Shortlisted for the Stirling Prize, non-PFI Hampden Gurney School shows the importance of client support for good design
The juniors who have just left Hampden Gurney Church of England Primary School in Westminster to go to various secondary schools in the area were not even going to nursery classes when BDP first presented its original design for a new school to the trustees. During the intervening seven years, the design has not really changed; what has changed is public expectations and political priorities.
The issues of brownfield development; inner-city intensification; school security and children's healthcare were fairly marginal concerns for education buildings in the early-'90s.
Nowadays, these are governing concepts as 'education, education, education' has moved centre stage.
According to architect Tony McGuirk, 'effectively society has caught up with the architect's and client's vision, making this truly a project whose time had come'. Indeed, the one question that seems to be on everyone's lips after seeing the multi-storey school design is, 'Why has no one done it like this before?'
Breaking new ground The original school sat in a rather bleak corner of a bombed-out site, set back from the Edgware Road. An initial scheme for a 'typical low-level suburban school model' was rejected, and BDP was brought in with plans to reinvigorate the historical street pattern of the area, by placing the school prominently at the corner of the site, as an embodiment of civic space.
Being, as McGuirk says, a novel approach, it proved controversial with everyone except the client.
To a certain extent, the funding requirements determined the scheme (£18 million overall, including £6 million for the school building). The school had to raise the money itself through a conventional development package. By selling off its land for housing, it was able to raise money for the project. But by selling off quite a lot of land, it thereby narrowed its opportunities for playground space, and hence the idea of building upwards became the only viable alternative. The design, development and build process saw the trustees acting as landowner and user client.
The building faces south, outwards onto the street, and the new housing blocks complete the perimeter of the site to create a residential courtyard. BDP envisaged that the school would be relocated during the course of the work so that the development could be done in one go and the children would not have to walk across a building site. The fact that this did not happen was turned into 'educational' advantage, with the contractor organising site visits for the staff and students. The school was completed ready for this year's spring term and Phase 1 of the two stage residential project, comprising one-bedroom to four-bedroom apartments, has just been completed.
The design principles have remained fairly constant throughout the years but have been developed and refined in the four years of local authority negotiations that were necessary before obtaining planning permission. Key concerns about neighbouring properties' right to light have resulted in the top floors being set back ('Giving a much nicer finished shape, ' says McGuirk); and the Department of Education (as was) questioned the 'designing in' of play space within the curtilage of the building.
This is an essential feature of the scheme and by showing how it increased the protection afforded to children from the elements (allowing them to be able to play 'outside' in all weathers while shading them from the worst excesses of the sun's rays) and increased personal security, the principle of the integral play areas was won.
Since there are no minimum per capita play area guidelines for 'traditional' playgrounds, the fact that the new school has 11 per cent less play space than before was deemed not to be an issue. In fact, it seems that children at Hampden Gurney use more of the available space than they might otherwise do in a conventional setting.
The scheme comprises an enclosed triangular floor plan, pointing north, with a semi-circular play deck on the southern edge. Accessed by a curved ramp or steps, the ground floor has two separate entrances for nursery age children and primary children, intended to alleviate parental security fears; with the staff rooms, offices and school reception overlooking both entrances. Additionally, most areas have high levels of glazing, resulting in the building being highly transparent from without and within.
Between the internal and external areas, a glazed lightwell cuts through the full height of the building to take natural light down into the basement hall. This is where the main assembly and dining takes place and where students of all ages can mingle. The rear of the hall opens out via a fully glazed screen wall onto a covered play area (with the main building over), and a recessed external open-to-the-elements playground beyond.
The floors above are divided into classrooms, WCs and library spaces.
Each classroom has natural north light, which, combined with simple natural ventilation, have effectively resolved the problems of solar gain.
The hierarchy of space reflects the maturation of the students, moving up as they progress, literally, through the school. Reflecting modern concerns and, some might say, encouraging the over-protection of children, the fact that different year groups do not regularly intermingle in the playground is seen as a good thing in that it avoids confrontations between larger and smaller children.
The timber play decks, which get all-day sun, are accessed by walkways across the lightwell and guarded by 1.9m-high glass balustrades. 'They are more than play areas, ' says McGuirk, 'they are part of the architecture.'
They are used as extensions to the classroom rather than simply 'external spaces' and function as space for dance, exhibitions or other creative activities. Initial fears about the children running into the glass have proved to be unfounded, and children gather at the balustrading to enjoy the view and to chat. The top floor has been utilised as a technology play space, where children can explore weather and wind effects at high level.
The relatively column free structure incorporates 16m steel spans, spanning from the lightwell edge to the rear external wall and to a row of columns along the southern edge.
The SuperHolorib composite floors are laterally restrained at the perimeter stairwells. The lattice bow truss on the roof, disguised by a tent covering, supports cable hangers which drop through the lightwell to pick up all mid-floor spans below.
The school houses 240 children over four storeys, and, says McGuirk, 'this scheme may not be applicable in all circumstances, but does suit the needs of the child in the city'. He continues: 'It was important that the client retained faith in what we were trying to do.Without that we couldn't have succeeded.
'This school', he says, 'was a social experiment which occurred on a cusp - when political circumstances were right for it to happen.' Admitting that it has been a fraught, long-drawn out process, he also says that, design-wise, he would not do anything differently.
As we go to press, the government is unmoved by protests against its continued reliance on PFI projects to deliver the next generation of school buildings around the country.So it is opportune that CABE has just released its client advisory document to explain the issues.
Given that CABE has just been given a DfES agreement to monitor the design of all PFI schools' projects, its motives are not totally selfless.However, the booklet is a very useful explanatory guide into the intricacies of PFI, providing a step-by-step breakdown of: bidding, management, prequalification, outline proposals and assessment - all the way through to post-evaluation criteria.
The assertion of a link between design quality and educational attainment is weakly stated but is set up to reinforce the importance of the Public Sector Comparator (clause 3.7); one of those checks and balances that never quite sound believable in print.
In general though, this free booklet should prove to be quite invaluable to clients wanting to have an overview of the benefits and pitfalls of this allegedly murky world.
For copies, contact CABE on 020 7960 2400
Investing in education
There is no doubt that the government is committed to investing in education.The July 2002 spending review announced that capital investment in education will rise to £7 billion in the year 2005/06, including £1.2 billion of PFI credits.
The DfES continues to promote PFI as the main procurement route for major projects, enabling local authorities to address serious shortfalls in their schools accommodation by reference to their asset management plan regarding their condition, suitability, and sufficiency.
To enable a local education authority to estimate the cost of a PFI project, the DfES has developed a 'tool kit' that provides benchmark costs for new projects.The tool kit is predominantly pupil number driven, based on assumptions of gross internal floor area calculated by reference to DfES Building Bulletin 82, and a regionally adjusted cost per square metre. Crucially, the calculation includes an addition for life cycle costing, and an estimation of funding costs. In effect, therefore, it provides a whole life cost approach to procurement.
However, PFI is unlikely to be the panacea for all schools and so the increase in delegation of budgets to schools is likely to generate a large number of capital projects in schools.
If a school has sufficient funds to build a new block, the usual approach is to consider only the initial capital cost with little consideration of its maintenance, or the impact on facilities management costs. It is well known that the facilities management costs of a building far outstrip the capital cost in a fairly short period of time.Since all school budgets are per capita driven, therefore, unless the school can increase its revenue by increasing its admissions, it will have no additional funding to support the running cost of that particular facility.
It is therefore vitally important that when considering a capital investment, schools take a holistic, whole life cost approach to investment appraisal decisions, and model the project over a period of 25 years. If they do not, they will be presenting the inheritors of the estate with a backlog maintenance problem that may divert precious funds from their teaching budget to their maintenance budget, or repeat the historic cycle of poor maintenance.
Key advice, therefore, to schools or colleges which have expansion plans is to decide on an accommodation strategy based on a curriculumdriven space analysis to assess whether the new facilities are strictly necessary, then consider the likely impact on funding over the whole life of the project, rather than just the initial capital cost. It may well be that the money could be better invested in better energy management and reorganisation of their existing accommodation.
Brian Grew is a partner at EC Harris and leader of EC Harris'Education Sector Brian Grew is a partner at EC Harris and leader of EC Harris'Education Sector
AREA 3,400m 2COST £6 million
ARCHITECT, BUILDING AND STRUCTURAL ENGINEER, LIGHTING DESIGN, QUANTITY SURVEYOR Building Design Partnership: Charles Broughton, Dominic Church, Susanna Dobson, Paul Gibbins, Gareth Jones, Tony McGuirk, Ann Marsh, Helen Maudslay, Keith Papa, Ray Springer, John Toovey
CONTRACTORS/SUPPLIERS Fabric roof Clyde Canvas; retaining wall Dawson Wam, pilingWestpile; lifts Schindler; kitchen Grundy; M&E subcontractor Excelsior Services; precast stairs Acheson and Glover; brickwork Grangewood Brickwork Services; joineryM2 Construction; balustrading The McGrath Group/AK Goymer; timber ceilings Barrett Ceilings; rooftop technology room Houston Cox Carpentry; suspended gantry Cradle Runaways; atrium sloping glazing Atec; internal plasterboard partitions Stanmore; ironmongery Saturn Architectural