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Off with the motley: Langley Hall Primary Academy by AOC

AOC’s Geoff Shearcroft explains how the practice converted a motley Grade II-listed hall into a more energy-efficient free primary school. Photography by David Grandorge

For the past 10 years we have worked on a range of school schemes, the changing project briefs from heads, local authorities and contractors reflecting the constant churning of politics and pedagogy. Early Years Centres, extended community facilities, after-school clubs, Building Schools for the Future and then in 2011 a new free school in Langley, Berkshire - one of the first wave of 24 to be delivered. We were appointed in February and the school was to open at 50 per cent capacity that September, filling up to 100 per cent over the following two years.

Few recent political inventions have managed to promise and provoke in such large measures as free schools but, in the context of a building project, just how ‘free’ can a school really be? Free as in economically slight? Potentially. As an underused building, Langley Hall was handed over by a state-funded organisation and a project budget of £950/m² was provided to convert the Grade II-listed building into a new two-form entry primary school.

Free from regulation? Not quite, but a strong desire to address the school’s actual needs led to the challenging of several rules of thumb. Building Bulletins were reconsidered from first principles and planners were told that there should be ‘a presumption in favour of development’. This created a remarkably positive design environment where statutory guidance provided a springboard for design conversations, rather than a straitjacket.

Free from bureaucracy? Hmm. It’s beyond the scope of this article to discuss the short or long-term benefits of central government taking over the running of school projects from local authorities. What is relevant is the move towards giving the school community a greater involvement in the design and delivery of its buildings. At Langley Hall, the nature of the programme and experience of the team led to a very direct and productive relationship between proposer Sally Eaton, the contractor and its design team. This allowed a specific proposal to be developed in response to the unique constraints of the existing building, the particular logistics of delivery in a phased occupation and the delicate aspirations of a new educational institution.

With re-found spaces, synthesised surfaces, an enterprising lunch service and adapted-for-use ornament, Geoff Shearcroft details nine aspects that make Langley Hall a village landmark once again.

One: The gift that never stops giving

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Originally built in the 16th century as a home for one of Charles I’s courtiers, Langley Hall has been rebuilt, extended and adapted to accommodate a diverse range of uses. One of only two listed buildings in the village of Langley, the No. 26 Group of the RAF was based at the hall during the Second World War, while most recently it was used as the administrative offices for the adjacent East Berkshire College, before being bought to create the new school.

Two: A new village institution

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The building’s most impressive historical assets are its grand Georgian facade and a fine perimeter brick wall, which defines the main approach. Previously used as a staff car park, this space has been opened up to create a generous play area and to reinforce the grandeur of the house. A collage of coloured tarmacs, in-situ concrete benches and line markings complement the tones of the existing fabric and add a contemporary playfulness.

Three: (Re)found spaces

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Our discovery of the old attic’s potential for a teaching space created a new art studio, an appropriate highlight for the school’s creative arts specialism. Insulating and lining the pragmatic 1970s structure with ply created a warmly scented, chunky Gothic garret, a new woolly hat for the leaky listed hall. New rooflights provide budding artists with views towards the Slough skyline.

Four: Circulation surgery

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The interior was entirely rebuilt after a fire in 1974 and a series of fit-outs had resulted in a motley assortment of rooms inappropriately sized for the proposed school. Redundant services and flimsy office partitions were removed and the old house stripped back to the original, generously proportioned rooms. Minor demolitions and careful interventions created new, efficient circulation routes and maximised the size and quality of the teaching rooms.

Five: Surrace Synthesis

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Given the available budget, paint provided the main means of synthesising the disparate elements of the buildings to create a coherent institution. All the circulation areas were painted a calming sage green that blurred the distinction between new and old; a lighter tone was used for architraves and a darker tone for skirtings. The characters of the teaching rooms were reinforced with either a homogenising uniform application or a strong painted datum whose proportions were defined by the scale of its specific pupils. The choice of colours was an intense taste dialogue between us and the staff, touching upon ITV costume dramas, light reflection, maintenance strategies and preferred lipsticks.

Six: Simple services

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New electrics and a new efficient heating system drastically expanded the scope of the intended services to a third of the construction budget, but will significantly reduce the building’s running costs and energy use. Exposed for speed of installation and ease of future change, the school was concerned this would create an inappropriate, industrial character. Our response was to have the galvanised service trays sprayed gold by a car workshop next to the contractor’s office, with warm surface-mounted light fittings further softening their character. Where possible, fittings were reused, with new tubes installed to provide a formal complement.

Seven: Statutory ornament

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Throughout the project, modifications to meet statutory requirements were embraced as opportunities to add value and reinforce the school’s character. On the non-compliant main stair, new diagonal steels were fitted by a surprisingly affordable local blacksmith to reduce the clear width between balustrades. An application of much contested, now-loved, pink paint synthesised the new metal with the existing building and re-energised the principal staircase.

Eight: Enterpreneurial evolution

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Struggling for the necessary number of teaching rooms, the initial decision to have hot lunches delivered to the school from the catering facilities at the adjacent East Berkshire College allowed the existing kitchen and café to be converted into a reception classroom. Triple aspect, with direct access to the outside and 20 per cent bigger than suggested area sizes, the converted room creates an accidentally generous teaching space. Ever looking to improve its facilities, the school has recently rented a disused mock-Tudor pub opposite and is in the process of converting it into a kitchen, dining room and cookery classroom.

Nine: Making do and moving on

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In completing the phased works over the past two years, we have greatly enjoyed seeing the school participate in the ongoing evolution of its built fabric through both continued conversation and direct action. B&Q timber sheds (below) have sprung up around the listed fabric like mushrooms around a veteran tree. Eternally green artificial grass (below) has replaced the turf to create a far more useful, and surreal, play area. A new plastic ivy wrap (bottom) to the playground balustrade averts parent paranoia with a 1970s suburban camouflage. In a rapidly growing institution, temporary interventions are required to maintain operations, test new uses and evolve its character. We look forward to seeing how this two-year-old continues to explore the considerable freedoms it has been granted.

Project data

Client Langley Hall Primary Academy
Client adviser Capita Symonds
Contractor Interserve
Architect AOC
Landscape architect Plincke
Structural engineer AKS Ward Consultants
Services engineer Ramboll
Approved inspector Approved Design Consultancy

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