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Hampshire County Council Architects’ Civitas Academy transforms a neglected site

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Formerly a goods yard, the site close to Reading Central Station is now a primary school and community centre designed by Hampshire County Council’s architects’ department

The new academy is the result of a 2012 review that predicted a demand for 2,520 additional primary school places across the borough of Reading by 2017. The project received funding of £6 million through the government’s Targeted Basic Need programme in 2013, with the remainder of the £8.3 million construction cost coming from council investment.

Located in a dense residential area called Fairview, the school hopes to bring a new community centre into the heart of the area, with the building able to be used by both Civitas Academy and the council’s Fairview Community Centre. The site was identified for two reasons: it was located in the area of demand for school places and was in the freehold ownership of the council. The site has had a varied history, being used as a fairground and a Great Western Railways goods yard in the 19th century. Prior to this development, the majority of the school site was occupied by light industrial units to the north and a small area of parking to the south.


The design and layout of the school has been shaped by the tightness of the site. The community centre has been integrated into a public-facing frontage which is residential in scale, and sits well into the existing Victorian terraced streetscape. The school steps up dramatically in scale to the rear of the site, where the classroom block faces onto a courtyard. The community room and school hall can be opened up into a single space, providing one of the largest publicly accessible meeting spaces in this part of Reading. 

The awkward nature of the site threw up numerous challenges. Existing businesses had to be relocated through compulsory purchase orders, and the lengthy nature of this process resulted in limited access for surveys during the design development phase. The constricted nature of the site also presented issues in terms of access for construction. The design sought to maximise and shelter external play areas for the pupils by moving the building form towards the edges of the site, thereby requiring Party Wall Act negotiation with adjoining owners.

Civitas jimstephenson 16 midres

Civitas jimstephenson 16 midres

Source: Jim Stephenson

The site also presented challenges with air quality and noise pollution from the adjacent railway and bus depot. The large interchange of Reading Central Station is immediately to the north of the school, necessitating a lengthy period of air quality assessment during the design phase. The high noise levels from the mainline railway also directly informed the building layout. The three-storey classroom wing was proposed as an acoustic buffer that could be naturally ventilated by virtue of facing the key occupied spaces directly away from the noise source. Numerous potential on-site contamination sources were identified and the detailed investigations revealed that, particularly beneath the footprint of the old warehouse, there were ground gas and contaminants which were likely to impact upon the underlying aquifer, largely due to the historic uses of the site. Elevated concentrations of contaminants within the soil were also identified, however by covering the site in hard and artificial surfacing any potential contamination was mitigated. The surplus arisings had elevated concentrations of hydrocarbon contamination and were disposed of. The presence of elevated CO2 concentrations necessitated the requirement for a foil-backed hydrocarbon-resistant protection membrane beneath the building.

Additionally, the site sits within a flood zone which necessitated elevating the ground floor of the building. Drainage attenuation was required to be kept within the site, and ground water levels were extremely high, both of which constraints required the careful coordination of a shallow attenuation tank which occupies a large proportion of the central courtyard space.

The building is seen as the first step in breathing new life into the Fairview area of Reading and the next phase of that process will be improvements to the adjacent Victoria Park. Due to the relocation of the Fairview Community Centre, the old building is shortly to be demolished with the net result of an increase in the size of the park. In addition to this, planning permission has been gained for new pathways and trees across the park. 

Drawing site plan

Drawing site plan

Architect’s view

The design and layout of the building was very much shaped by the tightness of the site. The building form follows the boundary on three sides, maximising the available site area and creating a central courtyard which is a child friendly, safe and nurturing haven, a much-needed resource within the town centre.

The design reconciles the differences in scale between the Victorian terraces to the west and the light industrial units and bus depot to the north and east, by creating a welcoming and accessible public frontage to the community centre, which is residential in scale. To the rear of the site the three-storey classroom wing faces south, enabling passive solar gain in the winter months, creating an acoustic buffer to the railway in the north and enabling the key spaces to be naturally ventilated.

The dense residential area in which the new development is located has suffered in the past from drug-related crime and antisocial behaviour. However the ambition of Reading Borough Council is that through the regeneration of the site and the relocation of the community centre into the heart of the area, the project will help foster increased community integration and become the catalyst for further regeneration of the area.

Project data

Start on site August 2015
Completion November 2016
Gross internal floor area 2,600m²
Form of contract Traditional, JCT Standard Building Contract with Quantities
Construction cost £8.3 million (contract sum)
Construction cost per m²
Architect HCC Property Services
Client Reading Borough Council
Structural engineer HCC Property Services
M&E consultant HCC Property Services
Quantity surveyor HCC Property Services
CDM coordinator RG Goddards
Approved building inspector Reading Borough Council
Main contractor Balfour Beatty
CAD software used Vectorworks
Annual CO2 emissions 14.25kg/m²

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