It’s nearly 50 years since electricity was last generated at Osney Power Station. Today, the handsome nineteenth century building on the banks of the River Thames is used as a storage facility. But not for much longer: Saïd Business School has ambitious plans to convert this much-loved Oxford landmark into a global leadership centre. ‘The power station is critical to our strategy to provide a self-contained, residential learning centre to support our Executive Education portfolio,’ says Mat Davies, Oxford Saïd’s Director of Estates. ‘It’s a magnificent building which will lend itself to enhancing the participant experience. And importantly, it’s very close to the city-centre campus.’
A new direction
In a city famed for its dreaming spires and honey-coloured stone colleges, the idea of repurposing a former industrial building for educational purposes marks a radical break with tradition. Yet the power station – which stands less than 100 yards from the site of Osney’s lost twelfth-century abbey – is rooted in Oxford’s history.
Completed by Oxford Electric Company Ltd in 1892, the power station at Osney brought Oxford its first glimpse of electric light. The scheme was a success and some 7,000 electric lamps were installed in its first year of operation. Hilaire Belloc, the writer and Oxford alumnus, celebrated the dawn of the electrical age in his poem, 'Lambkin’s Newdigate': ‘For under Osney’s solitary shade/The bulk of the Electric Light is made.’ By 1895, most of Oxford’s colleges had electricity.
Retaining the historical narrative is vital. The introduction of electricity to a city is a really good illustration of entrepreneurship and innovation which we think maps very nicely onto the academic strategy of the School and our vision
Innovation was at the core of the project: the power station was one of the first to use high-voltage transmission with low-voltage local distribution, a model which continues to this day. The plant also used battery storage to balance supply and demand – an idea that is only now being revived by grid operators.
‘Retaining the historical narrative is vital,’ emphasises Davies. ‘The introduction of electricity to a city is a really good illustration of entrepreneurship and innovation which we think maps very nicely onto the academic strategy of the School and our vision. We want to be seen as leaders in entrepreneurship and we always want to be looking at how to best innovate in business, and in education.’
Currently, Executive Education is based at Egrove Park in Kennington, two miles from the city centre. While this site has played an important part in growing the School’s Executive Education programme, the complex – built in the late 1960s – was in need of an upgrade that would have cost about £50m.
‘When you’re investing that sort of money, you naturally need to look at what other opportunities there might be,’ says Davies. ‘Currently, Executive Education is based at Egrove Park in Kennington, two miles from the city centre. While this site has played an important part in growing the School’s Executive Education programme, the complex – built in the late 1960s – was in need of an upgrade that would have cost about £50m.
‘When you’re investing that sort of money, you naturally need to look at what other opportunities there might be,’ says Davies. ‘The University agreed to release the power station for us to develop. It was part of its estate and largely underused.’ Creating a new global leadership centre at Osney Power Station will bring a number of decisive benefits. New facilities will make it possible to deliver major improvements in the quality of accommodation for participants, who include the leaders of some of the world’s most influential businesses and organisations.
Another benefit is that the site is less than five minutes’ walk from the School’s main building on Park End Street, making it possible to further integrate Executive Education within the life of the School and University.
The plan for the power station is intended to set a new standard for Executive Education. ‘Residential learning centres tend to follow the conference centre model – there are teaching facilities, with rather average bedrooms bolted on,’ notes Davies. ‘We’re turning this on its head and focusing on the user experience. What our customers want is a four-star boutique hotel with world-class teaching facilities embedded in it. So we’re taking our cues from the hotel industry as opposed to the residential educational sector.’
It is important that whatever we do is beneficial both to us and to the community of which we will become a contributing member
The brief for the global leadership centre includes four main teaching spaces with lounges and break-out rooms to support small-group activities. All of this will be fully integrated with residential facilities. ‘There will be fine dining for approximately 140 people, a bar and leisure facilities. Our feasibility work shows that we can accommodate 120 bedrooms. These will be impeccably finished and will be of the standard that is expected by global business travellers,’ says Davies.
Smart-building technology is likely to play a part in personalising the user experience. An online questionnaire, completed before arrival, will give participants the opportunity to specify everything from language preferences to their ideal room temperature, lighting, and even their favourite music and TV channels. ‘We can feed all of this into a converged system, so when you swipe into your bedroom, the room knows it’s you and gives you what you want,’ says Davies.
Striking a balance
Making the most of the power station’s unique architectural characteristics is central to the plans. The main building has an elegant Italianate façade in decorative red and yellow brickwork; in the best Oxford tradition, it even has an oriel window. The riverside location is also part of the appeal – the site stretches for more than 90 metres beside the Thames.
The School is working with award-winning architects John McAslan + Partners on plans for the adaptation. The scheme would see the huge turbine halls opened up to form a single space, with distinctive features – such as internal steelwork and Victorian cranes – retained. ‘The really important thing is that we keep some full-height space where we can deliver views through the building to remind everybody using this space of its important historical past,’ explains Davies.
Of course, undertaking work on such a prominent building requires enormous sensitivity. ‘We’ve been careful to test thoroughly that our requirements are respectful to the building and to the well-established community around it,’ stresses Davies. ‘It is important that whatever we do is beneficial both to us and to the community of which we will become a contributing member.’
At the moment, part of the building is used for museum storage. In the process of cataloguing and moving out the thousands of artefacts currently stored at the site, some unexpected discoveries have been made, including an explosive harpoon, which – thankfully – was found to be inert.
Plans for the power station are continuing apace and the School aims to submit a planning application in late spring 2018. ‘We are now confident that we have an outline scheme which is feasible and we are working with our architects on the next stage of design, which will be followed by a structured and very genuine public consultation over the coming months,’ says Davies. Subject to approval and funding, work could be completed by late 2020 or early 2021.
Building on history: The Oxford Foundry
Oxford’s budding entrepreneurs will have a new home from October 2017. The Oxford Foundry, in Hythe Bridge Street, will provide a dedicated space where anybody from across the University can work on turning a good idea into a viable business proposition.
‘We’re creating a technology-enabled space which is relaxed, creative and flexible – where strong Wi-Fi and strong coffee are the key constituents,’ says Mat Davies, Oxford Saïd’s Director of Estates.
The facility is arranged over two floors. The ground floor contains a co-working space, while the upper floor will serve as an incubator. ‘On the lower floor, we are creating an environment where groups or individuals can learn how to become entrepreneurs and to explore their own creative ideas; the second floor provides office space where selected individuals or teams can test the viability of their start-up before risking their own savings.’
The Foundry building, a converted Victorian ice factory, is no stranger to innovation. ‘It had some of the first air-conditioning equipment and was advertised as a place where, among other things, you could store fur coats over the summer to prevent moulting,’ notes Davies.
Conversion of the building was completed in just 15 weeks – it was all hands on deck, with the Estate team working weekends to transform the building into an incredible working environment in an extremely short timeframe. The project underlines the School’s ability to deliver a large and complex industrial renovation on time and on budget.
It was supported by a US$1m founding donation by Reid Hoffman, the Co-Founder and Executive Chairman of LinkedIn.
Supporting global leadership
The School is launching a major funding appeal to support the development of its new global leadership centre.
The regeneration of Osney Power Station is one of the largest projects to beundertaken by the School since its foundation 21 years ago, and will see the School draw on the experience gained in the creation of The Oxford Foundry (see above).
Philanthropy will play a vital part in bringing the project to fruition and the School is leading an international fundraising programme. ‘Over the next 18 months, we are aiming to raise £25m to move the project forward,’ says Robert McCarthy, Director of Development and Alumni Relations, Saïd Business School. ‘We’re hoping to attract a select group of donors to invest in this and to be part of it.’
The project offers donors the promise of a permanent association with Oxford University and with the School. ‘For some, the motivating factor will be naming opportunities, recognition and the possibility for branding opportunities that come with that recognition,’ suggests McCarthy. ‘For others, it will be the chance to tap into the resources that the School could offer.’
The project will place global leadership at the heart of Oxford. ‘This is about tackling world-scale problems,’ says McCarthy. ‘It’s central to our wider objectives and vision for the School.’
If you would like to support the regeneration of Osney Power Station by making a donation, please contact Robert McCarthy on +44 (0)1865 288800 or email firstname.lastname@example.org to express your interest.