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Lairdsland Primary School by Walters & Cohen

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This new school building combines design consideration with flair but the intention to make it a prototype for other schools is misplaced, says Alan Dunlop

BRIEF • ARCHITECT’S VIEW • CLIENT’S VIEW • PROJECT DATA

Kirkintilloch is some eight miles north of Glasgow city centre and has a population of 20,000. In the past the town was highly industrialised, with textiles, foundries and light engineering works. It is now the administrative centre of East Dunbartonshire Council and a dormitory for Glasgow. The Forth and Clyde Canal cuts through the town and has recently been regenerated as a tourist attraction.

The town’s Lairdsland Primary School was one of the first of the new schools commissioned by the Scottish Futures Trust (SFT), a body set up by the Scottish National Party (SNP) to counter Labour’s heavily criticised Private Public Partnerships (PPP) programme. The SFT is an ‘arms-length, independent company’ whose purpose is to manage the procurement of all public, infrastructure and building works ‘cost effectively and efficiently’.

Built as part of the Schools for the Future Programme, Lairdsland is one of seven primary schools in the town and replaced a dilapidated Victorian school building in the town centre. The brownfield site is on the edge of a small industrial park to the south-east of the town, fronting on to the Forth and Clyde Canal to the north-west and sitting alongside a recently constructed canal basin, adjacent to new council headquarters.

After a competitive tender process, architects Reiach and Hall and Walters & Cohen were invited to prepare costed ‘reference’ designs to RIBA Stage C for a school for 300 children. The site presented unique challenges since the canal it abuts is a Scheduled Ancient Monument, but nevertheless both practices were instructed to develop a ‘prototype design’ that could be used for other schools. The competition was won by Walters & Cohen, a London-based partnership with a number of award-winning school projects in England to its credit. 

The idea of a prototype for a school remains controversial with many architects

The idea of a prototype for a school remains controversial with many architects – myself included – who consider that site context, function, and sense of place should always determine the design response. Walters & Cohen agrees but envisaged an ‘association of spaces’ for the new school; a relationship between formal and informal spaces, a barrier-free layout, and a standard classroom design, which it believes can be used as references for other schools.

According to Grant Robertson, SFT associate director and leader of the Schools for the Future programme, there are huge financial benefits for ‘cash-strapped’ councils in adopting design prototypes. He says councils now ‘have a tried and tested architectural concept at their fingertips, ready to use immediately without having to embark upon lengthy procurement processes that suck in resources and waste time and money’.

Walters & Cohen took the project to RIBA Stage D in 2012, collaborating with East Dunbartonshire, and was then employed by the newly formed Hub West, a public/private joint venture development organisation set up by the SFT. In 2013, the design was put out to competitive tender to three Tier 1 contractors, and won by Morgan Sindall which then negotiated within an ‘affordability cap’ agreed at the start. The architects and the design team were then novated and all worked through to detailed design. On-site works started in 2014.

The linear, two-storey structure runs parallel to the Forth and Clyde Canal and is separated from the water by a strip of terrace and new soft landscaping to which the staff and pupils have controlled access. The north-west elevation is double height, almost fully glazed and fronts on to the canal. It is punctuated at its centre by larch, which clads a feature ‘amphitheatre’ staircase and the much higher gymnasium by the school’s visitor entrance.

The pupil entrance is well considered and controlled. A single gateway is supervised in the morning when children arrive and in the afternoon when they leave. Inside, there are landscaped grounds, by landscape architect Iglu, with pupils free to move around the campus without restriction. Visitor access is by a separate supervised entrance on the north-east elevation, where support facilities and the head teacher’s office are also located.

Classrooms are to the south-east and, in contrast, the elevation here is layered with much greater depth of structure. It is defined by four ‘towers’, each of which marks entrances on the ground floor from the playground, giving the youngest pupils direct access to their classrooms, cloakrooms and toilets. 

To its credit the contractor, Morgan Sindall, has followed much of the architect’s specifications

Older pupils in primary classes 5 to 7 are on the first floor, which is accessed from a staircase off the school campus. While the classrooms are brightly lit, on a Scottish December morning the interior depends much on supportive task and ceiling lighting. On a clearer day I have no doubt the circulation space and classrooms will benefit from natural light. The interior is open on both floors with a balcony on the first floor overlooking the shared ground floor. Unusually, there are no classroom doors, thresholds instead being defined by changes of flooring materials. Pupils spill out on to the main circulation space and into specially designed seating and meeting areas, so the overall impression is lively, and full of activity. Important areas and informal seating are picked out in bright colours, which also act as orientation cueMost Design-and-Build projects are subject to cost cutting once the tender is won, but to its credit Morgan Sindall has followed much of the architect’s specifications, and the building and its exterior and interior finishes are completed with consideration. The main circulation space has oak flooring, often the first specification item to be ‘value engineered’, and this provides warmth and character.

This is a fine project and has been carried through by the architect and design team with flair. But the notion of it providing a prototype for civic buildings remains a challenging one. The design for Lairdsland Primary is clearly influenced by its unique location, but it is now to be used for three other schools in the area. One of those three schools is now being built and the plan at the centre of this new school presents as more than a ‘reference’, looking very much like a copy of Lairdsland Primary with two additional wings added at either side. For my part, I think that such an approach is short-sighted and lacking in ambition.

Alan Dunlop is a fellow of the RIAS, visiting professor of architecture and honorary chair in contemporary architectural practice at the University of Liverpool and visiting professor of architecture at Robert Gordon University

Lairdsland Primary School by Walters & Cohen

Lairdsland Primary School by Walters & Cohen

Source: Dennis Gilbert/VIEW

Brief

Michál Cohen, director, Walters & Cohen Architects  

Scotland’s Schools for the Future programme aims to replace or refurbish some of the country’s poorest quality school buildings. To this end, in 2012 Scottish Futures Trust issued an invitation to tender for a reference primary school design. During an intensive 10-week consultation and research period, two architectural practices developed the brief with client groups, and produced costed designs to RIBA Stage C.

East Dunbartonshire Council subsequently chose Walters & Cohen to design Lairdsland Primary, a new school for up to 320 pupils, novating to the contractor Morgan Sindall at Stage E. Community engagement informed a design that enhances and rejuvenates its locale. 

Lairdsland Primary School by Walters & Cohen

Lairdsland Primary School by Walters & Cohen

Source: Dennis Gilbert/VIEW

Architect’s view

Michál Cohen, director, Walters & Cohen Architects

In 2003 the Department for Education commissioned Walters & Cohen to design an exemplar primary school. Since then we have built out our ideas, adapting them to suit different locations, sizes and types of school, and continually learning how our architecture can best respond to our clients’ various needs.

We were therefore delighted to have the opportunity to design a reference primary school for Scottish Futures Trust, creating design principles in response to the Scottish Curriculum for Excellence and Scottish Futures Trust’s area and cost metrics.

Time and again we find that successful projects take root in meaningful consultation, and as architect for Lairdsland Primary School we experienced a stimulating period of engagement with staff, pupils, parents and local people.

For example, pupils helped choose the colours in and around the school, selecting the vibrant red because it reflected the colour of a particular boat on the marina. Other consultation activities resulted in a building that is unique to its site; tailored to the way this particular school wanted to teach. The canalside location, the double-storey glazing to give views of the canal, and the internal free flow for those using the school were all locally-led design decisions.

One of our most successful initiatives was to show a client group around some of our completed schools. Seeing our design principles translated into reality fostered a great deal of enthusiasm for making Lairdsland a beacon in its community and a quality learning environment.

Lairdsland Primary School by Walters & Cohen

Lairdsland Primary School by Walters & Cohen

Source: Dennis Gilbert/VIEW

Client’s view

Simon Mair, Primary School Improvement Programme (PSIP) lead, Education & Children’s Services, East Dunbartonshire Council

The local authority required a school that provided a reference design for the development of primary schools in East Dunbartonshire. This meant a building designed to specific cost and area metrics, but most importantly, a building that enabled the school to deliver and develop new pedagogy in Scottish education.

To make sure that the design focused on the implementation of the new curriculum, consultation was very important. The design was developed through intensive work with staff, parents and pupils. The brief for the consultation was simple: design a school for the Curriculum for Excellence. Because sessions were led by architects working with all the school’s users, the design accurately reflects stakeholders’ needs, and users understand the design and have bought into it.

Key features of the building were developed through this consultation. The informal and formal learning areas that form the classrooms – and the transparent and open nature of the spaces – allow different activities to take place in one lesson, with teachers able to supervise each part of the space. Pupils can work confidently and independently in open spaces, with more formal work carried out in the class base. Shared spaces such as the staircase, gym hall, dining hall and art and science areas can support a wide range of activities and allow teachers much greater flexibility. Covered outdoor spaces for all learners, and stimulating and varied outdoor environments support outdoor learning throughout the year.

The quality of the design and the consideration given to acoustic engineering, pupil movement, and transparency and supervision has ensured the school can use all of the spaces as it develops new ways of working in the new building. This consultation approach together with these design principles and metrics are now being used as the basis for four further new schools across the authority.

Lairdsland Primary School by Walters & Cohen

Lairdsland Primary School by Walters & Cohen

Source: Dennis Gilbert/VIEW

Project data

Start on site February 2014
Completion April 2015
Gross internal floor area 2,108m²
Form of contract or procurement route Design and build
Construction cost £7.3 million, including all fees, abnormals and site works
Architect Walters & Cohen Architects
Client East Dunbartonshire Council, led by development partner Hub West Scotland, delivered by main contractor Morgan Sindall
Structural engineer Woolgar Hunter
MEP consultant Morgan Sindall Professional Services
Quantity surveyor Sweett Group
Civil engineers Woolgar Hunter and WSP
Acoustics Max Fordham
Landscape consultant Iglu Studio
CDM coordinator Sweett group
Approved building inspector
East Dunbartonshire Council Building Control
Main contractor Morgan Sindall Construction
Cad software used Vectorworks Architect 2012
Annual CO2 emissions 9 Kg/m² (estimate)

Lairdsland Primary School by Walters & Cohen

Lairdsland Primary School by Walters & Cohen

Source: Dennis Gilbert/VIEW

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