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Evelyn Grace Academy, Brixton, south London, by Zaha Hadid Architects

[TECHNICAL & PRACTICE] Zaha Hadid’s Evelyn Grace Academy in Brixton survived a highly managed design and procurement framework, discovers Felix Mara

In last month’s Technical & Practice feature on David Kohn’s Skyroom (AJ 07.10.10) we looked at a talented architect’s response to the technical challenge of building a pavilion on top of an existing structure. Here we examine the way this year’s Stirling Prize-winner Zaha Hadid Architects tackled the different, but likewise demanding problem of working within a highly managed design and procurement framework.

Surprisingly, this new home for Evelyn Grace Academy in Brixton, south London, which opened in September, is Zaha Hadid’s first completed building in England. It may also be relevant that some used to say this practice’s buildings didn’t work on a functional level, as though there were some immutable law that stunning architecture cannot be practical. But all architects designing state schools in Britain are governed by strict procedures so, in theory, buildings that don’t satisfy clients’ requirements aren’t an option.

Most areas have parallel walls, while sloping walls identify the schools’ hubs

Evelyn Grace’s education trust, ARK Schools, chose a design and build route, with Capita Symonds as project manager and Mace Plus as general contractor. Mace appointed Bamber & Reddan as its architect, with Zaha Hadid in the role of ‘executive architect and concept guardian’.

ARK’s brief focused on aspiration and integration with the community, encouraging pupils to achieve high standards in the key areas of English, maths, sports and music. The site is a few streets away from Railton Road, scene of the largest outbreaks of public disorder in 20th-century England – the 1981 Brixton riots. Although the social and economic problems that formed the background to these riots are less severe today, many of Evelyn Grace’s pupils come from unprivileged backgrounds.

Evelyn Grace pursues its aims through long school hours, strict behaviour codes and a vertical organisation comprising four units of 300 pupils, known as ‘schools-within-schools’, which eases the transition between academic years and maintains pupil/teacher relationships.

View from west showing faceted curtain wall

Source: Edmund Sumner

View from west showing faceted curtain wall

Leaving aside town planning constraints – the site is adjacent to a conservation area – Zaha Hadid had considerable control over the school’s external massing and architectural expression. Although it was necessary to work to a cost model and benchmarks, guidelines imposed few constraints here. ARK expected a distinctive and flamboyant design that conveyed aspiration, even if an all-singing, all-dancing parametric tour de force such as Zaha’s 2005 Phaeno Science Centre in Wolfsburg, Germany was beyond its means.

The internal layout is a different story and, although its vertical organisation is unusual, it takes few risks, especially in its acoustic strategy. Zaha Hadid project architect Matthew Hardcastle notes, ‘there are ways of getting round the guidelines in BB93’, which covers acoustics in schools, to provide more open teaching areas, as in BDP’s Marlowe Academy, completed in 2006. But ARK preferred a more cellular layout, reflecting its strict, serious-minded emphasis on hard work, although walls between the generous 3m-wide corridors and the classrooms have a reasonable proportion of glazing, providing daylight and visual connections. Although Zaha Hadid project director Lars Teichmann emphasises its ‘open door’ policy, Evelyn Grace has clearly opted out of the fashion for ‘blurring the boundaries’ between teaching spaces, sometimes regarded as a half-baked model for learning environments.

The layout has a common sense approach. In most areas the 18m-wide floor plate has parallel walls, providing flexibility and adaptability. The corridors don’t have sharp corners or dead ends – they are terminated by windows. Facilities shared by all schools, including the library, sports hall, workshops and performance rooms are located in a ground-floor podium. A central common area will be available to the local community and each school has a large ‘hub’ space at its junction with this area. There are also shared spaces where the upper schools meet. Visitors enter through a central foyer, but each school has its own external entrance and, although vertical movement is inherent in the design, no school occupies more than two levels. Staircases, which can be problem areas, are glazed.

The relationship between acoustics, daylight and M&E at Evelyn Grace is complex (AJ Specification, November 2009). Although located in a residential district, because of intermittent external noise it was impossible to have natural ventilation throughout, so most spaces have mechanical supply and extract in suspended ceilings and all windows have BMS-operated actuators – it was impossible to resolve conflicts between BB93 and BB101 (Ventilation of School Buildings).There are no access floors. Hardcastle says, ‘it was difficult to fit the services in the ceiling’, adding that this might have been easier with an M&E contractor on board at stage D.

Most rooms are 50 per cent glazed, providing high daylight levels, and enhanced levels of insulation in the roofs, walls and floors compensate
for heat lost. Dimmers and absence detectors controlling lights in perimeter rooms reduce energy consumption and a biomass boiler provides renewable energy.

Because of the procurement method and benchmarking procedures, Evelyn Grace isn’t the type of project where the architect can economise in some areas in order to splash out in others. For example, because it is publicly funded it was difficult to justify expensive curved double-glazed units in curved frames. The resulting faceted windows look like a compromise. Zaha Hadid was disappointed by aspects of the design and build process – for example, the chequer-board lockers in the corridors aren’t flush with the walls as intended. But generally, the quality of finishing is impressive – even Zaha Hadid’s German project director was pleasantly surprised.

At Evelyn Grace, complicated detail has been designed out and design quality has been achieved through the use of geometry and a constrained palette of inexpensive materials – sloping walls identify the schools’ hubs, the setting-out of the light fittings looks dynamic and the range of grey and white finishes emphasise form and the play of light to create a sophisticated effect. Despite superficial resemblances to other academies in the shades of green formica finishes to the lockers, Evelyn Grace transcends the constraints of its procurement route as a distinctive and inspiring building. Indeed, it’s a miracle that it was completed at all – a miracle in SE24. n

Credits

Start on site January 2009
Completion date July 2010. Phase 2 landscape works, October 2010
Form of contract JCT Standard Design and Build Contract, 2005 Edition
Gross internal area 10,745m2
Cost per m2 £3,000
Total cost £36.5 million
Client School trust – ARK Education; Government – DCSF
Architect Zaha Hadid Architects
Structural engineer Arup
Services consultant Arup
Acoustic consultant Sandy Brown Associates
Cost consultant Davis Langdon
Project manager Capita Symonds
Main contractor Mace Plus
Landscape consultant Gross Max

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