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Kirk Balk Community College, Barnsley, by AHMM

Kirk Balk Community College’s sophisticated use of standard components shows what BSF was capable of, writes James Pallister

The end-user, to use the terminology, is delighted. ‘It’s a fantastic building. I have been to hundreds of schools around the country and you don’t find any as good as this,’ says head teacher Val Malcolm of Kirk Balk Community College, of the work of architect Allford Hall Monaghan Morris.

Kirk Balk Community College is one of Barnsley’s 13 new BSF schools. It occupies a dramatic hilltop site 150 metres above sea level in Hoyland, a suburb of Barnsley with dramatic views of the Peak District. It’s Kes-country, birthplace of author Barry Hines. Industry-wise, mining has been swapped for call centres, and the school serves a demographic of white, mainly working-class students.

Kirk Balk is the product of the now-defunct BSF programme, cut down by education secretary Michael Gove in July 2010, damned as ‘unfit for purpose’ in Sebastian James’ post-mortem last April, and the vehicle which saw 150 secondary schools rebuilt.

Kirk

Gove’s interventions and outbursts about architects spectacularly alienated the profession. They also helped anchor an attractive narrative: BSF was a dreaded procurement pathway characterised by waste and poor quality, where gullible local authorities were hoodwinked by expensive contractors, wilful head teachers demanded a new design for every school and naughty architects trousered vast amounts of cash to deliver sub-standard schools.

The architect-as-enemy-of-good-school-design caricature reached a high point a year ago this week with a hectoring admonishment from Gove that bordered on the farcical. At a Free Schools conference, a room full of teachers was reassured that: ‘We won’t be getting Richard Rogers to design your school. We won’t be getting any award-winning architects to design it: no one in this room is here to make architects richer’.

Paul Monaghan has different views: ‘It felt like [when BSF was cut] the industry was on the cusp of producing a lot of good schools’. As it was by this time, Barnsley already had an award-winning architect on its books. AHMM’s Westminster Academy was a Stirling favourite in 2008, widely hailed as an excellent example of quality school design. Monaghan recalls that back in 2008, his intention was blunt: ‘I was sure,’ he says, ‘that we could do a BSF school which doesn’t look crap’. As vice-chair of the CABE Schools Design Review Panel, Monaghan had seen many schools, and thought that experience gleaned on the Kentish Town Health Centre’s LIFT procurement would come in useful.

The old school, a grim agglomeration of 1920s and 1960s buildings, has been levelled, the one relic of a less glamorous past being a 1960s leisure centre which the car park skirts. To its rear are five-a-side pitches and tennis courts. Planted trees shield the school from the 1930s and 1950s semi-detached houses nearby. Rather than trying to match the stone of the surrounding buildings, the school wanted something self-consciously modern; Monaghan describes it as having a science-park feel. The main building has a dark Staffordshire blue brick plinth, above is gold-coloured cladding, also picked up in the rectangular volumes of the ‘Expressives Building’, which houses sport, music and art facilities.

It’s an antidote to the standard vocabulary of white render, cladding, louvres and the occasional coloured panels which Monaghan felt emerged through BSF. ‘Sometimes I felt that the only legacy of Westminster Academy was those coloured panels.’ The main building’s elevation emphasises the horizontal; the Expressives, the vertical.

The new school is a triangular plan, a model which had already been trialled by the practice at Great Notley Primary School in Essex (1999). A covered walkway connects the main building with the Expressives block. At the base of the triangle the building is at its highest, with four storeys sloping down to three at its westerly point.

Inside, AHMM has flexed its flair for dramatic internal volumes – see also Westminster Academy and the Angel Building – with panache. Scissor staircases up to the science block provide intriguing layers to the space, which at once feels compact and expansive. The large, top-lit atrium, complete with bright baffles, provides a means of the whole school gathering, while the walkways which wrap around it provide opportunities for small break-out areas. Staffrooms are dispersed throughout the building, and though their large picture windows don’t give staff much privacy, the increased passive surveillance of the design has cut staff duties down from three times a week to two.

Throughout there’s great attention to detail. It has more of the sheen of an academy with an architect working to a traditional contract than anything procured through PFI. There’s oak finishes, chairs by Eames and Very Good and Proper (as used in the Canteen restaurants), Macs a plenty and Morag Myerscough’s graphics lift the whole place. Small elements like the furniture and graphics layer to complement the straightforward materials and expressive geometries. As Monaghan says, ‘All these things we had to push to do, but there’s no reason why all BSF schools couldn’t do them’. This is the attitude with which all our public buildings should be tackled.

Main contractor Laing O’Rourke makes great use of standardised products – lighting rafts, roofing, cladding – across its BSF schools. But these parts are useless, architectural director Mark Shirburne-Davies points out, without someone to skilfully manipulate them: ‘Because we were designing using standardised products, you could be flexible in the designed outcome’. Monaghan points to an asymmetrically placed lighting strip running along the corridors’ soffit: ‘It’s about taking standard materials and using them in an artful way’.

One of the typologies popularised by the Department for Education and Schools’ Exemplar Designs case studies in 2003 and by subsequent built projects (see Wilkinson Eyre’s Bristol Metropolitan College AJ 22.05.08) was the learning cluster, or strawberry, placed off a central spine. These clusters would be sufficiently small to allow for informal classes to take place in the break-out space. AHMM has moved this typology along with its triangle. Assistant head Steve Cook explains that the school wanted a traditional approach with more classrooms than break-out spaces: ‘In some of the schools I’ve seen, teachers find it very difficult to teach in those large spaces’. The triangle is also significantly more efficient, surface area to volume-wise than the strawberry and spine model.

Barnsley council had many elements in place which gave its 13 BSF schools a better chance of success. The timing of the bid and build was fortuitous. It came after the council had undertaken a wholesale review of its education system. The result was ‘Remaking Learning’, described as a ‘radical, transformational programme’ whose Advanced Learning Centres would ‘provide lifelong learning opportunities for the whole community’. In built form, this translates as having provision for adult learning and space for other agencies to work from: child welfare, educational psychologists, police, social services, dentists, doctors and so on.

Barnsley’s BSF story is also remarkable for having all its secondary schools demolished and then rebuilt: instead of the normal 50 per cent new-build, it went 100 per cent. It was also granted five sample schools rather than the usual two. A range of designs helped cater to varying topography and demographics – ranging from rural middle-class communities in the Peak District to working-class urban centres – of Barnsley’s catchment. Kirk Balk was one of the sample schools (the others are by Atkins, Watson Batty, BDP and Lathams) to be designed in the pre-preferred bidder stage, meaning it could help win or lose what was to be a large contract. This additional focus – the ‘front-loading’ which BSF has been criticised for – worked out favourably for Kirk Balk. As Monaghan deadpans: ‘A £100 million contract is a good gig’.

The final element was having contractors who saw the value in employing design-led architects. ‘It’s one of our fundamental premises,’ says Shirburne-Davies, ‘that you pay for good design and the rest will happen. There is a fallacy that you pay less for design and you save money. But in the long run you don’t get value and you don’t get a quality product.’

David Russell, principal architect at Barnsley council and programme director of BSF Barnsley, concurs. The resulting building at Kirk Balk, Russell says, ‘is wonderful; it has strong architectural character. When you bravely say you are going to make a triangular building you are setting yourself up to fail – it’s very difficult to pull that off. But a lot of the detail is very mature and well thought-out. Everything you look at is designed, and I think that’s one of the things AHMM does very well.’

Project data

Start on site August 2008
Completion April 2011
Gross internal floor area 11,877m2
Type of contract or procurement NEC Professional Services contract
Contract value £18.4 million
Cost per square metre £1,565
Architect Allford Hall Monaghan Morris
Client Barnsley Metropolitan Borough Council
Private sector partner Barnsley Partnership for Learning (BP4L), a joint venture between Laing O’Rourke and John Laing
Structural engineer Buro Happold
M&E consultant Crown House Technologies
Services engineer BDP
Quantity surveyor Turner Townsend (to contractor’s proposals); Laing O’Rourke
Landscape architect Anthony Walker Partnership
ICT consultant Civica UK Limited
Acoustics consultant Sound Research Laboratories
Catering consultant Design Catering Equipment
Fire consultant Tenos (to contractor’s proposals)
Environmental designer Morag Myerscough/Studio Myerscough
Planning consultant Turley Associates
CDM coordinator Cyril Sweett
Approved building inspector HCD
Main contractor Laing O’Rourke
CAD software used AutoCad and Microstation
Annual CO2 emissions 32.32kg/m2
Percentage of floor area with daylight factor >2% 34%
On-site energy generation 10%
Annual mains water consumption 2.36m3/occupant
Airtightness at 50pa Main building: 9.5m3/h.m2 Expressives block: 8.64m3/h.m2
Heating and hot water load 58.33kWh/m2/yr
Overall area-weighted u-value 0.412/m2K

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