for cancer care and for environmentally sophisticated architecture. In a didactic display of engineered timber and glass construction, all of the walls and roof are visibly structured and form an exquisite natural finish internally. Externally the building is draped in corrugated, heat-treated wood, like a surreal theatrical curtain. Inside and out, whether structure, furniture or thermally-modified cladding, the timber used is American tulipwood; a prolific fastgrowing deciduous Magnolia tree made noble here by skilful manipulation. Maggie’s Oldham is the first cross-laminated hardwood building in the world.

But the use of wood at Maggie’s is just part of a bigger design intention to reverse the norms of hospital architecture, where clinical institutionalised environments and management procedures can make patients feel dispirited and disempowered. Cancer patients feel desperate and therefore hand over control of their lives too easily to medical processes. Their time is precious, yet huge amounts are wasted waiting hours in hospitals, on steel and plastic furniture in rooms without daylight, contemplating vending machines and mortality. Maggie’s centres invert this experience, turning a painful time into a pleasure. Maggie’s offer of comfort, humanity and empathy is carefully judged. Lucy Steed-Fassett, a close friend living and dying with cancer, helped me think about the general and the particular; from the psychological effect of specific spaces and views, to the effect of light levels and colour on skin made sensitive from radiotherapy, right down to the details of wood not metal door handles to avoid the neuropathy of fingers made painful by chemotherapy. 

One of the important questions asked by the client has focused on the need for, and means of, creating privacy. The plan is spectacularly open, framing views of the garden to the south, the horizon to the north, and the sky above. This main space is served by a suite of small rooms on one side and seating niches, but the occasional need for larger subdivision has resulted in what I like to call useful art. Dutch artist Petra Blaisse has designed a full-height reversible curtain loop which creates an intimate free-form enclosure, redefining space, light, colour, acoustics and privacy levels. The client, design team and contractors have worked hard and collaborated well, from building to landscape to furniture. The outcome is a holistic design environment, where the shadowy foliage of the trees in a framed view is as deliberate as the comfortable height, fabric and colour of your chair, or the home-grown tomatoes for the soup on the central, circular tulipwood table. Maggie’s Oldham is a carefully made manifesto for the architecture of health. Cancer deprives people of certainty; Maggie’s give them care and consideration. 

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Timber Expo
PEFC
Ejot
Citu
Timber Expo
PEFC
Ejot
Citu
Timber Expo