Sarah Wigglesworth’s Takeley Primary shows that good schools can be built on a budget, says Rory Olcayto. Photography by Anthony Coleman
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I don’t know many architects excited by Michael Gove’s Priority School Building Programme. Sarah Wigglesworth, for one, is not a fan, and in many ways her most recent project, Takeley Primary School in Essex, a typically thoughtful design by her five-strong practice, embodies the approach Gove seeks to replace: the design-led, tailor-made one-off, with ample breakout teaching zones the education minister would describe as wasted space.
Still, part of me gets the education secretary’s irritation with the Blair-era schools from which Takeley has emerged and their accent on ‘look at me’ design, obscure procurement routes and the raft of consultants who ‘creamed off’ cash: client design advisers and education advisory services focused on ‘transformational change’ and ‘innovation’.
Having visited a fair number of schools over the years as a judge for the British Construction Industry Awards, as part of the RIBA Awards jury and when researching building studies for the AJ and other magazines, only a handful - and Wigglesworth’s Sandal Magna, a BSF one-form primary in Wakefield is one of them - ever really impressed. Some were actually shockingly bad. I remember a South London scheme with several grand, interlinked atrium spaces the architects had fought hard to retain - but at the expense of the classrooms, which were poorly lit and dimly detailed, with some even tucked deep into the plan with no views outside.
When you can point to the part of the school - those atria - that has been ‘designed’, you know the architect has failed. But that’s what happens when design is commodified, refashioned as a bolt-on and sold to stakeholders as a transformational booster. (Stakeholders: that’s what we call the various parties invested in schoolbuilding - including parents - today. Stakeholders.) The weird evangelical tone of the language used by these stakeholders, architects included, was often absurd. They would speak of their achievement in getting the school built with the same kind of zeal you’d expect of a team who’d brokered world peace. If I didn’t know better - if I didn’t realise how difficult it had become for architects to work within even pro-design frameworks like BSF, as Wigglesworth reiterated during my visit to Takeley - I’d be cheering on Gove’s decision to switch tactics.
My own primary school was a roll-out design - a big triple-height hall (and stage), linked into classroom clusters with adjoining ‘wet areas’, cloakrooms and toilets. Double doors on the outer walls of each classroom led directly on to the playground (which incorporated a blaze sports pitch) and in May and June, weather permitting, these doors were left open. Sometimes the teacher would even take the class outside. I can remember the qualities of each space clearly: the thresholds and volumes; the school dinner hatch; the clerestory windows in the vast hall. I remember feeling it was very much ‘my school’. Yet there was another school in the next town that looked exactly the same, except the corrugated metal panels were a different colour. My parents, too, thought well of Colgrain Primary.
Roll-outs were good enough then, so why not now? Changed days. I started school in 1977 and when the Thatcher era began two years later, half of all architects were still in public sector employment. There was a real culture of local authority design (and not just in Hampshire). There was an infrastructure of professionals paid from the public purse and tasked with ensuring civic projects worked.
We don’t have that now. What we have instead is an uneven, privatised culture and the vague hope that architects and other stakeholders involved in a new school project will value good design as central to success. Takeley is a rare example where that has been the case - a fluke, in other words.
Wigglesworth’s design, which replaces and expands on the capacity of the previous building, is a one-and-a-half form entry primary school serving 350 pupils. It has been designed to accommodate three more classes if need be (the surrounding housing estate where most of the kids live is still growing) and when I sit down with Wigglesworth to hear the project’s story she says: ‘We threw in an extra class as well - within the given budget - and there’s a community room, too.’
Wigglesworth eagerness to make these points is understandable. Her practice should really be designing more schools. Its right to design this one was hard-fought, having won the commission in competition with the likes of Cottrell & Vermeulen, which has a more established track record in the sector. Furthermore, noise mitigation was a big deal - the new school sits under Stansted Airport’s flight path - and that took a chunk of the budget. Any extras therefore count as a significant bonus.
Luckily, at state-funded Takeley, Wigglesworth had the right kind of client. It is a foundation school, which means more freedom in choosing how it’s run. Its first decision was to make itself the client and hold an architectural competition. Head teacher, Mandy Line, who proudly guided me around the finished building with Wigglesworth, was interested in design and how it could influence teaching. So were the school’s governors (Mark Gaby in particular, an associate director at Arup, who suggested that Wigglesworth should tender). And the contractor, May Gurney, despite an infrastructure background, took the small London practice’s design intentions seriously. ‘The chemistry was good,’ says Line of the team she appointed in 2010.
The plan is based around two fully enclosed and two semi-enclosed courtyards, which can be partly filled in to accommodate extra teaching space, whose colourful cladding panels contrast with the roadside elevations. ‘It’s like a Roman villa,’ says Wigglesworth and the external red brick walls that closely match the brick used in the surrounding estate fortify its civic presence: it looks tough, but not defensive. There is a wide, roofed-over entrance with reception on one side and the community room on the other. It beckons visitors and provides shelter, too. The aluminium roof is mono-pitched, so each classroom is more voluminous than need be, but that’s all good - clerestory windows make them brighter and aircraft noise is less pressing. The one downside is the junction between the brick walls and metal roof - a thin strip of aluminium. It already looks a bit ropey.
Corridors are wide. There are windows at the end of them, with views to the huge grounds beyond. Low-level vision panels lend glimpses into the classrooms, which have ample natural lighting. A double-height hall is served by a kitchen with wheeled-out food trolleys, giving more space over to communal use.
There is a library at the centre of the plan - which matches Line’s decision to put reading at the heart of her school’s curriculum - and Wigglesworth has made this space suitably dramatic, squeezing an activity room above it, accessed by stairs and a lift, which leads out onto an external timber deck. Along with the courtyards and extensive grounds, it, too, serves Line’s desire to utilise outdoor teaching as much as possible.
The other big deal at Takeley is its reliance on acknowledged construction techniques in place of complex building management controls. Monodraught ventilation, windows you can open easily, even the courtyard formation and mono-pitch roof, which both grew out of the noise attenuation challenge, helped cut down on expensive M&E. Wigglesworth suggests it takes a good designer to know how to save money this way, and given Takeley weighs in at £1,786/m², not far off Gove’s target for Priority Schools, it’s hard to disagree.
One thing: it’s not a pretty building (although you might think it is) but good architects know better than to confuse looks with good design, and so do smarter clients. Too often that was the problem with BSF and, once stakeholders conflate the two, it’s hard to reverse that perception. Takeley, however, among its many achievements, redresses this error.