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Attention to details: The Hayes Primary School by Hayhurst and Co

Hayhurst and Co’s Croydon expansion makes the case for fresh approaches to school design, says Felix Mara. Photography by Kilian O’Sullivan

As recent debates between Conservative politicians and architects have shown, school design is an emotive subject, not least because of the force of social mores surrounding children that strengthen the convictions of the contestants on one side and the doctrine of public accountability underpinning their rivals’ arguments. Architects who believe passionately in design’s power to improve education felt kicked in the teeth when Secretary of State for Education Michael Gove suggested inflated fees were their ultimate motive. Given the background to this debate, it comes as a surprise that Hayhurst and Co’s addition to The Hayes Primary School, amply festooned with what quantity surveyors call ‘low-hanging fruit’, is located in one of the bluer areas of Croydon.

Stretching 54m across its entrance facade, a polished stainless steel brise-soleil with a grid of large, graded, circular perforations - even cheekily returning along its north elevation - seems to be saying: ‘You can’t VE me.’ Despite the school’s smug, trad suburban context, Hayhurst and Co’s proposals miraculously slipped through the conservation net. Chosen for Primary Capital Programme funding to enlarge its roll from 315 to 420 pupils and completed in March last year, the expansion involved wrapping new classrooms, an IT lab, a small hall, admin facilities and external play and learning spaces around the north and east sides of the original school, a building dismissed as ‘higgledy-piggledy’ by practice founder Nick Hayhurst.

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Some might write it off as a cosmetic branding exercise. Hayhurst explains the care taken to ensure nothing of the piecemeal accretion of original buildings was visible from the main road and that, where they eventually come into view, they are ‘silenced’ by a coating of white paint. It’s fair to criticise a building which lacks a legible entrance and street presence, especially if it has a role in the community, although some play a teasing game with the visitor. At The Hayes Primary, alternately coloured hexagonal paviours flanked by lawns, trees, shrubs and planting beds lead to a wide entrance doorway below a section of the brise-soleil that has been lifted up like a portcullis to display metal letters spelling the school’s name. Whereas many school entrances are seen from afar through secure fences, here you can experience the green reflections off the stainless steel screen, contemplate its construction and walk through patches of light as you pass below.

In the display of pupils’ art work in the entrance, a collage with silver paper perforated by an array of circles registers the impact of this environment on the children and you soon realise Hayhurst’s creative detailing doesn’t stop at the facade. Most striking of all is a 650mm-thick storage wall between the classrooms and circulation areas that, at 3.5m and with openings onto external courtyards and green vistas, are too generous to call corridors. The storage walls read as biscuit-coloured, board-marked concrete with carved-out recesses emphasising their depth, where you can park trolleys or store chairs, books and teaching equipment. In reality, they’re cross-laminated timber, with carefully orientated grain patterns forming striations like tiramisu. ‘We like using materials the wrong way round,’ says Hayhurst. ‘It’s a strategy for invention.’

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There’s much more bespoke detail to catch the eye: timber windows opening onto the courtyard, roof lights with splayed soffits and adult knee-high ventilators in curtain walling. Hayhurst shrugs off the RIBA’s decision not to convert the school’s RIBA National Award to a shortlisting for this year’s Stirling Prize by suggesting it wasn’t neat enough but, apart from the untidy way the brise-soleil overshoots an external corner in the pupils’ entrance courtyard, the attention to detail and the finishing are impressive. Hayhurst isn’t precious about the detail, though. He explains that, because of the surface spread of flame treatment to the storage wall, it won’t be possible to remove graffiti and, when I naively suggest the brise-soleil could eventually be taken to a factory to be re-polished, as if this could be financed from the proceeds of a school raffle, he politely reminds me of the cost and says he’d be interested to see it covered with moss one day.

Portakabin school advocates may baulk at The Hayes Primary’s extravagant detail, which I’d guess involved many hours of unpaid overtime, but it isn’t a prescriptive architectural ego trip. Though a comparatively young practice, founded in 2004, Hayhurst has taken a practical approach to the project, so essential to primary school design, that involves, for example, carefully planning toilet provision to minimise learning disruption. Though none-too-impressed by the original school’s ad hoc layout, Hayhurst built on the success of its wide circulation spaces and extended their L-shaped configuration into a racetrack. The courtyard is placed near classrooms to ensure it isn’t neglected through lack of use and is surrounded by spaces where pupils can get their iPads out. A proposal developed before Hayhurst’s appointment involved building on a slope on the west side of the site at high cost.

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Hayhurst also brought a classic Modernist analytical approach to the project, for example by focusing on the typical classroom as a set piece design exercise and identifying four different wall types, one for windows, one for the whiteboard and display, one for storage and one providing access to the toilets and cloakrooms. Arguably, two window walls would have been better, and the classrooms on the east side do seem quite dark, which raises questions about the brise-soleil. On the other hand, these classrooms were also nice and cool on a July afternoon in an essentially naturally ventilated building. The environmental logic is that the east-facing classrooms heat up in the morning and are then kept warm by the children. Building on research which compared the merits of high ceilings in Victorian classrooms and low ceilings in post-War schools, Hayhurst devised ‘swoosh profile’ ceilings, which provide both and maximise cross-ventilation.

Most post-war British schools have an appealing quality. But perhaps their way of evoking the optimism and innocence of childhood promotes a fallacy that they are all well designed and perhaps we should be wary of complacency. If you can get your head round the arguments that well-designed surroundings promote wellbeing and concentration and that each school has unique needs and objectives, there’s a strong case for entrusting commissions to young, energetic practices like Hayhurst with fresh ideas and approaches, as well as the usual ‘architectural’ suspects.

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