top of page


Dunelm House

Last Updated:

29 Dec 2023


This is a

Students Union, University Building

54.773252, -1.571927

Founded in 


Current status is


Designer (if known):

Richard Raines, Architects' Co-Partnership, Ove Arup and Partners


Listed Grade II

I'm chucking my two pence in by saying it deserves its place on the Durham skyline. It reflects both the best of an architectural tradition, and the ambitions of a Britain on the precipice of modernity.

Dunelm is a five level student union, and was built in the mid 60s following the designs of Richard Raines, in turn complimenting Ove Arup's bold but respectful Kingsgate Bridge. We can say the same about Arup's Ouseburn Metro Viaduct in that despite its non-conforming design, it fits well with its surroundings. Ove Arup & Partners were actually consultant engineers on the project, while the builder was John Laing at a cost of £350,000.

It provided separate staff space and communal facilities for those in different colleges, and has remained largely the same externally. Raines has since said he largely regrets not being able to provide a shared space, however the specification for the complex were strict and linear. Its interior had a significant Scandi influence which has since been heavily refurbished according to the listing. The chambers were airy and light, with decking-like walls providing contrast and colour. Even the furniture was like a new age IKEA. The building actually won an award from the Royal Institute of British Architects in 1967, which gives credence to how it was perceived in those days. Widespread distaste for Modernism has only come about fairly recently, and we'll probably change our minds again soon.

We see this building through the eyes of the 2020s, but it's important to consider the stuffiness and rigidity of University living pre-1960s. Dunelm House was at the forefront of psyche change, and to consider this was built in such a historic area was bold if not audacious. I also think it's quite sympathetic to the area, and does not take away from the UNESCO World Heritage Site over the Wear.

It absolutely deserves its place on the riverbank for years to come, even if it requires a differentg purpose or new role within the university.

Listing Description (if available)

As early as 1957 the University of Durham decided to expand E of the historic Durham peninsula where it had previously built. A new students’ union was planned at the head of New Elvet, joined to the peninsula university buildings by means of a new footbridge across the Wear gorge. The new bridge, Kingsgate Bridge, was commissioned from Ove Arup and Partners and was completed in 1963 (Grade I; National Heritage List for England: 1119766). In 1961 the Architects’ Co-Partnership (ACP) was commissioned to design the students’ union, following testimony from St John’s College Oxford where the firm had designed the much-admired Beehives building in 1958-60 (Grade II; NHLE: 1278860). As at St John’s, the partner in charge was Michael Powers, but at Dunelm House the design was by a young assistant Richard Raines. From the outset Ove Arup & Partners was part of the design team as consultant engineers. The builder was John Laing, one of the leading contractors of the day, who completed construction at a cost of £350,000. The university brief for the building was very specific and Raines had to meet it ‘exactly’. Communal facilities were needed so that the 70% of students living in university accommodation could meet those living in other colleges and the 30% living independently had a meeting place. There was to be staff space too and the brief required very separated spaces for these functions. Substantial accommodation was to be built on a steeply sloping site that stretched from the domestic character of New Elvet, down 15.4m (50ft) to the dramatic landscape of the Wear gorge, where right at the river’s edge the architects were to provide a boathouse (Roberts 2013). It was essentially to be a recreational building, designed to provide a wide range of cultural and social opportunities for students outside the curriculum, with a cafeteria, bar, coffee lounge, assembly and meeting rooms. The building was funded by the University Grants Committee and cost considerations were a determining issue. The drawings were made in 1962-4, and Dunelm House was built between 1964-6. The opening of the building in 1966 saw a concert performed by Thelonious Monk, the influential American Jazz musician and composer. The building was publicised and received some praise in the architectural press. It won a Civic Trust Award, and the RIBA Bronze Medal for 1966, and has always been widely admired in its own right as well as for the strong, modern group it forms with Kingsgate Bridge. An appraisal of the building in 1972 by Jack Lynn writes positively about the building and also comments on the lack of flexibility in the plan form and cites a number of shortcomings of the functioning of the services and the interior decoration, while acknowledging the shortcomings as 'relatively minor troubles in a heavily used building' and that 'Dunelm House has stood up well to harsh treatment'. The Architects’ Journal on 26 October 2011 published a report entitled ‘Britain’s best university buildings: Student Unions’, which identified a ‘top five’ that included Dunelm House and the Cambridge ‘GradPad’ as its 1960s’ examples. The external form of the building remains largely unchanged, with the exception of an additional set of external stairs added in 1965, replacement main doors and some replacement fenestration and secondary glazing. The internal plan remains largely intact too, although there have been alterations to several of the main spaces: an attempt to remedy water ingress through the roof was provided by the addition of brackets to anchor some of the tiles in place; the cafeteria received a false floor and a new screen, counter and furniture and the original decorative scheme was replaced; the original Scandinavian interiors of the bar were replaced and it was enlarged by incorporating the former reading and billiard rooms and a new counter was installed; the former coffee lounge has been partitioned, with most of it converted to offices; original doors designed as frameless plate glass have mostly been replaced; an additional stair to the bar mezzanine was added in c1970 and a reception area inserted and secondary glazing was added to some parts of the building. In 1989-90 the N part of the building, formerly the separate staff accommodation, was converted to a separate Careers Advisory Service, itself converted in 2013 for use as the University English Language Unit. Some time before 1996 the original caretaker's flat was converted to offices. The form of the original large spaces including the ballroom are relatively unchanged however. More recently stair lifts have been fitted onto the main staircase. The original design of the building included a number of built-in seats, ash trays, lighting, phone booths and a billiard table pedestal, of which a few examples of ash trays and benches remain, and a few original light fittings are retained within plant rooms.

Sadly the Ordnance Survey maps which depict Dunelm House are still in copyright and not widely available, but here are two from the mid to late 19th century which show the site long before Dunelm House.

If we scan the first map, Dunelm House covers the area from The Hare and Hounds to the junction of Church Street and Hallgarth Street. It was part of the long row of c18th century dwellings which sprawled from the peninsula in recent centuries, as more affluent townsfolk sought more roomier pastures. This is illustrated in the long gardens to the rear of the properties overlooking the Wear.

The 1890s map delivers the same, though an inn is now situated here.


Dunelm House in November 2023


Dunelm House being built in 1965 alongside Kingsgate Bridge. Source: Northern Echo


The Refectory in 1966. Source: John Donat, Riba

bottom of page