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Hampshire of the north: Highland Council's Ben Wyvis Primary

[School design] At The Highland Council, we successfully joined two schools into one by responding to the local context, writes Robert Ferrier. Photography by Chris Humphreys

At The Highland Council, our in-house team, approximately 40-strong, is responsible for design consultancy for all new build, refurbishment, and planned maintenance projects to secure the property estate of the authority. This includes £30 million a year for ECS (education service), £16 million a year on attaining 2015 standards on stock of 12,000 houses, £9 million a year on new housing, and £20 million a year on other works from across the services.

A few years ago, we started questioning what an appropriate architecture for public buildings in the Highlands might be.

Over a series of projects, an ethos has emerged whereby context-sensitive solutions inspired by traditional agricultural forms have been developed. This is in the Highland tradition of building with what you have, or what can be cheaply acquired and transported, and building robustly to withstand the weather conditions. In effect, a continuity of Highland pragmatism for this age.

Ben Wyvis Primary is a new school with 10 classrooms, and community and sports facilities designed to replace ageing provision in the adjoining villages of Maryburgh and Conon Bridge, 12 miles north of Inverness.

The preferred approach was to provide the whole school on a single level, which has resulted in a spread out plan, and to have outward facing classrooms that open on to external patios. The more introverted ‘urban block’ approach often found in denser settlements was discounted as not chiming true with the people of the Highlands, who are more in touch with a rural environment. Experience on an earlier project revealed that teachers and pupils were taking full advantage of external learning opportunities until the end of October and from as early as February - when there was sun.

The school is laid out in a simple steading arrangement with two teaching wings off the main spine. These form an open courtyard orientated to provide maximum sun penetration and wind protection. Construction efficiency and economy was achieved in subtle ways: use of a three-metre planning grid laterally and a common cross-section to allow the use of domestic-scale timber frame construction; and by minimising the external openings to reduce labour costs. The stainless steel cladding will give a 60-year life; cheaper than many common alternatives. The cladding harks to the agricultural heritage of the area, while still delivering a civic presence. At the end of its life, the material can be recycled.

The design evolved following detailed stakeholder consultation with the Highland Council’s Education Culture and Sport Service as client, the school, local community and interest groups. As this was two schools coming together into one, it was important that the consultation was meaningful and the views of the stakeholders were heard. The locals knew better than the design team how the school would tie into networks on the ground and what would best suit community needs.

The layout was therefore developed so that the nursery allowed easy access, and community facilities were sited alongside dining/kitchen area and the main hall. This maximised the opportunity for community use while ensuring it was remote enough from locations where noise could be an issue.

Pupils advised the team on what they liked to do in the playground, what they would do in a learning garden, and how the school grounds should be developed in a way that would be good for the environment. Their fantastic drawings influenced the site layout and formed part of our planning submission.

The school opened as planned after the mid-term holiday, with pupils marched in from the old schools by a piper. Feedback so far has been very good, though it is early. However, we have been gathering performance data from recent schools, which demonstrates that the whole-life approach to design is working, and that these buildings will cost less in the long-term, and serve better.

We are of the view that we have developed an appropriate design approach to create a family of buildings in the Highlands, which are sympathetic to context, respond to tradition, are sustainable, robust and cost effective. They also delight.

Robert Ferrier is consultancy manager of The Highland Council

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