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Sandal Magna Community Primary School, Wakefield, by Sarah Wigglesworth Architects

Mimicking the local terraced streetscape, Sarah Wigglesworth’s sustainable school buildings in Wakefield teach a lesson in the great outdoors

When David Chipperfield’s Hepworth Wakefield art museum opens next spring, it will seem to some that contemporary culture has come to the city.

As the museum’s nascent website puts it: ‘Visitors will also be able to experience art, architecture and design through a varied programme of talks, tours, film screenings and workshops, or simply relax in the stylish restaurant and café, serving seasonal, locally-sourced food.’

If the local civic society gets its way, some of the museum’s visitors will be from cruise ships that anchor off the Yorkshire coast and despatch passengers up the River Calder to Wakefield.

On a gunmetal grey Monday in Belle Vue Road, embedded between lines of back-to-back housing in the Wakefield suburb of Sandal, a very different expression of culture is afoot.

Dozens of schoolchildren are racketing back and forth across a raised wooden terrace that divides the dining hall of the new £5.2 million Sandal Magna Community Primary School from the segmented timber and GRP facades that form the southern face of the site’s main classroom block.

‘We’ve tried to create a building of learning. There’s no noise, there’s no trouble… architecture comes second’

The children could just as easily scoot down the adjoining ramp on to the smart new playing field, but most seem to prefer the pin-ball scatterings and coming-togethers of life on the terrace.

It is their street, downscaled, communal, thoroughly multi-ethnic; and the mix of those facade segments – some protuberant, others articulated – are expressions of the garden sheds that many of the school’s 230 pupils and nursery attendees have at the bottom of their gardens. This particular fillet of the scheme is the cultural nexus of Sarah Wigglesworth Architects’ design concept.

It is here, after a six-year design and funding odyssey, that the dynamics of the architecture unpack themselves most clearly, and in a way that prompts project architect Mark Hadden to remark: ‘We’ve tried to create a building of learning. There’s no [excessive] noise, there’s no trouble. The architecture comes second. It’s really about the bits in between the buildings, and the kids.’

Architecture that supposedly comes second is a potentially hubristic conceit, particularly for a practice noted for bold or polemical juxtapositions of materiality; and on one level, the architecture of the school, from structural elements to details and fittings, confirms this perception decisively.

The classrooms, for example, are fitted with exposed horizontal metal service grids above the children; deliberately serpentine copper water pipes veer this way and that across the frames to feed the fire sprinklers; and big sound-absorbing mats hang like hairy dominoes in the void between the service grids and the cross-laminated timber ceilings.

In the assembly hall, the inner leaves of the end walls are mainly composed of Lewerentz-like perforated brickwork to absorb sound; similar treatments are found on one cross-wall of each of the primary wing classrooms, to draw air into the row of ventilation stacks that rise from that segment of the school. The detailing of the facade composed of ‘shed fronts’ is equally striking.

Julia Simpson had to bushwhack local MP Ed Balls to plead for enough extra money to complete the school’s community room

Reclaimed bricks from the site’s original 1890 board school were used to form part of the corner and gabions supporting the long play deck, and Birtley Old English bricks from the local brickworks were used throughout. And yet it seems strangely luxurious and academic to emphasise these details, even if they must add greatly to the children’s visual and tactile experiences.

It is more significant to consider the architecture in relation to the funding travails, months of value-engineering, and a wafer-thin 1.5 per cent contingency allowance, which combined to strip £1 million from Wakefield Council’s original budget; the head teacher, Julia Simpson, even had to bushwhack local MP Ed Balls at a public meeting to plead for enough extra money to complete the school’s community room.

One result is that virtually all the school’s facades are clad with corrugated cement fibreboard panels demanded by the contractor for this JCT scheme.

Wigglesworth’s original environmental zero-carbon features, part-funded via the Department for Children, Schools and Families, were also necessarily denuded.

Nevertheless, this is one of the most carbon efficient schools in Britain, through a combination of masonry mass, passive ventilation, ground source heat pumps and a sizeable photovoltaic array on the roof of the assembly hall. There are also educationally visible rainwater recycling panels, mini allotments and chunky beards of wall vegetation.

Sarah Wigglesworth's design of three linear buildings as three cross-linked terraces of houses divided by two ‘streets’ has powerful cultural significance

Source: Mark Hadden

Sarah Wigglesworth’s design of three linear buildings as three cross-linked terraces of houses divided by two ‘streets’ has powerful cultural significance

Architecturally, the cost-cuts have accentuated the somewhat ambiguous typology of the scheme, certainly as seen from Belle Vue Road: despite its suitably childish looking bell tower (which presents more like a sketch than tectonic mass) and the sharp edges of the assembly hall’s parallelogram roof structure, the school looks distinctly light industrial in profile and materiality.

But, in this instance, these are not particularly interesting architectural conjectures. It is the culturally significant imprint of an ostensibly cliched design metaphor – three linear buildings as three cross-linked terraces of houses divided by two ‘streets’ – that ultimately dominates and energises what goes on here.

The plan layout of the buildings has become the framework within which collagist materiality and detailing, mostly pragmatic rather than elective, have created brusquely vivid indoor and outdoor stage-sets for learning and play.

Sandal Magna Community Primary School is, very evidently, culturally optimistic architecture. ‘This isn’t Tower Hamlets,’ admits Simpson, ‘but 15 or 16 languages are spoken here.’ The design has answered her mantra – flexible accommodation, visible environmental measures, and outdoor learning.

This is culturally optimistic architecture

‘Our children learn by doing. Many of them have very little experience to draw on – growing plants, for example, or experiencing the world around them, even getting dirty. Many just don’t do physical things like jumping and climbing. But after all these years, seeing it in place, it’s marvellous to see it working.’

In nearby Castleford, there is talk of creating a National Centre for Intangible Heritage that would celebrate local oral and visual histories rather than branded heritage, which would then inform visions of the cultural future.

Something like that has already happened in Belle Vue Road, Sandal, even if Hadden is – if I may split just one hair – wrong: architecture can only come second to its purpose, meaningfully, if its design recognises precedent and context, yet clearly seeks to create an engaging and progressive mark of change and difference. The architecture of this school appears to have done that.

Project data

Start on site April 2009
Contract duration 18 months
Gross internal floor area 1,740m2
Form of contract JCT SBC 05
Total cost £5.2 million
Cost per m2 £2,985
Client Wakefield Council and NPS Group
Architect Sarah Wigglesworth Architects
Project architect Mark Hadden
Structural engineer Techniker
M&E consultant Max Fordham 
Quantity surveyor NPS North East
Planning supervisor NPS North East
Main contractor Allenbuild North East
Glazing Scandinavian
Timber Windows Timber KLH
Profiled sheet cladding Marley Eternit Profile 6
Joinery New World Joinery
Annual CO2 emissions 18.5kg/m2

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