Top of the Class


FX examines schools with design principles that encourage student well-being.


OVER THE RECENT, remarkable period from March 2020 to now, nature has provided solace to so many. But the journey to my favourite park – Peckham Rye, in South London – brought me an added bonus, as it takes me past Bellenden School. Opened in 2018, it was designed by Cottrell & Vermeulen and reviewed in this very journal (FX January 2019), after I toured this charming and colourful facility with director Richard Cottrell. As I passed its welcoming entrance during the deepest days of lockdown, I was comforted by the knowledge of its unusual design and how well that would have supported the school community through every stage of the pandemic. It is, quite possibly, one of the most pandemic-friendly schools I can think of, largely thanks to the architects’ clever decision – made in order to squeeze as much classroom space out of its tight footprint – to minimise corridors and organise circulation into each two-storey, four-classroom block via a covered but otherwise open staircase, accessed directly from the central, courtyard play area. Thinking of these daylit, airy rooms and stairs, and the easy flow of pupils around the campus, I felt sure that this was a school that would have stood its fluctuating pandemic population in good stead – no overheating, no overcrowding in narrow passageways nor restless confinement without easy access to outdoor roaming opportunities.

But the principles of designing schools for optimal wellbeing, which underpins Bellenden’s structure and form, are nothing new. The Scandinavians – most prominently Finland’s Alvar and Aino Aalto – were proving the benefits of such an approach for health and well-being nearly 100 years ago. It’s just a shame that, over the past century, so many politicians’ and policy-makers’ willingness to understand and apply those principles for the benefit of their pupil population has been so intermittent.

Tye Farrow is a Canadian architect whose practice Farrow Partners has won multiple awards for its organic, curving timber structures, through which it has successfully improved the experience of healthcare, hospitality and education buildings for over two decades, from Canada to the Middle East. Most recently, Farrow added to his understanding about what aspects of architecture best generate well-being by completing a master’s in neuroscience applied to architecture at the University of Venice. One of his key discoveries, he tells me, is the importance of environments where your sightlines are not linear or inwards, but where the design invites you to look up and away from the prescribed corridor pathways or classroom whiteboard to be stimulated by middle and, ideally, long-distance vistas.

This blend of ‘voluntary and involuntary perception’ can come from views onto trees, planting or landscapes, but Farrow also believes that buildings enliven the mind when they provide a range of different geometries. ‘In environments where there are shapes that are curved but there are also triangular shapes, the triangle has a crisp reaction on your eye – like a firework – where a curved line is the opposite: your eye begins to drift over. When you see them together your mind really dances with it, because it’s trying to understand two very different things. That links to the idea of voluntary and involuntary perception. When you are studying – say, you are looking at a spreadsheet - you are very focused on that information. Or if you are walking down a linear city street, that is tied to voluntary perception, which is shown to tire your mind out after a short while. But involuntary perception is when you walk through a park or valley, or are looking at water or a fire burning. You are, involuntarily, perceiving all this extra information… That stimulates your mind and is regenerative as opposed to exhausting.’ For Farrow, perhaps unsurprisingly, the private, independent schools sector in Canada has proved most receptive to his vision, including The Toronto Montessori School, whose educational principles, established by 19th century Italian education pioneer Maria Montessori, are all about supporting children in learning as naturally and organically as possible. Farrow is in the midst of masterplanning its entire Toronto campus to improve flows as well as facilities (see case study).

But which, if any, of these transformative principles can be achieved by those operating within the restrictive frameworks of publicly funded school design?

Well, opportunities still arise, where the right site, the right architect and the right client combine, as Henley Halebrown’s Hackney New Primary School demonstrates (see case study). What this school’s exemplary courtyard design, exterior circulation and hospitable walls and windows offer, in addition to legibility and fresh air, is sociability. ‘We wanted it to be possible to see every part of the school from standing in the middle of the playground,’ founding director Simon Henley told The Guardian’s Oliver Wainwright. Henley adds: ‘I can imagine an elder child, bringing their younger sibling to the school for the first time, saying “that’s your classroom over there, and that’s mine above you”. I think being able to understand this whole world in one view is an appealing idea when you’re dealing with small people.’ Those dealing with special educational needs (SEN) can also sometimes justify embedding design principles that put health and wellbeing first. Curl La Tourelle Head Architects (CLTH) has a strong track record in this regard, though director Wayne Head says: ‘I would argue that all schools should have those qualities.’ Priory School, a 2015 project, has proved its worth as an exemplar. Head says: ‘It’s quite a large school for secondary students, many of whom have SEN requirements. It is blessed in that it’s adjacent to a tree lined site.’ That aspect informed a lot of the design decisions. ‘We tried to open up the plan so that wherever you are you can see through to the trees.’ Through the circulation and ventilation strategy, the school ‘becomes a fresh air reservoir. And also children can climb all over the school. There are playdecks, with herb gardens that children water themselves. You can go up on a bridge to a mini hut in the woods.’ Lessons learned from the success of this school have been carried through to many subsequent projects, including Alfreton Park SEN School in Derbyshire (see case study).

For most schools, the best they can hope for in terms of improvement is the odd extension. However, even one building can make a big difference, as Bell Phillips has found with its new sixth form block for the Skinners’ School, a historic grammar school in Tunbridge Wells (see case study). Benefits arise not just from the optimisation of light, air and movement in and around the new Mitchell Building, but also by placing a cultural emphasis on the qualities, skills and facilities these buildings support. Bell Phillips’ handsome three-storey facility has not only tripled the area for the school’s library, but created 21st century learning spaces for the English department and sixth form.

Well-being is one of the key elements embedded in the design, though it wasn’t – at the time – in the brief. Director Tim Bell says: ‘We all spent years in schools as young people where we had a single aspect classroom that was too hot in the summer, too cold in the winter, not enough daylight at the back: schools with too many corridors and spaces that were not very inspirational and not very conducive to encouraging learning.’ The new design is the opposite of that experience.

But the slow evolution of small, permanent additions is of little help during a crisis. Hence, one area of great interest has been the pop-up building. CLTH’s Head acted fast as the impacts of lengthy lockdowns became apparent. He contacted marquee rental companies and quickly realised that, with no weddings, events or festivals happening, ‘their businesses were on their knees, frankly. We realised they could transport stuff fairly quickly at significant scale. The marquees themselves are pretty robust. They can have insulation lagged on them. They’re very well ventilated. They can be lit very rapidly and make an instant setting for learning. We deployed them across a number of interested schools, in Tower Hamlets and Haringay and an academy group in Essex. They found these hugely useful.’

Head also contacted a wedding organiser who had ‘beautiful canvas tents that normally cost tens of thousands to hire.’ They offered to ship the tents to wherever they were needed, creating an instantly appealing outdoor space. In the absence of playing fields or grass to pitch them on, one tent was secured to a playground with water butts and oriented towards the primary school’s allotment area, creating a safe and pleasant outdoor classroom and ‘grab-and-go’ dining area. Head says: ‘The kids took to it very quickly. We even had NBC news come and report on it back to the US.’

Head’s team is now developing a modular 2m version of the marquee, which can be shipped in units and therefore doesn’t require HGV transportation. ‘It can be driven directly onto a field, be put up quickly, and offer really good daylight levels and ventilation.’ A self-powering version combining photovoltaics and air source heat pumps is being explored as well.

The demand has not abated much in 2021, he says. ‘We’re continuing to deploy appropriate versions of marquee-like structures to school sites. We help with site inspection and placement according to orientation for light, wind and efficiency. It’s part of our social value contribution to the situation.’

In the absence of pop-ups or new extensions, furniture has become a major focus for schools during and between lockdowns, as KI furniture’s education director Kevin Geeves noted: ‘During the first wave of the pandemic, all educational furniture manufacturers experienced a significant slump as an element of panic set in. The type or suitability of chairs hadn’t been given much thought and schools now needed to create more usable spaces. This led to an increase for individual folding exam desks with lightweight chairs. However, at KI I think the biggest shift we’ve experienced was with our Postura+ high chair. This was most likely down to the fact that rooms set up as labs now had to be used as all day classrooms and chairs were required to have seat backs to make them more comfortable for students.’

Geeves thinks greater flexibility in classroom layout will continue ‘This could include the use of tablet chairs that create individual workstations. Our Myke chair was launched in January and is a great fit for this purpose and has been well received. Moving forwards, having furniture that’s light and easily moved is of paramount importance, and it’s no surprise that this is becoming the norm – although this does come with an element of limitation, nobody wants to see the start of classes taken up with ten minutes of people adjusting their furniture.’

At the time of writing (April 2021) were the bigger conversations around healthy school design percolating through the education system? Richard Cottrell thought not: ‘It’s still a bit early. They’re either delivering schools that have already been designed or they’re too far in the future. It’s now that we will start to have those conversations.

‘But we have been doing some new schools, where we will address similar issues…. And I think as we go forward everyone will want to address these issues. This year’s experience will be very high on schools’ and head teachers’ priorities. We might live in a different world for quite a while.’


CASE STUDY:
HACKNEY NEW PRIMARY SCHOOL

The brief sounds far from ideal: a 350-pupil primary school funded by the sale of luxury flats on the same site. But Henley Halebrown has somehow turned a tricky situation into a positive advantage, by condensing the flats into a handsome, 11-storey tower and placing it on the busier side of the site to act as a noise and pollution buffer for the school, while also improving the appearance of that street. And the school itself exudes civic pride, sociability and legibility.

This image Maximising outdoor and ‘liminal’ space has long been a focus for Henley Halebrown. Image Credit: NICK KANE
This image Maximising outdoor and ‘liminal’ space has long been a focus for Henley Halebrown. Image Credit: NICK KANE

Circulation is placed almost entirely outside, thanks to stairs, covered walkways and galleries arranged around a central courtyard, whose walls are clad in a creamy ceramic tile, brightening this introverted aspect even on a dull day and contrasting with the terracotta tones that unite both school exterior and apartment block. By removing corridors from the equation, classrooms are bigger than the mean provision set by current government space standards. These are arranged, in paired blocks of four, along the longest, three-storey elevation, with reception and nursery on the ground floor. The street-front elevation contains a two-storey hall with single-storey kitchen to the rear and a staff room above. The hall has no windows on the ground floor, to ensure privacy; instead, lighting comes from a clerestory window. The block that adjoins these two incorporates music and drama rooms, as well as toilets. Administrative offices and out of hours reception are tucked under the flats, while large bronze gates give access to and from the school at the start and end of each day.

Stairs, covered walkways and galleries are arranged around a central courtyard area. Image Credit: NICK KANE
Stairs, covered walkways and galleries are arranged around a central courtyard area. Image Credit: NICK KANE

Banishing corridors and maximising outdoor and ‘liminal’ space has long been a focus for Henley Halebrown. Simon Henley says: ‘it’s about imprinting social infrastructure through architecture.’ An obvious manifestation is the circulation around the courtyard. Another is the long, low bench incorporated into the hall’s street-facing exterior, which gives parents somewhere to sit. Equally thoughtful is the arrangement of classroom windows. Each classroom has its own glazed door, accompanied by a narrow window, which can be shuttered to allow for quick conversations between teachers and other staff or parents. There are two further windows for each classroom: the larger, central one is set deep to offer exterior seating within the window frame, while the adjacent one is inset in reverse to create an interior window seat within each classroom’s reading corner.

The long, low bench incorporated into the hall’s street-facing exterior gives parents somewhere to sit
The long, low bench incorporated into the hall’s street-facing exterior gives parents somewhere to sit

Classrooms are large, with wooden beams framing skylights at upper levels. Meanwhile, the roof has been given over to planters and a ‘mud kitchen’, so the children can learn about growing their own food.

Client: Joint venture with Benyon Estate and developer Thornsett
Funding: Education and Skills Funding Agency for Hackney New Primary School Trust
Architect: Henley Halebrown
Area: 8,535m2
Cost: £26m
Completed: 2020
Structural engineer: Techniker


CASE STUDY:
TORONTO MONTESSORI SCHOOL

Toronto Montessori School (TMS) is a not-for-profit independent school, situated on two campus locations within Richmond Hill, where pupils from the age of 18 months to 18 years are taught. Like many schools, TMS has, through its success, grown in a piecemeal fashion over the decades and, until recently, its overall architectural impact and quality had not been addressed. To this end, TMS hired Farrow Partners as masterplanners and architects of new facilities to improve welcome and well-being in ways that articulate both Montessori’s and Farrow’s commitment to an education and architecture enriched by nature, and informed by educational and developmental psychology and principles of good design.

The timber structure of intersecting geometric shapes creates an interesting contrast between light and shade throughout the day. Image Credit: TOM ARBAN PHOTOGRAPHY INC
The timber structure of intersecting geometric shapes creates an interesting contrast between light and shade throughout the day. Image Credit: TOM ARBAN PHOTOGRAPHY INC

The newly expanded Bayview Campus, where the junior school sits, was completed in 2020. Previously, visitors and students would arrive at a large parking lot immediately outside a long brick building with an entrance that was allegedly difficult to find, but that car park has now been transformed. A garden courtyard sits between the old block and a new, semi-circular glazed and timber entrance lobby, with a covered arcade along its edge, for pick ups and drop offs.

The open air courtyard between these buildings proved immensely valuable during 2020–21, as it could easily transform into an outdoor classroom. Equally, the covered arcade at the front could be adapted for a variety of outdoor learning activities, even in colder weather.

The timber structure of intersecting geometric shapes creates an interesting contrast between light and shade throughout the day. Image Credit: TOM ARBAN PHOTOGRAPHY INC
The timber structure of intersecting geometric shapes creates an interesting contrast between light and shade throughout the day. Image Credit: TOM ARBAN PHOTOGRAPHY INC

Founder and director Tye Farrow’s timber structure of intersecting geometric shapes provides a pleasing choreography of light and shade throughout the day. Farrow explains: ‘The space is so responsive to light, it changes all the time. If it’s cloudy, sunny, misty, early in the morning, late in winter, the light becomes very different. When you walk in, you come from the low arcade, and then the roof slopes up, the structure begins to expand, the roof looks like it’s pivoted. Then there’s this grillage, this brise soleil of wood, creating diamond patterns. All of these things play into your voluntary and involuntary perception to create a very rich, very uplifting experience.’

The timber structure of intersecting geometric shapes creates an interesting contrast between light and shade throughout the day. Image Credit: TOM ARBAN PHOTOGRAPHY INC
The timber structure of intersecting geometric shapes creates an interesting contrast between light and shade throughout the day. Image Credit: TOM ARBAN PHOTOGRAPHY INC

Also included in this new wing are administration offices, meeting rooms, a multi-use space and athletics centre. Farrow was additionally asked to help re-organise corridors and classrooms across both sites to improve flow, atmosphere and lighting to create a more consistent overall architectural impression. Transformation of the Elgin Campus, known as Phase Two, is currently under way.

Clients: Toronto Montessori School
Architects: Farrow Partners Architects
Cost: $12m
Completion: Bayview Campus, 2020
Consultants: WSP (Structural); GPY + Associates (Mechanical); Summit Engineering (Electrical); Timber Systems (Timber Design Assist, Fabrication); Quinn Design (Landscape Architectural services)


CASE STUDY:
ALFRETON PARK SEN SCHOOL

Alfreton Park SEN School in Derbyshire has a rare advantage in its setting. Located on the brow of a natural ridge in the Peak District, with views across a tree-lined landscape, architect Curl La Tourelle Head (CLTH) has created a really exceptional scheme for this all-through school, which is part of a larger campus of institutions for children with special needs.

This image The series of low-lying buildings provide open and light-filled space for a range of activities. Image Credit: FORBES MASSIE
This image The series of low-lying buildings provide open and light-filled space for a range of activities. Image Credit: FORBES MASSIE

CLTH has designed the school as a series of low-lying buildings. Their arrangement and subtly coloured and treated zinc cladding are both sympathetic to the context and contours of the site, creating a secure, inclusive and welcoming learning environment for pupils. A simple single-storey pitched roof section is used throughout, creating open and light-filled interiors for all activities ranging from trampolining to physiotherapy. Each classroom offers sheltered play space and uses internal screens to ensure consistent views onto the surrounding parkland. CLTH’s director Wayne Head says: ‘It has very generous circulation and each of the classrooms has as much glazing as we can afford, appropriately shaded from high-angle sun. All classrooms benefit from the tree-lined, open prospect. And pupils should be able to circulate throughout the school with a sense of quietness and daylit spaces across the whole journey.’

Outdoor space and air circulation was an important part of the site’s design. Image Credit: CLTH
Outdoor space and air circulation was an important part of the site’s design. Image Credit: CLTH

Its low-impact credentials include a sustainable drainage system (SuDS), comprising a pond in the south-west corner that provides most of the attenuation. Water treatment will be achieved through plant filtration.

Each classroom offers sheltered play space with views onto the surrounding parkland. Image Credit: KILIAN O’SULLIVAN
Each classroom offers sheltered play space with views onto the surrounding parkland. Image Credit: KILIAN O’SULLIVAN

Client: Derbyshire County Council
Architect: Curl La Tourelle Head Architects
Area: 3,000m2 GIA
Completion: October 2021
Main contractor: Henry Brothers
Landscape architect: Wynne-Williams Associates
Stuctural and civil engineer: Price & Myers LLP
M&E: Method Consulting LLP


CASE STUDY:
THE SKINNERS’ SCHOOL

The Skinners’ School is a traditional state grammar school in Tunbridge Wells, the success and popularity of which gave rise to an opportunity for expansion.

A new sixth form building was part funded by Kent County Council and the school’s own fundraising initiatives, after Bell Phillips’ masterplan identified the optimal location on the school’s campus. It replaces an old and redundant gymnasium sandwiched between two of the three notable, Victorian Gothic structures on the site; a new sports hall had recently been constructed at the opposite end.

This image The new building is sandwiched between two of the three Victorian Gothic structures on the site. Image Credit: KILIAN O’SULLIVAN
This image The new building is sandwiched between two of the three Victorian Gothic structures on the site. Image Credit: KILIAN O’SULLIVAN

Though the budget was tight for the desired programme – sixth form teaching and recreation spaces on the ground floor, a second floor which houses the English department and a top floor dedicated to library and extra learning spaces – its frontage along the historic building line on the main road meant that ‘it came with quite a responsibility to do something architecturally worthy,’ as director Tim Bell says. The adjacent main school building, from 1889, is famed for its buttressed hall and timber-trussed roof. These and other elements of the notable buildings are referenced in the composition of the new block – specifically, dominant vertical proportions and strongly articulated gable ends. Window jambs along the street front facade are formed by brick columns turned through 45º, referencing existing triangular motifs.

As for interior layouts, Bell Phillips worked closely with the sixth form head, the librarians and the English department. Although the 200m2 ground floor sixth form is ‘not the brightest space,’ as Bell says, somewhat overshadowed by tall buildings nearby, it is dual aspect, with good floor to ceiling height, and looks south onto a courtyard garden and north onto the school’s shared courtyard playground. Flexibility is achieved with a mix of formal, intimate and informal study spaces.

An acoustic engineer was brought in to design the library’s high ceiling to ensure maximum quietness. Image Credit: KILIAN O’SULLIVAN
An acoustic engineer was brought in to design the library’s high ceiling to ensure maximum quietness. Image Credit: KILIAN O’SULLIVAN

The English department occupies the first floor, with two rows of classrooms either side of a single corridor. But all classrooms are still dual aspect, thanks to borrowed light via glazed panels between corridor and classroom. Bell says: ‘It embodies that idea of a studio, a serious place to work and learn, but they are bright and light, thermally very stable (thanks to the building’s concrete frame). And acoustics are very good – there are acoustic rafts over the concrete. They also have heat recovery ventilators, which push air deep into the plan and keep oxygen levels up, helping concentration and keeping people alert.’ The circulation strategy allows students to move around the ground floor via the courtyard, while two staircases – a main staircase as well as a secondary one – enable one-way traffic to the first and second floors.

Here, the library is the focal point, enjoying the full height of the pitched roof. Timber panels create a material richness in this bright and airy space. Acoustic performance was key, and an acoustic engineer was brought in to bespoke design the ceiling for maximum quietness. Bell explains: ‘The very top of the building is the quietest point. You get great views there over the near ground of Tunbridge Wells to the North Downs.’

Client: The Skinners’ School
Architect: Bell Phillips Architects
Area: 1,187m2
Cost: £3.25m
Opened: Autumn 2020
Consultants: Built Engineers (Structural Engineer); Hilson Moran (M&E); Gleeds (QS); Velfac (Glazing); IG Lintels (Structural Fabrication); Brookmill Blend – Traditional Brick and Stone (Brick supplier); Red Grandis, North Quay Trading (Timber Suppliers); Serota, Oasis Design (FF&E)








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