Unsupported browser

For a better experience please update your browser to its latest version.

Your browser appears to have cookies disabled. For the best experience of this website, please enable cookies in your browser

We'll assume we have your consent to use cookies, for example so you won't need to log in each time you visit our site.
Learn more

Frensham Heights School, Surrey by Burrell Foley Fischer

  • Comment

Burrell Foley Fischer has risen to the challenge of a tight budget to create a performing arts space in Surrey which excels in its simplicity

The car radio crackled out the hit theme tune to the film and TV programme Fame: ‘I’m gonna live forever I’m gonna learn how to fly - high ’ I quickly retuned to a Radio 4 discussion in which Brian Sewell was intoning the benefits of teaching art appreciation in schools.

Art should be taught as a subject in itself, he argued. Its appreciation ‘gives greater insights into the values of architecture, ballet and poetry…’ The signal died out just as I passed into Surrey.

Trying to shake off an image of Irene Cara held aloft by a sweatpanted Sewell, I pulled up to Frensham Heights School, just outside Farnham, to see what facilities had been provided for the school’s boarders and day pupils in its new performing arts centre.

Fortunately, the New York School of Performing Arts setting of Fame is metaphorically, as well as literally, thousands of miles away from Frensham Heights.

Founded in 1925, it has an altogether more sedate feel, more reminiscent of Greyfriars.

The school buildings are grouped around a beautiful Edwardian country house and situated, as AA Milne might have said, in a ‘hundred acre wood’.

Burrell Foley Fischer, a London-based practice specialising in theatre design, won a two-stage interview process for the new performance venue to cater for the various activities encouraged by the school. From dance to orchestra, conferences to drama, three year olds to A-level students, the brief demanded a highly flexible environment. It is intended to be, says Frensham Heights development director Rosellen Mates, ‘a temple to the very essence of what the school does’; turning out students who very often enter the higher echelons of the performing arts.

The architect was invited to recommend a setting for the centre from six possible locations. The chosen position edges onto the dense wooded parkland to the north, on the route from the main buildings to the arts, photography and sporting venues. A new music facility is proposed to close off a courtyard to the north-east of the centre.

By selling off some school buildings and engaging in supplementary fundraising activities, the client secured the £1.5 million budget without recourse to grants. Singlestage tenders were received from the contractors before Christmas 1998 and work started on site on 6 April 1999 using the JCT 80 Private contract with Quantities Edition with Contractors Design Portion Supplement.

The contract period was 49 weeks.

Even though boreholes had revealed firm clay and minor gravel seams, the chosen site was found to have a stream running underneath springing from ancient balancing ponds hidden in undergrowth further into the school’s grounds. To accommodate this - and the proximity of the trees - pile foundations were dropped several metres and the floor constructed of concrete planks.

‘You ain’t seen the best of me yet Give me time I’ll make you forget the rest’ Project architect Mark Foley accepts the constraints of the limited budget graciously.

‘Too much money, ’ he argues, ‘can lead to gross exuberance and over-embellishment. A relatively low budget is a tremendous discipline.’ Judging by the results, he is justifiably ‘proud of producing a simple and honest building for the money’.

For reasons of economy, as well as aesthetics, the building is a relatively straightforward rectangular plan form, with outcrops adding floor area and breaking up the external appearance. The architect cites many influences, including Snape Maltings, the Tricycle and Cottesloe theatres, as well as Henley Rowing Club. However, it has produced a very distinctive building which is beautiful in its simplicity of detailing and sits comfortably in its historic setting.

The external larch boarding is fixed horizontally but with clear vertical lines that break up the surface of the cladding area.

Two-metre lengths of double-raked timber cladding are fixed with clear gaps between.

On close inspection the external insulation and treated softwood studs are visible behind. The projecting control room and the fire escape-cum-balcony wrapped around the perimeter differentiate the building from simple agricultural typologies and add interest to the large expanses of timber.

‘I feel it comin’ together People will see me and cry - Fame’ Full-height double-glazed spaces in the entrance and foyer areas use slender galvanised steel window frames to maximise the effect of the glazing against the timber mullions. Judicious planting and the maintenance of existing trees reduce solar glare internally, and externally blend the building into its surroundings.

Details in the reception area are an object lesson in the effectiveness of well-thoughtout simplicity. An unprepossessing maple counter overhanging the blockwork support provides a good and functional bar counter, while the timber handrail to the stairs is delicately moulded in a sweeping curve rather than the more usual sawn end grain.

Throughout the building, the effort to maximise the potential of the ordinary shines through.

The building is unpretentious. The performance area is positioned in the centre for sound attenuation purposes and circulation, with changing and WC facilities located around the perimeter and services at the rear.

The central auditorium is modelled on double cube proportions. It is a delightful, adaptable space, rising in three tiers to an exposed trussed rafter roof. Staging can be arranged in a variety of layouts to suit the performance space required: from the permanent flat stage to a proscenium; from a cat-walk to theatre in the round. The seating can be electronically retracted to the rear wall to give a level floor surface throughout.

All configurations can be set up by three people in 45 minutes or so.

‘Baby look at me And tell me what you see’ The auditorium ensures that the building enhances, but does not distract from, the performance on stage. The main walls, set back from the delineated theatre space, are Lignacite blocks laid on their side and painted a rich blue. The seating is plum coloured and the carpet a muted purple. Maple balustrading and whitewood structural members are fixed with exposed bolts and slotted brackets, with the main Glulam posts rising the full height of the building and fixed to the purlins. The gantries at high level are painted matt black and help reduce the scale of the building.

In addition to the lighting rigs, uncomplicated fluorescent perimeter lighting allows the height and volume of the auditorium to be drawn in for greater intimacy and cosiness when children are performing.

‘Light up the sky like a flame - Fame!’

Three weeks before opening, a fire in the control room caused significant smoke damage to the roof timbers and high-level balustrading. During the following three months the contractor sanded down the originally specified (and cheaper) sawn timber so well that it is a challenge to spot any evidence of damage. The fire officer also noted that all the intumescent and smoke seals had performed to required standard!

After this unavoidable delay, the building was opened by Alan Parker, director of the film Fame, who has two children at the school. The director of the National Youth Music Theatre describes the centre as ‘the best small theatre space I’ve ever seen’.

Lorna Sanders, the school’s head of dance, says that unlike other schools which teach dance under sufferance, Frensham concentrates on performance skills as ‘a way of developing students’ appreciation of culture’. Hopefully, the culturally sensitive staff and students will be well placed to enjoy the architectural care and precision that has gone into this wonderfully understated building. Frensham Heights:

‘Remember my name!’


A woodland setting and a highly shrinkable clay subsoil led to bored pile foundations being selected. Considerable subsoil heave was predicted, and pre-stressed floor slabs were found to be the most economical method of creating a subfloor void to accommodate this and to incorporate subfloor ducts for fresh air distribution.

Various types of timber framing were considered to reflect a barnlike structure. A simple braced arch echoing the form of the queen post trusses found in traditional aisled barns gave pleasing and efficient proportions; the use of internal columns set at the outside edge of the balconies and technical galleries meant that the structural members spanning the auditorium were of traditional scale and that the elements of roof, technical galleries, and seating balconies became an integrated structure. Laminated timber was selected for its consistency of strength and dimensional stability. A single steel truss was necessary across the stage where no internal columns were possible and where loads from the flying and lighting grid were to be carried.

Engineering a traditional material to comply with modern loading requirements posed some technical challenges, particularly with regard to the fixing of timber handrails and balustrading. A refined system of flitch plates and hidden bolts was developed to carry the forces while retaining a traditional appearance.

Fire protection of the roof and its supports was not required, but the exposed columns below the galleries, together with the timber galleries themselves, required one hour fire resistance, which was achieved by analysing the effect of the charring rate of the timber.

Bracing in the plane of the roof transmits lateral and longitudinal forces to the masonry auditorium enclosure walls by way of a reinforced concrete ring beam at truss padstone level.

The walls are constructed of solid concrete blocks laid flat and stiffened by reinforced piers directly below the padstones. The areas surrounding the central auditorium are simple loadbearing masonry structures or lean-to frames which derive vertical and lateral support from it.


Costs based on tender sum.

DEMOLITIONS AND ALTERATIONS FOUNDATIONS/SLABS £10.93/m 2Demolition of pair of cottages and shed to ground level. Removal of cesspit and trees.


FOUNDATIONS/SLABS £112.05/m 2Bored piled foundations with reinforced concrete pile caps and ground beams supporting suspended concrete ground floor slab and subslab for ductwork walls.


FRAME £9.93/m 2Glulam posts and beams to auditorium area.

UPPER FLOORS £35.09/m 2Precast concrete slabs generally but timber to auditorium area.

ROOF £173.57/m 2Glulam trusses and purlins, steel truss and tie rods, with timber rafters, OSB sheathing and aluminium metal roofing to auditorium. Timber joists, OSB sheathing, insulation cut to falls and Trocal roof covering to all other areas.

STAIRCASES £52.22/m 2Steel staircase to foyer and external fire escape, precast concrete to back of house.

EXTERNAL WALLS £70.43/m 2Solid blockwork fairfaced internally and clad externally with insulation and larch boarding.

WINDOWS AND EXTERNAL DOORS £46.68/m 2Steel-beaded double glazing to structural timber in foyer and steel windows double glazed elsewhere. Timber external doors clad with larch boarding on external face.

INTERNAL WALLS AND PARTITIONS £29.11/m 2Blockwork walls with fairfaced finish in auditorium and storage areas.

INTERNAL DOORS. £21.94/m 2Hardwood veneered timber doors, ironmongery.


WALL FINISHES £7.62/m 2Plaster finish to blockwork walls in foyer, corridor and changing rooms. Ceramic tiling to shower areas. Fairfaced blockwork elsewhere.

FLOOR FINISHES £37.68/m 2Safety vinyl sheet flooring with PVC skirting, carpet with softwood skirting. Sprung floor to stage area with linoleum in auditorium.

CEILING FINISHES £35.03/m 2Plasterboard ceiling generally, but decorated timber boarding in auditorium.

DECORATIONS £12.75/m 2Emulsion to wall and ceiling generally, but decorated timber boarding in auditorium.


FURNITURE £49.14/m 2Vanity units, mirrors, coat hooks, soap dishes, WC roll holders, auditorium seating.


SANITARY APPLIANCES £11.92/m 2Vitreous china sanitaryware.

DISPOSAL INSTALLATIONS £2.60/m 2Above ground soil and waste system.

SPACE HEATING/AIR TREATMENT £71.44/m 2General heating and ventilation/extract system.

ELECTRICAL SERVICES £88.27/m 2Mains intake and distribution, lighting, power, fire alarms, security communications, lighting protection and work in connection with mechanical services.

TECHNICAL THEATRE INSTALLATIONS £124.36/m 2Hemp set equipment, house curtain, lighting hoists, hand winches, traveller tracks, lighting booms, wing book and crossover flats, dance trolley, drapes, tormentors and pelmet, stage lighting system, sound and communications.

BUILDERS’WORK IN CONNECTION £30.00/m 2General holes, openings, plinths, metal supports.


PRELIMINARIES, OVERHEADS AND PROFIT £118.13/m 2Preliminaries, construction manager costs and M&E commissioning.


LANDSCAPING, ANCILLARY BUILDINGS £15,430/m 2Hard and soft landscaping around building widening of road to ‘get-in’ area.

DRAINAGE £26,620/m 2Surface water to soakaways and foul drainage to connect into existing system.

Cost summary

DEMOLITIONS 10.93 0.94

SUBSTRUCTURE 112.05 9.61


Frame 9.93 0.85

Upper floors 35.09 3.01

Roof 173.57 14.89

Staircases 52.22 4.48

External walls 70.43 6.04

Windows and external doors 46.68 4.00

Internal walls and partitions 29.11 2.50

Internal doors 21.94 1.88

Group element total 438.97 37.65


Wall finishes 7.62 0.65

Floor finishes 37.68 3.23

Ceiling finishes 35.03 3.01

Decorations 12.75 1.09

Group element total 93.08 7.98



Sanitary appliances 11.92 1.02

Disposal installation 2.60 0.22

Water installation 14.90 1.28

Heating installation 71.44 6.13

Electrical services 88.27 7.57

Technical theatre installation 124.36 10.67

Builder work in connection 30.00 2.57

Group element total 343.49 29.46

PRELIMINARIES 118.13 10.14

TOTAL 1,165.79 100.00

Costs supplied by James Nisbet & Partners


TENDER DATE 21 December 1998




FORM OF CONTRACT JCT80 Private with Quantities Edition with Contractors Design Portion Supplement

PROCUREMENT Single-stage selective tendering

TENDER VALUE £1,438,666.96

CLIENT Frensham Heights School

ARCHITECT Burrell Foley Fischer: Mark Foley, Charles Everard, Oliver Perceval, Philip Smithies, Trevor Price, Chris Roche

QUANTITY SURVEYOR James Nisbet & Partners




THEATRE CONSULTANT Techplan International; Neil Morton Associates



CONTRACTOR Full Construction

SUBCONTRACTORS AND SUPPLIERS structural steelwork Ward Fabrication; internal steelwork Ventfix Fabrications; ironmongery PJ Drew; precast concrete Tarmac Topfloor; Glulam structure Kingston Craftsmen; external metal balustrade , panels/treads Thielco Grating; larch cladding and posts Beaumont Forest Products; precast stone cills Britannia Stone; external metal doors Stokvis & Sons; cubicle systems Bushboard Parker; carpet Adams Carpets; vinyl flooring Marley Floors; seats Auditoria Services; seat rostra AJS Theatre Lighting & Supplies; general lighting Harry Lloyd; metal roof Broderick Structures; internal signage Rivermeade Signs; external glazing frames Vista Brunswick; glazing Solent Glass; external render system Rockwool; landscaping AGM Landscaping; flat roofs Trocal; internal joinery FULL Joinery; blocks Lignacite


Frensham Heights www.demon.co.uk/frensham-heights

Colin Toms & Partners ctandp.com

  • Comment

Have your say

You must sign in to make a comment

Please remember that the submission of any material is governed by our Terms and Conditions and by submitting material you confirm your agreement to these Terms and Conditions.

Links may be included in your comments but HTML is not permitted.