Building Schools: Adapting to growth and change in the community – ADC

ADC on September 22, 2022

Watch the AT webinar, in partnership with Amtico and SIG Design and Technology, exploring the role schools have to play in the community and how to integrate them into tricky urban sites.

As our cities become ever more densely packed, schools have to occupy an increasing variety of spaces and places. This Architecture Today webinar, supported by Amtico and SIG Design and Technology, explored how architects and the construction industry can respond to this challenge by delivering inclusive, inspirational, safe and sustainable learning environments on urban sites.


Speakers (clockwise from top left) Sheila O’Donnell, Je Ahn, Negar Mihanyar, Sophia Wise, Gavin Hale-Brown, and Ian Dryden 

Je Ahn, founder and director of Studio Weave, opened the conversation with Belvue School in west London, which is for children with moderate to severe learning difficulties. The site backs onto a wooded area – a crucial driver for the design, explained Ahn. Classroom doors open fully to the woodland, inviting nature in, and children (safely) out into the forest.

As any parent will testify, children plus nature, equals mess. A ‘messy barn’ lets children leave mucky shoes and the like outside classroom walls, doubling up as a performance space, too. Studio Weave’s addition is small in comparison to the rest of the school, but now, charmingly, it is the most used.


Studio Weave’s woodland classrooms for Belvue School, Northolt – a secondary school for children with moderate to severe learning difficulties – provide extracurricular facilities, including an informal teaching space and a student-run school café (ph: Jim Stephenson)

Gavin Hale-Brown, director at Henley Halebrown, used Hackney New Primary School in London as a fulcrum for a discussion on integrating housing, retail and primary-level education on a tight urban site. Situated off the busy A10, the school is bounded by Regent’s Canal, Kingsland Basin, and an overground rail line.


Hackney New Primary School in London by Henley Halebrown combines a 350-pupil school with an apartment building (ph: Nick Kane)

To navigate all this, Hale-Brown described his studio’s design for a mid-rise tower, which accommodates housing units on the upper floors. The base, meanwhile, hosts retail units on the street-facing façade, with the rest being for school amenities, chiefly bike storage for kids and staff. Classrooms within the school section, which lies adjacent to the tower, surround a courtyard, allowing them to ‘act as storefronts’, said Hale-Brown. This dovetails with a strategy to eschew internal circulation, freeing space to be used for teaching.


The relatively compact footprint of the residential tower frees up much of the site for the school and protects it from the noise and fumes of a nearby arterial road (ph: Nick Kane)

Ian Dryden, national specification manager at SIG Design & Technology spoke about the maintenance of educational estates, and how planned works with multi academy trusts can be carried out. He used Lightcliffe Academy in Halifax as an example of how to lay out an estate management programme.


SIG’s summary of existing flat roofs at Lightcliffe Academy in West Yorkshire

Prior to works being carried out, the academy had multiple roofs in poor condition across various interconnected buildings of different heights. SIG, with the client, agreed a planned programme of work over a five-year period, replacing fragile, non-compliant rooflights with those that comply, in line, as Dryden noted, with the clear ‘want and need’ for natural light over LEDs to aid teaching. Other roofs meanwhile were replaced with a SIGnature Torch-on Bituminous membrane.


SIG flat roof refurbishment project at St John’s School, Bishop Auckland (photo: Terence-Smith Photography)

Sheila O’Donnell, founding director of O’Donnell + Tuomey, spoke about St Angela’s College in Cork, which took 17 years to complete, involved exhaustive consultation, and had to negotiate a steeply sloping site that flows between and around existing buildings. The architect presented the project brief to describe the task at hand: ‘the challenge of this project was how to take a piece of city with some existing buildings with particular relationships and then take a schedule of accommodation and place that within those conditions,’ she said. ‘Finding a place on this site to put something as big as a sports hall, was part of this challenge.’


St Angela’s College Cork, Ireland, by O’Donnell + Tuomey. The school is designed like a hill-town, with city lanes and terraced courts connecting the new and old elements together (ph: Alice Clancy)

The design, which includes new rooftop spaces, connects both ends of the long complex site, allowing all the external spaces to be linked. This affords students and teachers maximum access to the building without having to walk through a particular part of the complex. Indeed, the project is all about creating new bridges and connections which can be traversed over and under to get through the site. It also provides impressive vistas of the city, exemplified by a glazed bridge that connects a former convent house (now a library) to an art room, which in turn provides access to a garden.


Four 19th century buildings were refurbished and two new purpose-designed buildings were added – one for sciences and one for arts – as part of the project (ph: Dennis Gilbert) 

Sophia Wise, regional commercial manager at Amtico, spoke about the role flooring has to play in contributing to education spaces that are fit for purpose, engaging, and sustainable. She said that surface decoration may seem ‘soft’ or ‘nice to have’ but in reality can serve multiple practical functions. These include influencing the mood or focus of learning spaces through the use of bright or muted flooring tones, promoting identity, and aiding wayfinding and zoning via patterns and/or colours. Wise used a striking floor design at Leeds University’s Clothworkers South Building as exemplar of the latter.


A combination of patterned and coloured Amtico flooring aids wayfinding at Clothworkers South Building, Leeds University

Performance attributes are also key to successful education flooring applications with slip-resistance, hygiene and durability among the most important considerations. Wise cited London’s Royal Academy of Music where the 28-year-old Amtico flooring outlasted the crumbling sub-floor, which in the end necessitated refurbishment. Finally, Wise spoke about the importance of flooring sustainability from supply chain and manufacturing to recycling.


The brief for the café at Heriot Watt University was to reflect the institution’s long-standing support for its LGBTQ+ student community. The flooring scheme employs a combination of feature and field tiles in Amtico’s Signature LVT

Negar Mihanyar, associate director and education and research sector lead at HawkinsBrown presented Central Foundation Boys’ School in east London. The inherited site forms part of a conservation area and included several existing buildings (in poor condition) surrounding a central courtyard. Part of the architects role, explained  Mihanyar, was to ‘unlock funding avenues to secure and maximise what was possible’, with the project being phased to facilitate this.


New entrance at Central Foundation Boys’ School in London, by HawkinsBrown (photo: Jack Hobhouse)

The existing chapel has been refurbished for creative arts and a new sports hall located below the courtyard with rooflights added to allow natural light in. Classrooms have been consolidated into designated subject areas, instead of being spread out across the site as before, and ameliorated level changes have significantly improved circulation and accessibility.


Interior view of science laboratory at HawkinsBrown’s Central Foundation Boys’ School in London (photo: Jack Hobhouse)

This engaging and revealing webinar showed that designing good schools remains a challenging discipline for architects and other construction professionals. However, it was encouraging to note from the speakers’ presentations that far from stymying creativity, the added complexity of idiosyncratic urban sites and the demands for convincing community and environmental engagement, are resulting in spatially and programmatically rich designs that will endure and serve future generations well.

Source: Architecture Today