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Seaside special

Portsmouth City Council's architects group was set a challenge by the need for a school for students with special needs on the edge of Portsmouth Harbour

Mainstream schooling is increasingly inclusive, trying to avoid teaching students with special needs in separate places. But sometimes the mainstream cannot cope, especially if the students involved are persistent truants, as some are here. Waterside School in Tipnor, at the north-east of Portsmouth Harbour, is focused on 'EBD' students - those with emotional and behavioural difficulties beyond the mainstream's capacity to cope. The ambition is to return them to the mainstream, which may take months, or even years.

Mainstream schools already have learning support assistants, who in some cases are allocated to an individual student, so the students who end up at Waterside need considerable personal support. The school population is only 12 at the moment - the maximum capacity probably 16 - in a 400m 2 building.

The age range is secondary (11-16), though might go down as far as eight year olds.

The architect has been exploring a sustainability agenda for its practice generally, helped by engineer Gifford (not the engineer for this building), and chose to front the building with gabions below cedar boarding and a mainly shingle roof (plus a green roof area). The rear is timber boarded.

The architect had hoped to use concrete from the demolished Tricorn shopping centre for the gabions, but this could not be obtained readily suitably clean. Portland Stone quarry rejects were used instead. These gabions have the functional benefit of inhibiting graffiti and fire-lighting against the building. Whether they are read as eco-friendly and protective or fortress/prison-like is a matter of personal interpretation.

The secure entrance takes you straight onto the circulation axis, marked by glulam frames - a staffed desk is not needed in a building of this size. The hall was furnitureless, so rather undefined when I visited, but is intended for group discussions, lunches, etc.

A classroom at either end of the building and an IT (resources) room are the main teaching spaces. An interview room provides for oneto-one encounters. Storage walls (which have to house several years' curriculum materials) are set between the main teaching spaces, and these, combined with the Ecophon ceiling panels (to come), will help provide acoustic separation in a building that could turn noisy.

Principal teaching spaces open on to a garden to the west. With the school day finishing mid-afternoon, solar overheating should not be a problem. The architect rejected grey water recycling and photovoltaics as not cost-effective, basing its energy strategy instead on insulation, high-performance windows (Rationel), natural ventilation and exposed thermal mass (some masonry is structural - cost constraints ruled out a pure timber frame), and heating is underfloor.

The emissions target is 10kgCO 2/year, about a quarter of a typical school.

The head is pleased with the new building, not just as an improvement on the 1960s classrooms previously occupied, but as a pleasure to work in.

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