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Marks Barfield's first piece in the North West Cambridge masterplan

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Marks Barfield’s new primary school is the first piece in the North West Cambridge masterplan to complete. Laura Mark takes a look

ARCHITECT’S VIEW • CLIENT’S VIEW • CONSULTANT’S VIEW • PROJECT DATA • SPECIFICATION • PLANS • SECTION • DETAIL 

Marks Barfield’s new school on the North West Cambridge development was the first building in the masterplan to complete. It has been open since September 2015 and this month is set to welcome its second clutch of eager primary school students.

It is unusual in such a large residential development for a school to be built and opened before anything around it is finished. But the University of Cambridge – which is developing this 150ha ex-farmland site to provide affordable accommodation for its staff and students – chose to build the school first. This was partly due to the demand for school spaces for four year olds in the area but also because it wanted to have facilities already on site for its new residents.

This building comes out of a challenging era for the design and procurement of the UK’s schools. The development first of the academies programme, of Building Schools for the Future (BSF) and then of the Priority School Building Programme has allowed educationalists, teachers and architects to rethink the very idea of what constitutes a school. Here we have a school financed by a university, for which it will also become a teaching aid and one of the first primary schools linked to a university education department. Its design has been borne out of research by both the architect and client into how a school could best facilitate the education of future teachers without disrupting that of its students.

‘Each decision was made incrementally, based on a process that assessed the site context and the educational needs of the school, while drawing on the guidance and research of leading academics from the University of Cambridge Faculty of Education’, says architect Julia Barfield.

‘This information was then given form by testing options as well as extensive research into historical, international and local precedents, from the democratic organisation of Finnish schools to the village colleges created in Cambridgeshire by Henry Morris.

‘The idea was to create a school where the education ethos and the architecture are totally aligned, such that learning can take place everywhere’, she adds.

In 2012, education secretary Michael Gove announced new design guidelines for schools, restricting the use of curves and calling for ‘super blocks’ and orthogonal forms with minimum indents – a requirement heavily contested by architects. Coming three years later and after the fallout of Gove’s damming of the architectural profession, this school has everything Gove dislikes. It’s certainly curvy – its large circular form takes the shape of a doughnut and inside, with its lack of boundary-defining walls, it basically all resembles what Gove would have described as breakout space.

This school has everything Gove dislikes

When I visit at the end of its first academic year, just one form of entry has been through the school and the youngsters rattle around the space. But when all the pupils do arrive this month it will be a large school. With three-form entry, it is important to ensure the experience for the pupils when they arrive here is not daunting. To tackle this and create a democratic environment the school can be divided into smaller communities. It was this that led to the circular plan – more reminiscent of Foster + Partners’ Apple Campus 2 than a traditional school building – which, formed by three clusters of six classes, allows each classroom level access to a central outdoor courtyard space.

There are no doors with groups of classrooms or ‘home bases’ as they are known, open to the central ‘learning street’, which runs through the school. The learning street includes library areas, smaller group rooms, storage and toilets for each home base. This arrangement of spaces doesn’t just aid the teaching but, in a school that is also a learning and research base, it allows researchers and trainee teachers to observe what is going on without disrupting the classes. It also has an environmental benefit, allowing the school to be naturally ventilated with the height of the shared learning street creating a stack effect that draws the stale air of the classroom areas out through vents in the roof.

This openness has created light-filled spaces but these are not without some difficulties. The spaces can be noisy and distracting for some students with special education needs who are often left to retreat to smaller rooms originally intended for group work or specialist studies. I can understand why a pupil would gravitate to these spaces – with their top-lit forms they resemble a Turrell art piece where you can quietly contemplate while watching the clouds pass by overhead.

Instead of tight, walled playgrounds, children have rolling grassy mounds

Although inspired by the quads of Cambridge colleges, the school’s central courtyard with its three entrances doesn’t feel enclosed. This is partly down to the site. Unlike many new schools of today – constrained on tight inner-city sites – the building can breathe. Instead of tight, walled playgrounds, children have rolling grassy mounds. The play spaces that surround the school are open and feature enticing wilder areas. Trees have been planted and will, in time, grow to form a woodland area, and there is also an allotment. The abundant space has also meant there was no need to build upwards, facilitating the school’s doughnut-like shape.

Schools like this rely on trust and on giving children responsibility from a young age. It feels similar to Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios’ Plymouth School of Creative Arts, where classrooms without walls give a sense of freedom but also mean students of different ages learn from each other and take responsibility for their own behaviour and learning.

What is most interesting about this school is that its experimental design will be used for researching and educating future teachers so the impact of progressive school design will have a far-reaching audience. Let’s hope the impact of this research is used to prove to the government the importance of architecture in school buildings.

Ground floor plan

University of Cambridge Primary School by Marks Barfield

University of Cambridge Primary School by Marks Barfield

First floor plan

University of Cambridge Primary School by Marks Barfield

University of Cambridge Primary School by Marks Barfield

Isometric section 

University of Cambridge Primary School by Marks Barfield

University of Cambridge Primary School by Marks Barfield

Detail 

University of Cambridge Primary School by Marks Barfield

University of Cambridge Primary School by Marks Barfield

The glazed cloister canopy is a result of a close collaboration between Marks Barfield Architects, structural engineers Parmarbrook, steelwork subcontractor William Haley Engineering and glazing fabricator Prism Architectural. Running around the internal perimeter of the central unifying courtyard and providing cover to the primary circulation for the school, it is the site of the main school artwork by emerging artist Ruth Proctor.

Proctor’s piece, entitled ‘We Are All Under the Same Sky’, treats each pane of glass with a digital screen print, bringing together 67 unique images of the sky, all of which have been taken by people in different locations across the globe at the same time of day, yet spanning all time zones. It emphasises the international reach and perspective of the school.

The canopy structure is made up of simple mild steel circular hollow sections, T-sections and angles. The connection details were refined with the steel fabricator to balance the subtle display of images of the sky within laminated glass panels.

The cloister canopy also responds to the orientation of each classroom to ensure that the light transmission requirements of 60 per cent or more across each classroom were met and that the rooms did not overheat from solar gain. This was modelled at concept and the specification of the interlay and screen print was tested for light reduction then fine-tuned to respond to the orientation of each classroom that opens out onto it.

Gemma Collins, director, Marks Barfield Architects

University of Cambridge Primary School by Marks Barfield

University of Cambridge Primary School by Marks Barfield

Source: Morley von Sternberg

Architect’s view

University of Cambridge Primary School is the result of team effort. It was central to our approach to come to the project without a preconceived vision, indeed Marks Barfield Architects was selected because of our open minded, research informed and collaborative approach. 

Each decision was made incrementally, based on a process that assessed the site context and the educational needs of the school, while drawing on the guidance and research of leading academics from the UoC Faculty of Education. This information was then given form by both testing options and extensive research into historical, international and local precedents, from the democratic organisation of Finnish schools to the “Village Colleges” created in Cambridgeshire by Henry Morris. 

This is a practical building, simply built, with robust materials, high levels of natural light and ventilation and low energy use. Future flexibility and adaptability has been built in. 

The idea was to create a school where the education ethos and the architecture are totally aligned, such that learning can take place everywhere. A school that is democratic and, despite being a large 3FFE, can be divided into smaller communities while still being part of a united whole. This led to the circular plan, formed by the three clusters of six classes, plus an early years cluster, creating the unifying central courtyard where the whole school can gather. 

Every classroom is articulated in plan, has no doors and opens on one side to a shared learning street and on the other to a covered outdoor learning space. The courtyard was inspired by Cambridge’s historic quads, but differs from them in that it opens to the playground and the landscape beyond.

Julia Barfield, co-founder, Marks Barfield Architects

University of Cambridge Primary School by Marks Barfield

University of Cambridge Primary School by Marks Barfield

Source: Morley von Sternberg

Client’s view 

It is not often a headteacher gets the chance to design their own school. It’s even less common to work with architects who respond to the educational needs of children through discussion with practising teachers and school leaders as well as academics who research in this area, essentially bringing together professionals to collaborate on providing the best outcomes for children.

It has been an incredibly rewarding process. I was struck by how reflexive Julia Barfield and her team were in considering the vision and values of a school, principled on the notion of a democratic education. In big statements (like the circle design) and more subtle utterances (such as the way classrooms disrupt assumptions about how children learn by not being square or usually shaped or the way light floods the building), Marks Barfield listened to the research findings and the practice of headteachers, including Alison Peacock and myself.

It was a deeply intellectual process: one that meets the demands of the university. Superb!

James Biddulph, head teacher, University of Cambridge Primary School

University of Cambridge Primary School by Marks Barfield

University of Cambridge Primary School by Marks Barfield

Source: Morley von Sternberg

Consultant’s view 

The challenge and opportunity for the school is to demonstrate through practice what can be achieved when research-informed design seeks to create an excellent educational experience for every child. The school’s aspiration was that learning should take place everywhere. It was important that the building design communicated a strong recognition of the benefits that would accrue from trusting young learners and creating democratic learning communities within a non-hierarchical school. Children need to feel safe and secure in their schools but they also need to experience a sense of freedom and ease of movement. A careful balance needs to be struck between encouraging respect for individuality as well as community.

Children of different ages learn in close proximity to each other, allowing them all to support each other as a learning community. As a university training school, we anticipate adult visitors, whose presence should not detract from the learning experience. All this suggested a design in which classrooms remain open and where shared learning spaces would attract pupils naturally.

Dame Alison Peacock, consultant head teacher, University of Cambridge Primary School 

University of Cambridge Primary School by Marks Barfield

University of Cambridge Primary School by Marks Barfield

Source: Morley von Sternberg

Specification 

Windows and curtain walling

Sapa PPC aluminum dualframe windows and Gridframe Elegance 52 ST and 52 SX curtain walling in RAL 7033 Cement Grey 

Roof

Kalzip PPC standing seam aluminum roof in RAL 7037 Dusty Grey 

Brickwork

Wienerberger Cambridge Cream brick. Stretcher, Flemish, basket weave, rotated soldier and soldier course with natural ventilation using hit and miss Flemish bond 

Flooring

Forbo Nairn Marmoleum linoleum and Flotex carpet 

Bespoke gates, external screens and internal stair balustrading

Painted mild steel flat balustrading with European oak handrails fabricated by Wilde Group Integrated Construction Solutions 

Bespoke cloister canopy

Artwork ‘ We Are All Under The Same Sky’ by Ruth Proctor through the Contemporary Art Society with InSite Arts

Glass and artwork installation by Prism Architectural, painted mild steel frame fabricated by William Haley Engineering

Timber soffits

Bespoke 15mm x 70mm wide, clear sealed American ash external slatted soffits with black nylon insect mesh on plywood backing, fabricated by Avi Contracts

University of Cambridge Primary School by Marks Barfield

University of Cambridge Primary School by Marks Barfield

Source: Morley von Sternberg

Project data 

Start on site October 2013
Completion September 2015 and December 2015 (phased completion)
Gross internal floor area 3,818m2
Construction cost £9,000,000 excluding design fees and external works
Form of procurement Two-stage using SCAPE framework
Form of contract NEC Option A Construction Contract
Architect Marks Barfield Architects
Client University of Cambridge
Structural engineer URS (now AECOM), Parmarbrook
M&E consultant Briggs & Forester
Building services design URS (now AECOM)
Quantity surveyor Gardiner & TheobaldLan
dscape
architect Colour UDL
Acoustician URS (now AECOM)
Artist Ruth Proctor, Contemporary Art Society
Furniture Hampshire Council Architects
NEC supervisor CalfordseadenProjec
t manager
Turner & Townsend
CDM coordinator Faithful+Gould
Approved building inspector 3C Shared Services Building Control (including Cambridge City Council)
Main contractor Willmott Dixon
CAD software used Autodesk Revit 2013 / BIM level 2
Annual CO2 emissions 9.5kg/m2 (estimated)
Percentage of floor area with daylight factor >2% 93.2% of floor area of occupied rooms, including all classrooms
Percentage of floor area with daylight factor >5% 30% of occupied spaces
On-site energy generation 30%

 

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