Architecture Initiative’s inventive adaptive re-use has transformed a brutalist warehouse into a contemporary school complex
Words by Helen Parton
London-based practice Architecture Initiative’s latest education project in the Northampton area has seen it transform a 1970s brutalist building from a derelict former Royal Mail sorting office into an asset for the community as Northampton International Academy.
‘No one could make it stack up,’ says Lee Mainwaring, the practice’s design director, explaining the building’s recent history: too costly and unsustainable to demolish but lacking in a secondary use as it stood. After its days as a sorting office were over in 2003, it had stood derelict for over a decade, becoming a local eyesore and hub of antisocial behaviour.
Above the canteen, the ceiling has been cut to create one of a handful of vertical voids in the building enhancing connectivity and natural light. Image credit: Will Scott
Architecture Initiative had been working with Northamptonshire County Council on a number of primary schools in the area since the practice started in 2012 and the directors’ relationship with this client dates back some 15 years at their previous practice Rock Townsend. When one of the team from the council asked practice director Rowan Parnell if the firm could make a school out of the neglected building, as they drove past one day, the architectural challenge was set. The planning application was submitted in 2016 and the project started on site that same year with official completion in February 2019. ‘It was about making the space like a civic centre, giving it long-term purpose,’ Mainwaring adds.
Now from the outside, the new landscaping has that sense of welcoming pride upon arrival at the site. The perforations in the polished metal screen that wrap around the brick building are intended to look like the detailing of a brogue — a nod to Northampton’s shoemaking heritage. Two illuminated signage ‘boxes’ indicate the entrances to the academy’s primary and secondary schools, accommodating 420 and 1500 pupils respectively, with a 300-place sixth form within the building also.
To make spaces fit-for-purpose, the waffle slabs of the original structure have been filled with acoustic panels. Image credit: Will Scott
While the undercroft car park and the south side of the building are where the primary school can be found, with its own adjacent play areas, the majority of the space is the secondary school, with shared facilities including a 400-seat theatre and four-court sports hall. It’s not only the schoolchildren who benefit but the local community too, with the Northern Ballet and Saints Wheelchair Rugby some of the organisations which have used the space.
What was a utilitarian, windowless building now has an abundance of windows which have been punctured through the existing external walls. Steel-framed mezzanine levels have been inserted into the 6m-high space, with the classrooms arranged around the perimeter to benefit from the proliferation of natural light coming in horizontally. Evidence of the building’s industrial past such as large-scale shutters and waffle slab ceilings are still in evidence and Architecture Initiative has deftly incorporated newer elements including exposed mechanical and electrical services and white plastered partitions to separate the classrooms.
The four-court sports hall is used by the community as well as the schools. Image credit: Will Scott
‘We’ve positioned the “black box spaces” in the centre of the building,’ says Mainwaring. A case in point is the dance and drama room on the basement level. The adjacent theatre would rival many professional setups. ‘We’ve designed it to be flexible and robust, with the possibility of performances in the round by moving the seats,’ says Mainwaring. The waffle slabs have been filled with acoustic panels, a design trick repeated throughout large swathes of the space.
Next to the theatre is the secondary school canteen, normally a ‘beehive of activity’ but with furniture stacked away on our summer break visit. Above this is one of a handful of vertical voids cut through the existing waffle slab structure with the roof light bringing more daylight down into the space. Science rooms take up a good proportion of the area on the first floor, with vertical acoustic ceiling baffles and neat rows of turquoise cabinetry. Orange steps at one end and green at the other of the robust timber stairways see colour used for essential wayfinding in such a vast building.
Because the floor plate is so generous — 2,250 sq m in total — there is what Mainwaring calls a ‘long-life, loose-fit’ approach to the building’s usage going forward: there are informal spaces along the circulation routes, easily adaptable as extra learning and social spaces as the establishment reaches full capacity. The first primary and secondary intake came in last September with the first sixth-form students arriving in autumn term 2019.
Different colours are used for wayfinding. Image credit: Luke Hayes
On the top floor is the sports hall, the result of inserting a new steel structure where an external courtyard used to be. The plywood panelling is the dominant visual factor. Ribbon LED lighting and an influx of natural light thanks to translucent polycarbonate panels along the top of the walls avoid that slightly oppressive feeling of similarly enclosed sports facilities.
The view from the sixth form on the third floor, thanks to one of those aforementioned voids, gives the younger students on the floors below a visual reminder of their progression through school. The sixth form has a mix of study and social areas, including its own roof terrace. ‘I feel like everything’s shifted up a gear,’ says Mainwaring. ‘Primary schools look like secondary schools, secondary schools look more like universities and universities look more like workplaces.’
Transforming this previously unloved bit of central Northampton has not gone unrecognised, with the academy picking up a RIBA East Midlands award recently. James Wheeler, head of estates and facilities at Northamptonshire County Council sums up its success: ‘Architecture Initiative took a building that was a liability to the local area and made it iconic for genuine and positive reasons.’