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Riverside School by Surface to Air Architects

Class 2014: Riverside School, Barking, London by Surface to Air Architects

In 2012, education secretary Michael Gove announced new design guidelines for schools, restricting the use of curves and calling for ‘super blocks’ and orthogonal forms with minimum indents - a requirement heavily contested by architects. This is one of the resulting schools. No curves, no fancy shapes, and built at super-fast speed.

Riverside School in Barking is a two-storey primary school built on the site of a former city farm. The scheme had to be flexible enough to also be used as a secondary school during an intermediate phase, before reverting to a primary school, eventually doubling in size and adding a sports hall.
The London Borough of Barking and Dagenham has one of the fastest-rising birth rates in the country - a 58 per cent increase between 2000 and 2010. Facing a shortfall in primary school places of almost 20 per cent, referred to by Local Government Association councillor David Simmonds as ‘desperate and unprecedented’, the borough needed to build quickly and cheaply.

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East London-based Surface to Air Architects knew that a traditional approach was not going to work: it wouldn’t have delivered the speed or the adaptability the client was looking for. The building had to be completed and handed over just nine months after the initial project meeting. The scheme started on site in May and was completed by August, ready for the new school year. To meet this pressured timescale the practice looked to the site cabin - the modular construction method more often used for temporary accommodation on construction sites.

Surface to Air believes this method could solve the current crisis in school places: ‘We think the project was delivered 50 per cent faster using modular construction rather than traditional building methods,’ says Holly Porter, founding director at Surface to Air.

Construction began as soon as the external footprint was frozen - an advantage of using Portakabin construction. It took just a week to assemble the entire building envelope on site. Due to the adaptability of the modules, external cladding and internal layouts can be developed after planning permission is awarded and while the project is on site.

Modular buildings like these, unless at the hand of an imaginative designer, will always look like a Portakabin. At Riverside School, Surface to Air tried to address the regularity of the facade with different colour combinations. The building is clad in a standard finish of plastic-coated steel. The steel’s reflective nature allows the colour to change depending on the light outside. The facade is clearly inspired by recent Stirling Prize-shortlisted schools, but the effort is a little artless and cheap-looking.

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There were limitations to using the modular system. Transport restrictions placed constraints on the size of loads which could be moved. This meant the double-height space required for the sports hall, which will be completed in phase two of the scheme, was impossible with this system. It is here that Surface to Air will have to resort to traditional construction methods.

‘One of the main challenges is that the system utilises a lightweight steel frame, so doesn’t provide thermal mass for cooling. However, the excellent sustainable solutions and highly controlled factory fabrication of the Yorkon building system offset this,’ says Porter.

She adds: ‘As a team we tried to inject a design approach into all elements of the spaces. We also expanded the selection of finishes and products while still meeting the very tight budget constraints.’

Building on the experience of using the Portakabin system for this school, the practice is now working with the manufacturer to further develop the construction method for use in future education projects. It is currently working on 16 other schools across London using the system.

Portakabins have come a long way since my school days, when I remember being housed in them for years as a junior-school pupil, and then again later at secondary school. They were damp, smelly, cold in winter and overheated in the summer. Working out at less than £1,500 per square metre, Surface to Air’s Riverside School shows what can be done when needs must. But through using such a modulated system, the resulting building has little flair, and lacks the sense of craftsmanship and joy that architects can bring to school design.

Laura Mark, AJ technical reporter

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