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School design: Scotland

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Ryder Architecture’s Chris Malcolm presents the practice’s work on the Scottish Schools for the Future (SSF) programme

Context matters. This is brought into sharp focus when working in the coastal regions and islands of northern Scotland. Ryder’s client for the Scottish Schools for the Future (SSF) programme, Hub North Scotland, has a remit to deliver public-sector projects across an area that extends from the Shetland Islands in the far north, to Campbeltown in the south.

The landscape and coastline this territory covers was memorably described by Stuart MacDonald in the foreword to the 6,000 Miles exhibition (2005), part of the Scottish government’s policy on architecture, as one that ‘shapes our identity and delineates our image of Scotland. It is a point of entry and departure. It is margin and edge. It differentiates us from our neighbours, culturally … geographically.’

This sense of uniqueness of place, climate, history and setting presents a significant challenge in the context of the SSF programme, where considerable time and energy has been invested in the development of an exemplar secondary school model for the delivery of the Scottish schools national curriculum, the Curriculum for Excellence.

This exemplar is based on the idea of the superblock, a multi-storey ring of teaching and support spaces arranged around a series of internal, top-lit atriums, which function as multi-use spaces for dining, assembly, performance and informal teaching. The compact footprint and high use level of each space throughout the day helps drive significant efficiencies into the design, as well as creating good quality teaching spaces, maximising natural light and ventilation.

Teaching spaces are designed to meet a range of purposes in accordance with the Curriculum for Excellence, such as whole-class teaching, collaborative group work, paired working and independent research-based work. Public and shared spaces are also provided, in which learners can display work and teachers can plan collaboratively on interdisciplinary projects, while also enhancing community programmes.

The exemplar is based on the superblock

Our projects within the SSF programme lie within a wide arc at the very edge of not only Hub North Scotland territory but also Europe itself, at Campbeltown, Oban, Wick and Lerwick. These places all have their own strong cultural and geographical identities, but share significant commonalities which have shaped our architectural response. All are situated within the coastal region in maritime climates. All have significantly greater variation in topography than would be found on sites in the central region. And all are long-established settlements, with traces of historic and prehistoric occupation evident in the town planning and the landscape.

These broad similarities led us to adopt a simple but distinct approach to adapting the exemplar model in the coastal setting. By recognising the unique qualities and characteristics of place, the Scottish Futures Trust exemplar model is manipulated through a series of iterative steps to provide a contextually appropriate design solution. The buildings must read as being modern, fit-for-purpose facilities.

From consultation with the client and local communities, we have developed the superblock model, articulating the importance of context and climate, and demonstrating how the varied, rugged topography of the sites allowed the new schools to integrate into the landscape, such as through the introduction of heavy, masonry base courses, which echo both prehistoric remains and geological extrusions from the landscape.

Equally the changeability of the weather (driving rain and fleeting natural lighting conditions) prompted a material palette that makes use of texture to maximise the impact of shadow on surface, allowing different perception under a range of weather and lighting conditions. Materials are capable of weathering gracefully, as the climate is harsh on applied finishes.


Wick High School and Primary School, East Caithness

This approach is made manifest at Lerwick, Shetland, where the simplicity of the Nordic long hall has been the model. Anderson High School sits on a strip of land between the shores of Clickimin Loch to the south and the rugged slopes of Staney Hill to the north. On an islet within the loch sits the scheduled ancient monument of the broch of Clickimin, a once-mighty, now eroded Iron-Age ruin. These elements of land, water and history provide a rich context which has influenced the SSF model. As a specific response to the Shetland context, the mass of the superblock volume is broken down by providing two individual pitched roofs running east to west, reading as two simple shed-like structures. These are placed either side of a central communal space, referencing the language of the agricultural vernacular and responding to the necessities of the climate. At the wider scale, when viewed from a distance, the mass of the school is subsumed within the large backdrop of Staney Hill.

At closer range, the surface of the school is expressed as two primary materials: the school’s lower level appears to merge with the hillside slopes, rooting it to the landscape; while above, a richly textured untreated timber facade will weather to silver grey over time, creating harmony with the natural tones of the moorland backdrop.

Chris Malcolm is architectural director at Ryder Architecture

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