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Corby Business Academy, Corby, Northamptonshire, by Foster + Partners

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At Foster + Partners’ Corby Business Academy, workshops between the architect and the contractor encouraged openess - a lesson that can be seen in the design.

The £30 million, 1,200-pupil Corby Business Academy is the eighth of Foster + Partners’ nine academy buildings. The ninth, Langley Academy in Slough, is currently completing. It will be the last for Foster unless the government takes notice of CABE’s strictures about poor design quality in the Building Schools for the Future (BSF) programme, which now dictates all building work on schools. Foster partner Paul Kalkhoven says: ‘BSF is just delivering to budget, on time. The builder has a much more important role – there is a debate on that to do with quality.

Foster partner Paul Kalkhoven says: ‘BSF is just delivering to budget, on time. The builder has a much more important role – there is a debate on that to do with quality. The academies came with innovative ideas and we enjoyed working with educationalists and sponsors. You could have a very close relationship with the clients, who have been people with a vision. It’s not just about academic results. Equally important are the social issues, because schools have to be positive breeding grounds. They are to do with a community finding self-worth and with the [idea of] the school as the public building in your area. So there is a civic function as well.’

The client
The client body included the Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF); Northamptonshire County Council; developer Bee Bee Developments (also responsible for the adjacent Priors Hall housing and shopping scheme); The Weston Foundation; and Brooke Weston, a nearby comprehensive with very good academic results. Kalkhoven says: ‘This is a newer type of sponsorship involving a successful education establishment.’

Kalkhoven likes this kind of client. ‘A wide range of them are people who run a business. When you build something from scratch, you want to be in dialogue with people who can think a bit outside pure education. For example, because they understand running costs, they know that robustness of detailing is important, so we could have tough finishes and durable, high-quality seating.’ It also meant the school canteen could have restaurant-quality finishes and fittings, and carpet.

The building and the brief
The academy is organised into five faculties and the building follows suit. It is a long, two-storey street with central-corridor arms each side, separated by linear open-ended lightwells. Lavatories, private study spaces and mini lightwells are grouped at the inner end of each wing. There is a big assembly hall at one end and a gym at the other end.

Internally, there’s a lot of glass, much of it double-glazed partitions from Stortford Interiors. ‘No hiding place?’ Kalkhoven demurs. ‘Not really. It’s the advantage of visibility – but it’s important for the teachers to see and be seen and vice versa for pupils. And of course, bullying and vandalism does tend to go on in unsupervised spots.’

Even the lavatories are organised on an anti-bullying basis: each cubicle has its own wash basin and dryer. A downside for teachers is that there is no staff room – but there’s an expectation they will eventually commandeer a space to meet, moan and gossip.

Making the contract
This was a JCT 98 Private contract with a Quantities and Contractor Design Portion Supplement. ‘We had value engineering before and after the contract,’ says Kalkhoven. ‘In the normal design process, you have regular cost estimates, making sure you are on target. But even after receiving the tender, we had to make some changes to get back on budget and [cope with] contractors’ alternatives. There are some CDPSs (Contractor’s Design Portions Supplements) and so you can’t be [absolutely] specific. We have our own Foster specification drawn up with David Langdon Schumann Smith, who work with us on all our specs.’

The main CDP item was the building’s skin, Kalkhoven explains. ‘The facade tends to be the most expensive element, apart from M&E. When you use a performance spec, you want to keep the choice of contractors open because they will have different systems and prices. So we define the lead details: panel size, openable windows and so on. But on the whole, for the academies it’s been a Schüco system, although in Folkstone I think it was Kawneer. There are always differences with each design, so it’s best to develop those systems with contractors for each job. Your control is through drawings and samples.’ The external blockwork was black and silver metric masonry from Fyfestone.

On-site workshops
Graeme Laughlan has been on site for Foster + Partners for the last couple of years. Administering the contract has involved regular workshops. ‘There was a fairly robust architectural specification,’ says Laughlan. ‘We had done other academies, so various other members of the practice could share the lessons learned and discuss what risks were lower, what didn’t work, and what did. There was a sharing of a good body of knowledge.’

The successful contractor was Wates Construction. ‘The approach they had was a no-nonsense one and we formed a pretty good working relationship: pragmatic and practical. And they got the job finished on time. This was a tidy site. It boded well.’

‘With a CDP there are quite a number of interfaces between adjoining works. So we sat down with subcontractors and got them to resolve problems. There were a lot of on-site workshops after the contract was signed so while the concrete frame (by Mainland Contractors) was going up, we were inside the huts working out junctions between elements and refining details. In the value engineering, some things had to change so, for example, we had originally wanted stack-bonded blockwork but we moved to half bond. It wasn’t detrimental to the final design.’

The acoustics
‘The client was specific about some things,’ says Laughlan. ‘One was visibility, another was sound. The carpets and the acoustic wall and ceiling panels make a great acoustic combination. When the carpet was laid, there was a sudden, significant acoustic difference.’ It’s an Ege carpet: Danish, black and white and a grey speck, with four or five loops in white. It comes in 480mm square tiles. Plaster faced Decoustics panels were fixed to the upper walls and SAS-perforated metal panels on the slab soffit. Internal blockwork is textured and that helps to break up the sound.

Working with concrete
‘I’m a fan of concrete and we used lots of it exposed. It was good. And it got better.’ enthuses Laughlan. ‘You could see a progression of quality which started in the south and moved north: the north columns are really crafted and the details are sharp. The client wasn’t so passionate and we had a Keim sealer applied. It was the first time we had used Keim, but Wates appreciated the high requirements we had established and they made great efforts with the frame. They came back and rubbed it down and worked on it. The blockwork is very well constructed. Here too, they appreciated this was an exposed finish and the placement and the workmanship was great.’

The raised floors are all steel-encapsulated chipboard core panels from Kingspan. Laughlan says: ‘Internally, the partitions are all fair-faced blockwork – so everything is exposed, which means services had to come up out of the floor, up the walls. We spent lots of workshop time working it out. The raised floor gives you a bit of extra flexibility. We used a GPS system to place 3,000 holes in the slab for overhead lights.’

Most students come from the existing Corby schools and, at the beginning of term, teachers and the head say there has been a significant change in behaviour. That’s good news – and instant results. Of course, we’ll have to see if it continues.

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