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Case study: Cardinal Heenan Catholic High School

This new 900-pupil secondary school in the Meanwood district of north Leeds replaces existing school buildings within the site curtilage. Construction overlapped with continued use of the existing school, enabling a smooth transfer on completion.

The design attempts to give built form to the school's ethos, specifically the status of the individual and group within the school and their relationship within the wider community.

Principles developed through the project were to examine the idea of school as settlement in microcosm, to explore hierarchies which help define individual, or class, or departmental, or whole-school spaces, leading to a clearer sense of social structure, to develop each part of the building to suit its particular function, and to locate the project firmly in its context.

Site layout principles The school site comprises 11.5 ha at Tongue Lane, bounded by St Urban's Primary School, and by existing housing development.

Outline planning permission obtained for the relocation project was inherited, and included the means of access, which in turn determined the building plot. Also included were an illustrative building and site layout that simply put all cars to the road side of the building, leaving a gap to the east for an external play and social area.

This approach was felt to be too simplistic, given the opportunity of the site almost at the crown of a hill, with wide views south over playing fields to the city. Accordingly, this diagram was turned round, locating cars and services to the north of the site and external play and social areas to the south, enabling both building and external areas to take maximum advantage of sun and view.

Central street The building is organised about a central covered street, providing a strong focal point for social interaction, circulation, display and ad-hoc meeting.

This street is more than a school corridor. It is glazed, light and responsive to activities around, expressing its central social role. It is unheated, but the naturally ventilated glass roof ensures it will be usable all year round. Environmentally therefore the street forms a buffer zone.

The defining move of this design is to bend the street into a horseshoe shape. This enables two entrances for independent school and community use to be approached from the same point and to lead into the street at either end. It suggests a basic strategy of school only (daytime) and school/community (evening) functions. A social nucleus is also suggested, accommodating entrance, reception, hall, dining and other social spaces at the heart of the building. This nucleus is extended across the street to the library, itself an academic focus for the school.

Street and core are united by a structure of radiating glued laminated beams incorporating bolted flitch plates to improve span: depth ratios, combined with 75mm thick tongued and grooved planked roofing achieving spans up to 4.8m. The resultant irregular plan form has a flat roof using Rubberfuse FPA non-PVC-based single-ply membrane on tapered insulation.

Inset from one end, at the focal point of the northern landscape design and signalled by a zinc-clad staircase, the street widens to an entrance foyer. The leading end of the street is then available for the chapel, its curved locally sourced drystone wall signifying this important space while encouraging the visitor around to the main entrance. At this point the religious and secular content of the school interact. This relationship, of chapel as religious focus terminating the street as social focus, mirrors a traditional social status, and helps bond the physical structure of the building to the ethos of the school.

Teaching areas Another driving force of Cardinal Heenan School in particular is the status of independent departments. The words 'ownership' and 'territory' quoted from the design brief help explain this status. Hence each department on plan is fairly clearly defined, extending as fingers from the street, and each affording outward extension.

Enclosed by these fingers are sheltered courtyards for social and recreational use, protected from traffic, south facing and with extensive views. Most classrooms take advantage of this orientation by using bay windows (Velfac timber and aluminium), the internal space protected from glare and heat gain by external-louvre solar shading.

Individual buildings Each department is an individual building in its own right, designed for its specific use, with its own outline that is then plugged-in to the street. Plannja standing-seam pitched aluminium roofing at various orientations engages with the flat-roofed core, Overhangs enhance the plan dynamics while sheltering walls below. A consistent use of materials, colours and textures is used to unify the whole, based upon 'honest' material representation (aluminium natural-silver-anodised, timber clear-finished and so on), but technically there is no 'big idea' which dominates and the building is not subsumed in statements about building technique.

In construction, natural-coloured mortar was used with NBS supplied Ibstock Stourbridge Earlswood Tex Buff bricks and cavity-wall insulation by Rockwool. Flooring requirements were met in circulation and wet areas with Forbo Nairn linoleum flooring and in the sports hall and main hall with Hewetson's Springbok.

One of our key concerns is natural light, and its varied use to illuminate properly as well as differentiate and emphasise different spaces and raise the spirit of the institution. So, for example, there are larger window assemblies at the entrances and at viewpoints from public areas to the outside, roof-lighting to the street, clerestories to classroom corridors with borrowed supplementary light to classrooms, and neutral north-lights to the sports hall.

Windows are composite aluminium/timber for thermal, lifecycle and visual reasons, and fixed and loose furniture was sourced from British Thornton. The foregoing means help to reaffirm a hierarchy of private and communal spaces to which pupils can relate and identify their position in both the physical and social structure of the school.

James Dyson is an associate director of Aedas AHR

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