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Debate over solar panels for chapel at King’s College in Cambridge

A proposal to cover the roof of King’s College Chapel with solar panels has been described as “discordant” and would “harm the significance” of the building, according to Historic England.

The college wants to install 492 solar panels on the iconic chapel’s roof in a bid to reduce carbon emissions and help tackle climate change.

An impression of how the solar panels may look on the chapel of King’s College, Cambridge Picture: Caroe Architecture
An impression of how the solar panels may look on the chapel of King’s College, Cambridge Picture: Caroe Architecture

And timing this with repairs to the lead roof have been described as a “once in a lifetime opportunity” in the college’s planning application to Cambridge City Council.

But both Historic England and The Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings have raised the alarm over the impact the scheme would cause on the look and architectural significance of the chapel, which is recognised worldwide as the symbol of Cambridge.

Cambridge City Airport also has concerns that glare from the solar panels could prove a hazard to pilots.

Historic England describes the iconic chapel, which was begun in 1446 and completed in 1531, as “one of England’s most remarkable buildings”. It adds: “It is a building of European significance, as well, of course, as one known across the world. The chapel is, above all, an extraordinary work of architecture and art, one of the outstanding manifestations of the Perpendicular style – England’s late Gothic architectural manner.”

Its letter warns that the look of the panels on the ancient roof would “harm the significance of King’s College Chapel. Its harmful impact would be primarily to the chapel’s architectural interest. The harm would be caused by the visibility of the solar panels, the difference between their character and that of lead, and their consequent effect on the architectural character of the chapel. Indirectly, this would also affect the chapel’s historic interest.”

It adds: “Wherever they would be visible, the solar panels would be discordant: their appearance would shift with the weather, and be alien to that of the chapel’s historic materials… Their discordant character would detract from the chapel’s appearance, and erode its authenticity and integrity.”

Meanwhile, the The Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings said that given the solar panels would only result in a 1.4 per cent reduction of carbon emissions from the college, “there are a great many measures that can be taken to reduce carbon emissions that will cause low, or no, harm and that should be adopted before more harmful interventions are contemplated”.

Suggestions include installing better draught proofing, using LED lightbulbs, using A+++ appliances, lowering heating temperatures and installing TVRs on radiators.

An impression of how the solar panels may look on the chapel of King’s College, Cambridge Picture: Caroe Architecture
An impression of how the solar panels may look on the chapel of King’s College, Cambridge Picture: Caroe Architecture

Cambridge City Airport warned: “The introduction of PV (photovoltaic) panels on the roof of the buildings may affect the operations at Cambridge airport. The PV reflections could have an impact on airport operations due to glint and glare effects. Cambridge Airport requires a glint and glare assessment to determine full impact on pilots approaching the airport and air traffic controllers in the ATC tower.”

King’s College has applied to carry out the solar panel installation during essential works to fix the chapel’s lead roof.

A report prepared for the college by consultants states: “The college fully understands the heritage significance of the chapel as custodians of the building since its foundation in 1441. Equally it understands, as we swelter in 40 degree heat, the very real challenges posed by climate change and how the nation’s plans for zero emissions are on track to fall short of international and UK obligations and legislation by some distance.

“A major repair of the roof is needed and this is therefore a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to undertake works which will safeguard this unique building and help the college respond to the challenges of climate change.

“It is not a situation where the college can choose to ignore this opportunity and concentrate efforts elsewhere on the college estate. If it is to meet zero emissions targets, it needs to take every available option.”

The application will be heard by councillors on the city council’s planning committee on Tuesday, February 7. Officers have recommended the application be refused.

The college has earned praise in recent years for converting a previously immaculate lawn into a spectacular wildflower meadow.

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