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Elmgreen School, West Norwood, London, by Scott Brownrigg

Despite a ‘could do better’ report from CABE, the client and pupils of Scott Brownrigg’s new Elmgreen School seem happy enough. Rory Olcayto visits the parent-promoted school in south London

As a general election looms, it is the Conservative Party that is using the idea of parent-promoted schools to attract new supporters. However, the first such secondary school in Britain – Elmgreen School in West Norwood, south London – has emerged from Labour’s Building Schools for the Future (BSF) programme and is located in Labour-run Lambeth Council.

Last month, around the same time as Conservative education spokesman Michael Gove met movie star Goldie Hawn to discuss her plans for a school centred on breathing exercises, which she says can make students smarter, Elmgreen, designed by Scott Brownrigg, was formally opened by cabinet minister Tessa Jowell.

Elmgreen School is here for more pragmatic reasons than those offered by Hawn’s corporate-Buddhism: there simply weren’t enough secondary school places in the area for the local population of youngsters. What’s interesting about the school is that the founding parents exerted a strong influence on the design, with Scott Brownrigg seeing them as allies, rather than meddling amateurs.

The school’s origins can be traced back to 2003, when 40 parents, under the School Standard and Framework Act 1998, formed The Parent Promoters Foundation (PPF). This approach is modelled on the setting up of a church school, with the parents taking the place of the religious body. In partnership with the council, the PPF campaigned to raise the £25 million needed for the school via the BSF programme.

In 2005, the PPF was given formal approval by the Schools Organisation Committee for a mixed, non-denominational school for 1,100 students. With educationalists, architects, the local authority and ministers from the Department for Children, Schools and Families, it began to formalise the ethos and design of the school. Two years later, based in a nearby Victorian school refurbished by Ellis Williams, teaching began. In September 2009, it moved into the Scott Brownrigg-designed building.

Despite spending just 11 weeks in the planning system and a fairly quick building programme, the process was not smooth. Shortly after planning permission was granted in November 2007, it emerged that CABE, in its first schools design panel review, thought the design was ‘not yet good enough’. At that point, Adjaye Associates was involved as design champion on the back of its success in community engagement projects such as the Stephen Lawrence Centre in Deptford and the Idea Stores in Whitechapel and Poplar.

A double blow was landed when Stockwell Park School – designed by Sheppard Robson, also for Lambeth Council, and a school the Elmgreen bid team had also competed for – was rated ‘excellent’. This clearly sticks in the craw: ‘If you were to visit Stockwell Park today, you would struggle to see a difference in quality with Elmgreen,’ the school’s designer Michael Olliff, architectural and education director at Scott Brownrigg, tells me when I tour the school with him.

Despite CABE’s warning, Lambeth approved the Elmgreen design without changes, although planners had already insisted that the off-white fibre cement cladding – which, in part, gave the illusion of a building conceived as a solid object – be replaced with a mixed palette of colours to reflect the polychromatic brickwork of the neighbourhood. So, approaching the school from the nearby Tulse Hill railway station, you see a wall of Marley Eternit cladding in off-yellow, speckled red and dark brown. Both architects balked at the change but Scott Brownrigg reluctantly complied. Adjaye Associates was disengaged at this stage, and, as reported elsewhere, has since sought to have its name removed from the project.

From the beginning, the main idea driving the school’s design was the creation of a courtyard around which learning spaces are arranged. Called a ‘market square’ by the school, this stems from Olliff’s analogy of a Tuscan hill town – that endlessly flexible model, which so many British architects seem eager to redeploy – as the basic generator of form. The structure is a hybrid of concrete and steel frame.

There are two market squares on the ground floor, both classed as outdoor spaces due to openable lights and constant ventilation (Designing for Education, AJ 12.03.09). Both have an immediate appeal, with plenty of light and a civic quality that must be a pleasure to experience every day. They share the Perfecta paving slab floor surface with the immediate exterior.

Much of the ground floor is made up similar large volumes; a dining hall connects to the first market square and opens onto a terrace to the south. A sports hall and a dance studio are placed alongside the second square. The main hall also opens onto this space. I can imagine many headteachers would crave a similar facility.

The PPF was incredibly supportive of the market square concept. The tight urban site meant locating the school at the northern perimeter, to create a three-storey street frontage that matched the immediate townscape in height while remaining distant from the two-storey houses to the rear. You can see why: it extends the ‘grounds’ inside. The success of this plan is yet to be proven, but Olliff is about to embark on research to see how the space is used. That Elmgreen is only attended by years seven, eight and nine at the moment, however, suggests it may be a while before accurate data is gathered.

Much of the success of the market squares and the related spaces is down to the inclusion of vision panels, which increase visual connectivity within the school. These, along with the finishes in the market squares, such as the larch cladding, were insisted upon by the PPF, against the contractor’s cost-conscious instincts. Scott Brownrigg was clearly very grateful of the support.

The classrooms and other learning spaces, however, lack the robustness of the ground floor and, given the deep plan, many have meagre amounts of natural light penetration. Some, such as the IT room, have none at all. Furthermore, the centrally located library, key to the school’s status as a humanities specialist, feels marooned, with three small rooflights and secondary natural light from the market square its only source of sunlight. Wide corridors and two lightwells bring some relief to the upper floors, but only the art rooms and science labs, to the northern and southern flanks of the plan, are truly inviting.

Like many other BSF schools, Elmgreen’s design concept centres upon a ‘big idea’ – in this case the Tuscan hilltown idea of a market square – to win client approval. There is a sense that while the ground floor and its big volumes and communal spaces work a treat, the classrooms on the upper floors have suffered. This may have been because of the overwhelming emphasis placed on the market square concept by the architects and the subsequent sanctity afforded to it by teachers and parents alike.

Nevertheless, the strong points of Elmgreen identified by CABE, such its good use of outdoors, its clear diagram and sense of space, have been faithfully realised. It may not be rated ‘excellent’, but then, so few are. In nearly three years of CABE schools design panel reviews, only two schemes – Stockwell Park and Walter and Cohen’s Cotham School in Bristol is the other – have ever been given top marks.

Overall design quality rating: ‘Not yet good enough’

The siting of the school building, closely aligned to the main access road, is a good response in urban design terms as it successfully stitches the school into the streetscape. The simplicity of the design concept to insert a ‘market square’ within a regular, rectangular form is sound and has resulted in a clear diagram. The success of the school will depend on how well this courtyard works and we think that its potential has not been fully realised. Patterns of usage and movement, together with noise levels and thermal comfort, throughout the school day and year, need to be dealt with more convincingly.

The deep proportions of the teaching areas in relation to windows and daylight penetration may have unfortunate consequences for their environmental quality. The building elevations are not yet representative of the clarity and robustness of the design concept and form.

Apart from the north facing art rooms, the expression of the building’s top floor as a glass box does not appear to stem from internal uses or orientation, thus weakening an otherwise robust design approach. Many aspirations related to the building’s environmental performance will have consequences for the elevations that have not been represented. For example, consideration is needed of the impact on elevations of the small ventilator windows that would be necessary for night-time cooling.

Project data

Start on site May 2008
Contract duration 19 months
Gross internal floor area 12,511m2
Form of contract Lambeth BSF D and B contract
Total cost £25.8 million
Cost per m2 £2,128
Client London Borough of Lambeth
Architect Scott Brownrigg
Structural engineer WSP Group
Planning supervisor Scott Brownrigg Planning
Main contractor Carillion Building
M&E subcontractor Halsion
Annual CO2 emissions 33kgCO2 /m2

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