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Educating the light infancy

TECHNICAL & PRACTICE: Despite site constraints, this primary school was renovated to a high standard using imaginative and effective lighting

One of the least well-known effects of the call to reduce class sizes from 35 children to a maximum of 30 is that, given a fixed catchment, fewer children per class means that more classes are needed. And more classes equals more classrooms.

Thus the phasing out of Assisted Places schemes has had serious implications for local school budgets. Even though a great deal of money has been made available nationally from central government's New Deal for Schools, the limited amounts available to individual schools mean that the specifications, volumes and timescales for proposed upgrades are usually tight. Fortunately, necessity has pushed Birmingham City Council's Urban Design Department to come up with an impressively inventive scheme in one school, for a generous £1,450/m 2.

Under the arches

Adderley Primary School in Saltley was an unappealing Victorian brick structure which had been added to in the 1960s, with a typical monopitch outbuilding-cum-extension. The site is situated in a run-down district of Birmingham, bordered by scrapyards, demolition depots, a busy main road and an oppressive railway arch.

Undoubtedly, the easier and cheaper option would have been to provide a standard, fortified flat-roof response, but it is refreshing to see that the architects have striven to give the area a significant lift.

The two-storey new build, provided to replace the 'temporary' mobile classroom units, has been carefully arranged to provide natural light, reduce sound transmission and maintain security - three of the key demands for school heads, although not always possible to achieve. Facing into a 'courtyard' formed between the original buildings, the architects have tried to give the children as much distance and seclusion from the surrounding 'grime'.

The brief required five new classrooms, circulation space and storage linked to the existing main building, with the possibility of making a connection to the '60s building at a later date. By setting the building back from the road-frontage, providing delicate feature eaves and reducing the scale, the architects have achieved a lightness of touch within a heavy industrial setting.

The main windowed facade faces south and is protected by an aluminium brise-soleil to complement the Trespa roof overhang. The mid-point break in the duo-pitch includes additional high-level clerestory lights to bring light further into the top-floor classrooms and to light up the exposed 425x190mm glulam roof structure. These windows are deemed to be sufficiently small and high to not present a significant security risk.

Blocks of light

The internal arrangement is such that both rooms on the ground and both on the first floor share the main natural light-source, comprising a huge panel of fritted glass blocks. Project architect Malcolm Leech explains that this panel 'fragments the view', by allowing diffuse light into each classroom, while blocking off the sight of the adjacent demolition yard. One corner of each room is therefore a quadrant of the light blocks and Leech hopes that classes, variously putting their lights on and off, will provide an interesting patchwork of colour in the winter months.

The new building is of buff brick outer leaf and 225mm block inner leaf - 'to avoid the need for steelwork' and to provide satisfactory thermal mass and sound deadening from the street below. The gable-end windows present an optical trick (see photo), in that the whole facade appears contorted into impossible Escher-like planes. In fact, the canted brickwork in the foreground is the edge copings of a buttress wall projecting from the vertically-faced window wall.

Internally, Leech's dislike for 'bland' fluorescents has resulted in an array of recessed downlighters on the ground-floor concrete soffit and facefixed bulkheads on the first-floor glulams. External lights are operated by timed sensors, linked to Birmingham City Council's central energy management system. As the winter evenings draw in, the time-regulator is altered to maximum effect.

'The children and teachers had to be very forgiving during the construction, ' says Leech. 'The compound took up a considerable part of the playground.' Phasing the project alleviated this inconvenience, and one reception class was fully operable by the beginning of the summer term, relieving the pressure on the existing buildings.

Difficult soil conditions, necessitating 'massive footings', also extended the length of time during which the school was inconvenienced, although the majority of the works were completed during the summer recess; the building is being handed over this week.

Leech and his team have brought this scheme in on time and on budget (in fact, slightly under budget, which means, much to his chagrin, that the surplus will have to be paid back into the kitty and lost forever). However, an overspend would have had to be made up from the school's own budget.

The end result is that the architects' department has provided an enjoyable and invigorating design for a forgotten outer-city area, which brightens and 'repairs' the streetscape. It shows that attention to detailing, careful orientation and concern for context are some of the essentials of good design.

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