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RIBA Stirling Prize 2015 finalist: Burntwood School by AHMM

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The mature level-headed design of Burntwood is a progression from AHMM’s previous schools, says Felix Mara

Photography by Tim Soar

Sustainability appraisal

Project data

Architect’s view

Detail

Materials board

The idea of a design process is saturated in mythology; not so much falsification as pedestalised creativity. Of course, creativity should be applauded, but sometimes mythologies only obfuscate.

‘Is there more you can tell me that will bring me nearer the creative coalface of the school’s cladding design?’ I ask Allford Hall Monaghan Morris’s Lukas Ochendal, one of the architects involved in the practice’s Burntwood School, a 10-form entry state girls’ academy project, completed one year ago. Afterwards, I suspect I’ve missed the point. Most projects have their trails of inspired or best-forgotten hand sketches, physical and digital models and fanciful word pictures.

But the essence of Burntwood’s design process lies elsewhere, in two powerful ideas you might also call principles. The first is that quality should be completely gimmick-free and spread right across the board, a core principle of good design. The second involves an imaginative, constructive, sympathetic, playful appreciation of the original school, built for a smaller intake in 1958 – a sort of new-build retrofit. Its assets included extensive, informal and open grounds, and Leslie Martin’s elegant, thoughtfully planned assembly hall and swimming pool blocks, both retained, although their local authority-designed companions were not. While quality was not applied impasto where it would be most conspicuous, four aspects of the project stand out: its phasing and organisation; the site plan; the internal layout and design of individual buildings; and the assertive, sculptural precast teaching-block facades, like a rusticated assortment of mitred frames and upright sumps in dialogue with colour-coded tiled entrance voids.

Burntwood’s sequencing was the core problem that had to be solved

A lot of nonsense is talked about what constitutes design. Burntwood’s sequencing might seem a prosaic topic but was the core problem that had to be solved to avoid expensive temporary accommodation – compress the construction programme, minimise disruption to school life and ensure the additions were not compromised by forcing them into soon-to-be-demolished contexts.

The phasing diagram must have stood out as a crucial breakthrough, both practical and cognitive. This diagram identifies the existing games court as the largest space on the site available for the first construction phase, perfectly situated next to the highway and a campus service road. This was the spot chosen for the first new building, into which existing maths and science teaching spaces and facilities could be drawn. This move set up further cycles of demolition, construction on cleared sites, decantation and remodelling of existing buildings.

Through this process, teaching blocks, conceived as landscaped pavilions, were replaced with upgrades, shifted and reorientated to improve the site layout, adding commodious sequences of spaces and vistas as well as improved access into the campus via a reception that was moved from its centre to its perimeter. A canopy assembled from adapted bus shelters runs the length of the site, further integrating buildings, landscape and circulation, while a bridge, the outcome of 30 design iterations, links the performing arts block with the refurbished assembly hall.

The new buildings’ layout and design emulates the spirit of their predecessors without descending into retro; preserving the distinction between more transparent, steel-framed blocks and more private teaching pavilions with concrete structure, precast cladding, double-loaded corridors and wide staircases.

Burntwood needed more than retrofit could provide

Was it then necessary to demolish 85 per cent of the existing buildings? Retrofit, including replacement facades set out to increase the width of classroom zones, was considered unfeasible. Burntwood needed more than retrofit could provide: better acoustic and thermal performance, infrastructure and ventilation, larger classrooms, wider corridors and higher ceilings plus double- or triple-height spaces.

A progression from previous AHMM schools, Burntwood is a mature, level-headed design. Neither AHMM nor the school wanted extensive breakout spaces. It is difficult to use these imaginatively if they are small and they tend to function as ‘naughty children parks’ for teachers in nearby classrooms, says principal Helen Dorfman. A higher priority was 57m2 classrooms.

Burntwood is not the disappointing reality in the wake of half-baked ideas desperately latched on to. One of the last completed Building Schools for the Future projects, its procurement required design freezes and early decisions by a client team that became Building Bulletin 98 experts, with minimal improvisation and uncertainty at its later stages. An experienced client team, a school contingency fund, and constant reference to the site’s original buildings also helped. For these reasons, and because there was nothing flabby about AHMM’s design, the completed building and its remarkable price came as no surprise.

Former AJ technical editor Felix Mara is an architect at Hugh Broughton Architects

Sustainability appraisal

Annual CO² emissions 10.41kg/m²

This thoughtful approach to revitalising a tired 1950s secondary school sets a new standard for sustainable place-making. Retaining landmark buildings, Allford Hall Monaghan Morris inserted six new buildings to frame attractive landscaped spaces and clarify wayfinding through the campus.

An architectural vocabulary of bespoke precast concrete panels which accommodates a variety of window sizes gives the school a new visual identity. Self-shading facades with windows recessed to the back of the precast panels reduce solar gain by almost 25 per cent, while all of the new blocks benefit from good daylight and operable windows. Working with Lend Lease and concrete manufacturer Techrete early in the design process enabled the development of precast panels with factory-fitted glazing units, resulting in a remarkably low airtightness of 2.53m3/h.m2 at 50Pa. This approach also minimised construction waste.

Extensive sub-metering allows tracking of 90 per cent of energy consumption to facilitate optimal building performance. A biomass boiler and solar thermal panels meet Wandsworth Council’s planning requirement of 20 per cent renewables.

Hattie Hartman, sustainability editor

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Project data

Construction cost £40.9 million
Total gross internal floor area 20,500m²
Construction cost per m2 (new build) £2,100
Start on site June 2011
Completion September 2014
Form of contract Design and Build
Client Wandsworth Council LEA
Stakeholder Wandsworth School & Wandsworth Children’s Services
Structural engineer Buro Happold
M&E consultant Mott MacDonald Fulcrum
QS/project manager/CDM co-ordinator Lend Lease
Graphic designer Studio Myerscough
Landscape architect Kinnear Landscape Architects

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Architect’s view

Our initial concept was to reinvent and reinvigorate the existing school’s campus model by using new pavilions to complement the two rather fine 1950s GLC buildings. The tricky part was that we had to construct these buildings while the school was in full occupation with 1,800 students and 200 staff. It was important that the final masterplan looked coherent rather than accidental, which was the real challenge given we needed to demolish five large, existing faculty buildings. We chose a building vernacular that celebrated the grand period of post-war Modernism inherent in the existing buildings being demolished.

We never deviated from the concept of the faceted panels

The campus solution was an inevitable answer to the brief and site constraints. The placing of the pavilions took some manipulation but was set early in the process, and this led to a speedy and very linear design development. The faceted panels were there from the very beginning and we never deviated from this concept, allowing time to develop and refine the details with Lend Lease’s subcontractor Techrete.

The pavilions exploit views and spaces between buildings, and enable the green spaces beyond to be appreciated from the heart of the campus. Playing fields to the east and Garratt Green to the west frame the gardens, lawns and squares which weave through the central spine. One of the key driving forces was to maximise the civic aspects of the school. This enables the wider community to benefit from these new facilities and embeds Burntwood more deeply into its context. To this end, the gateway pavilion (containing a skills centre and learning resource centre) and the sports hall form bookends to the central spine, welcoming visitors at each end of the site.

We became very close to the leadership team at Burntwood and their ambition and enthusiasm were infectious. This spurred us on during the long five-year construction period. Our other client, Lend Lease, had a pragmatic delivery team whose drive and rigour facilitated the building’s vision. They helped greatly in developing some of the more ambitious details by introducing us to key subcontractors at an early stage. Wandsworth Council, our third client, encouraged the bold concept, supporting the team with strong design advisers.

Designing the construction process was key to the initial concept

The key challenge was ensuring that students being educated during the five-year construction period were not disturbed by the works. Therefore designing the construction process was key to the initial concept. We needed to avoid costly temporary accommodation and make sure that noisy operations such as demolitions and piling were always completed during school holidays. By building the early phases on the only available land it allowed us start a sequential construction process that made sure students only ever moved once. In some ways, the masterplan’s programme could be conceived as a game of Sudoku.

Choosing strong collaborators was the important lesson we took from the project. Lynn Kinnear, the landscape architect, created a bold and inventive concept which was fully integrated into the masterplan. Her tenacity and determination during the construction process allowed her vision to be fully realised without any erosion. Morag Myerscough, our long-time collaborator, was employed more as an artist than a branding and wayfinding expert. This allowed the budget to become sacrosanct. Her work on the wall paintings and faience provided a strong accent to complement our simple palette of materials.

In some ways our school buildings, more than any other typology, have shown the diversity of tactics we employ on projects. We have designed eight secondary schools in the last 10 years and each project has taken a very different approach, both in terms of layout and appearance, due to different clients and varied context. Our best schools have come from having strong clients. Burntwood School is undoubtedly one of our most important projects, demonstrating that we are able to produce well-designed and economic buildings, even through rather challenging bureaucratic processes.

Paul Monaghan, director, Allford Hall Monaghan Morris

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Detail

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The most recognisable elements of the school are the faceted, reinforced precast concrete panels made by Techrete. These are 3m and 4.5m long to align with a typical classroom and structural module of 7.5m.

A cleverly optimised panel catalogue provides visual variation through minimum mould types – subtle on long elevations and more playful on flank elevations. The panels are faceted to create a visually interesting facade in addition to providing increased solar shading. The windows have been sized to balance the required light levels for classroom activities, while ensuring that solar heating loads are reduced.

By placing the glazing on the inside of the panels, we were able to make use of the full depth of the facade for shading. A smaller aperture panel was developed for the flank elevations and more private accommodation. These apertures reduce the solar heat gain to the south-facing elevations, as well as creating a contrasting appearance. The panels are load bearing with only lateral restraint to the building frame.

Paul Monaghan, director, Allford Hall Monaghan Morris

Materials board

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  1. ‘Corduroy’ precast concrete base, mica fleck acid-etched, Techrete
  2. Black faceted precast concrete base panel, mica fleck acid-etched, Techrete
  3. White upper faceted precast concrete panel, off-white with dark aggregate fleck heavily acid-etched, Techrete
  4. Black acid-etched upper panel with vertical joints, Techrete
  5. Black polished base panel with vertical joints, Techrete
  6. Double-glazed polyester powder-coated aluminium windows, AluK window system
  7. Coloured tiles, Johnson Tiles
  8. Layered vinyl signage
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