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Learning lessons: Langley Academy by Foster + Partners

Amanda Birch revisits Foster + Partners’ Langley Academy in Slough to find a thriving school and an array of well-performing energy technologies. Photography by Ben Blossom

Pass through the security gates into the grounds of Langley Academy and even on a grey winter’s day, it is a bucolic scene. Vast green playing fields stretch out to one side, mature trees line neat footpaths, and birds flit back and forth from a feeder located near the school entrance.

First impressions of this five-year old school are very positive. With 1,150 pupils between the ages of 11 to 18, Langley has a well-maintained campus with, amazingly, not a scrap of litter in sight. Western red cedar cladding, now weathered to a beautiful silver, delineates the curved form of the three-storey school, helping to root the building into its semi-rural location near Slough, Berkshire.

Designed by Foster + Partners, the £23 million Langley Academy has become something of a success story. The previous building on the site had been the failing Langley Wood Secondary School. The new, replacement academy, sponsored by the Arbib Foundation, is not only oversubscribed, but a recent Ofsted inspection gave it an overall ‘good school’ rating, including an ‘outstanding’ rating for pupils’ behaviour and safety.

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In plan, the 10,000m² building is arranged with the classrooms configured around two ‘fingers’, which extend from the main atrium, enclosing internal courtyards for the library and IT facilities. On the other side of the atrium, an oval form contains a number of facilities including the canteen, offices, theatre, sports hall, recording studio and lecture theatre.

Langley specialises in science, computing and sport. It is also the only British school that has introduced ‘museum learning’ across its curriculum. As well as visits to museums, the programme involves artefacts being shown and handled in class, embedding them into the fabric of pupils’ activities.

Langley has been described as one of the most environmentally sustainable academies in the country, employing a full array of renewable energy technologies including a ground source heat pump, a biomass boiler and solar thermal panels. The building is oriented east to west to reduce solar gain and optimise natural ventilation. The school also boasts rainwater-flushed toilets and grey water is filtered in a reed bed and used for irrigation.

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The building itself forms part of the pupils’ learning experience. A clever example of this is the way the building’s energy use is displayed via meters in the plant room located in the atrium.

Given the school’s energy-conscious ethos, I was somewhat taken aback to walk into the main triple height atrium and see a blaze of artificial lighting switched on. I had expected the space to be more uplifting and brighter, although an element of drama is added by the three bright yellow projecting drums (housing 10 science laboratories) and museum exhibits dotted around the space.

Given that there are only two rooflights, it is not surprising that daylight is restricted. Admittedly, the weather on the day of my visit was overcast and rainy. However, in most parts of the building, from the corridors to the classrooms, and even when the sun shone briefly, the electric lighting was left on.

I put this observation to the academy’s principal Rhodri Bryant, who said that lighting had been highlighted in the post-occupancy study that Fosters carried out last year.

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‘The costs of electricity are above what was intended and as a result, our carbon emissions are higher,’ says Bryant. ‘The quality of daylight in the building is generally very good, but there is an issue around lighting: we use lots of lights and they are on for too long.’ The school is currently considering the installation of passive infrared sensors, particularly in corridors.

Aside from the lighting, it was heartening to see the central space so well used. During the few hours that I was at the academy, the atrium or ‘adaptable space’ was pretty much in constant use. Whether as a gathering point for pupils at break time or for practising dance, it is obviously a very well-liked and flexible space that pupils and teachers enjoy performing and teaching in.

The reception desk had previously been located within the central space, but was moved to one side of the main entrance due to changes in safeguarding regulations. A security controlled glass partition now separates the reception and lobby from the atrium. It is more secure, enabling visitors to be better monitored and it is warmer for the receptionist. In her current position, the two sets of entrance doors can be manually controlled so they do not open at the same time, keeping the amount of cold air that enters the building to a minimum.

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The central space is very clean, despite its intensive use. The recently replaced carpet is regularly swept by cleaners after every major activity. Underfloor heating maintains a stable temperature, which was comfortable on the day of the visit. Bryant mentioned that early in the morning and during pupils’ break times, it can take a long time to heat up the atrium. He says that they are considering ways of resolving this, but that it is likely to be too expensive.

Moving to the upper floors, the building becomes increasingly transparent, affording fantastic views across the internal courtyards containing the IT facility and the newly relocated library. The carpets in the corridors showed signs of wear, mainly due to the mass of chewing gum trodden into the weave, but I was told that the carpets will gradually be replaced over a rolling five-year programme.

The building is exposed to constant use during school hours and is available for community hire till 11pm on weekdays and weekends, and given the volume of traffic in the corridors, I was cheered to see the clean, relatively unmarked, white-painted, blockwork walls.

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Enlivened by robust, tropical-coloured stools, the classrooms are flexible spaces, fitted with raised floors to allow desks and IT equipment to be relocated. The science laboratory that I visited, located on the south side in one of the round-shaped ‘pods’, was a little stuffy, and I questioned how hot this must become during summer. Automatically controlled high-level windows and manually operated low-level windows bring in fresh air and blinds have been fitted to reduce solar gain. However, due to security concerns, the high-level windows installed for night-time purging are not being used during summer, which seems like a missed opportunity.

Even though the building feels spacious, the school is struggling for space. Some rooms, such as the former cloakroom and library, have since been turned into classrooms. In the case of the relocated library, this works well. But the staff room tucked away near the ground floor offices did not seem anywhere near big enough for the 157 people employed at the school.

With demand for places at Langley Academy growing, and plans to open a new primary school next year on or near the site, space is going to get tighter. But its continued expansion and glowing Ofsted results are clear signs of its success. Langley is a well-liked and in some cases, well-loved school, which pupils and staff are very proud of.

The academy’s sustainability agenda has clearly thrown up challenges, which its management is tackling. However, the atmosphere of happy contentment at the school shows that the building is delivering where it counts: facilitating a good education.

Architect’s view

Iwan Jones, partner at Foster + Partners on Langley Academy

What inspired Langley Academy’s design?

We had a very specific brief from the Department for Education and Skills of what it wanted us to include in a new school, which included various rules and regulations and classroom sizes. We developed this [brief] with the sponsor, the Arbib Foundation. It also wanted to put its own mark on it so there were certain things it wanted us to introduce. So the form of the building developed from its use and it was all about building in flexibility where we could.

Langley Academy is designed to help teach pupils about sustainability, how does it achieve these goals?

Langley Academy’s specialism is science and we thought that it was important to introduce sustainability. So a lot of the science elements of the building are on display to enable students to understand how the building works. One of the plant rooms is located in the main atrium. Students can read from the meters how much energy is coming from the biomass boiler, how much water is being saved and how much power is being generated from the solar panels on the roof. They can then use this data as part of their curriculum, while also getting interested in sustainability.

How innovative were Langley Academy’s sustainability measures?

There wasn’t anything at Langley that was hugely revolutionary. Most of the technology such as the solar thermal collectors, ground source heat pumps and biomass boilers, were around at the time, but what was quite innovative was to have multiple solutions in the same building. The sponsor said that it wanted this aspect to be on show, which is why we introduced the three circular bright yellow pods that house the science laboratories, and they also wanted the building to be as sustainable as possible, so we pushed it within the financial constraints.

Did you incorporate any lessons learned from the nine other academies the practice had completed before Langley?

Absolutely, we are always trying to learn from past buildings, which is why we do post-occupancy studies on some of our buildings. One of the main things we wanted to do with Langley was to make it hard-wearing, so when you look at the finishes at the academy, such as its exposed concrete and painted blockwork, there is very little damage. We conducted a post-occupancy study on Langley last year because it is one of our most sustainable projects and we thought it would be good to focus on the sustainability aspect.

Do you feel that the academy has met its original aspirations?

Yes, and exceeded them in many instances. I was a school governor at Langley for five years so I visited the school between five and 10 times per year. We also show Langley to prospective clients so we have a good relationship with the school. The building works well for staff and students and they seem happy with it. It still looks good and it has adapted to change. When we first designed the building we had a central reception. Then the building regulations relating to building entrances changed and in terms of safeguarding we had to insert a lobby behind a glass screen, which I think complements what we had originally. We also added an additional playground and the way students enter the building is slightly different now. The academy has been so successful at attracting new students that they have run out of space.

Users’ views

Rhodri Bryant - principal of langley academy

The building is amazing in terms of what it does for children’s aspirations and confidence. Pupils feel safe and have the freedom to explore and be curious. For example, the classrooms have windows and the toilets have windows into the washbasin area. So there are no hiding places. Children are constantly supported by others, whether it is adults or children. The building definitely helps with the children’s behaviour. The fact that we get 650 applications for 180 places even though we are surrounded by four grammar schools says a lot.

But is Langley Academy a sustainable model that can be replicated? Unlikely, because you will not get funding. Some things work very well, such as the underfloor heating and the biomass boiler. But if the boiler breaks down, how much will it cost to fix? You need experts and that comes at a cost premium. Is that a model for other schools?

Peter Brozny - science teacher for 11 to 18 year olds

It is my fourth year here and the first school I have worked at since I finished my training in Canada, where I am from. I love teaching in the science pod classrooms. The circular space works really well, and it never feels crowded even though I can have 33 children in a class. The only downside of circular walls is that there is not much space to pin up students’ work, but it is a good space for practical experiments and every student table has gas taps for Bunsen burners. It can sometimes get a bit warm in summer, but the top windows have automatic controls, which brings in fresh air.

The children are very aware of the sustainability aspects at the school, such as the biomass boiler and they often talk about the shape of the building. I like to sometimes take lessons in the main atrium space, because there is a different energy down there and the children really love it.

Antania Williams - receptionist

Before I started at Langley in March 2009 I had been an office manager, and before that an estate agent for 10 years. Coming here was a real culture shock because it was far busier than my previous jobs. I am the only receptionist, but I am relieved for breaks and I have two student helpers in the morning and afternoon that help me with things like the post and filing. I do like the building, and it is a great space for the children.

I remember walking in and thinking I have never seen anything like it before, I thought it was phenomenal and that the children were thoroughly spoilt. The reception desk used to be located in the central atrium, but every time the entrance doors opened, paperwork blew everywhere, and it was very cold. The reception desk had to be relocated due to new safeguarding regulations, which is so much better, warmer and more secure for the students.

Janine Tuck - facilities manager

I joined Langley Academy in December 2008. The building comes with its own special set of challenges, but I feel lucky to work here. The plant equipment is quite complex and sophisticated, but the senior site manager Aidan Shaw can operate it all himself, and I am well supported by my fantastic team. In winter it can sometimes get cold in the atrium when the entrance doors are open for lunch, but generally we do not have any complaints.

We are looking at installing more sensors around the building to reduce the number of lights left on and the carpets will gradually be replaced over the next five years. The building is let out during out of school hours for parties and weddings, and the sports hall is used for things like cricket and martial arts. The money raised goes back into the school pot. It is a fantastic building to manage and I don’t mind coming to work every day.

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