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Harmeny School, Edinburgh by Richard Murphy Architects

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Richard Murphy went back to the classroom to understand the needs of the end users, children with severe emotional and behavioural difficulties, for a school development in Edinburgh

It is not the obvious commission for Richard Murphy. Given his knack of tracking down artistic clients with a penchant for finely crafted, sensitive buildings, addressing the needs of the eight- to 12-year-olds at Harmeny School must have come as something of a shock. The school occupies a listed building in extensive grounds on the outskirts of Balerno, a mid-nineteenth-century mill town a few miles south-west of Edinburgh.Dating from 1906, the house was designed by Sir R Rowand Anderson and recast in 1907 by Robert Lorimer.

Judging from past projects, such as Dundee Contemporary Arts (AJ 22.4.99), Murphy could have had a lot of fun adding his own Scarpaesque brand of historic layering. But the client was rather more concerned with providing new and resilient facilities for its pupils - children with severe emotional and behavioural difficulties, most of whom are in full-time residence at the school. Aesthetics were important, but above all, the new buildings had to be comfortable, practical and indestructible.

Murphy and the Harmeny Education Trust, an independent charity, first got to know each other in 1996 when Murphy attended a competitive interview and summarily dismissed the brief:

‘There were too many rooms, ’ he says, ‘endless rooms - one for each function.’ Client and architect embarked on a process of rationalising the brief, eventually arriving at a long-term rolling programme of construction, devised to fit in with the client’s fund-raising activities and to allow the school to remain in use throughout the construction. The project included a crescent-shaped development of classrooms bookended by two rooms which are nominally labelled as a sports hall and a music room, but which both serve many of the functions, and two new-build freestanding houses. The practice also undertook alterations to the country house, and the preparation of longer-term development and woodland strategies for the whole site. The new buildings were officially opened in April this year.

Early in the design process Murphy spent a day watching the teachers at work - an experience which greatly influenced the final design. ‘The kids kept running out of the door, ‘he recalls.’They were just constantly escaping.And once they were out they were out’. This observation prompted him to arrange the six classrooms and the accompanying one-to-one teaching spaces in a fan shape, forming an enclosed courtyard. If children do escape, they are in a safe, contained space, discreetly overlooked by the staff room.

Each classroom is expressed individually, breaking down the mass of the building. This, combined with the ‘cosiness’ of the courtyard space, creates a humanist feel reminiscent of many of the schools by Hampshire County Architects. Murphy professes an admiration for Hampshire’s work, which he describes as ‘a central part of British architectural history … with an influence way out of proportion to its size’, and is proud to have been able to continue the tradition of inventive hands-on school design at a time when educational buildings all too often suffer from cost and time constraints.

In terms of aesthetics, Murphy describes himself as ‘steering a middle course’ between ‘the idea of a classroom as four walls and a window to which kids bring their own life’ and the ‘folksy and a little bit claustrophobic’ character of excessively child-orientated design. In this respect he sees himself as firmly in the same tradition as Herman Hertzberger, citing his Apollo school buildings in Amsterdam (Montessori School and Willemspark School 1980-1983) as a direct influence.

Hertzberger has spoken of the importance of ‘window sills, shelves and ledges in a classroom … that enable children to appropriate a space’, an approach which is very much in evidence at Harmeny.Windows in the classrooms are low enough for children to lean or perch on. The windows are many and varied, so that the children can enjoy sunshine at all times of the day and take full advantage of the views. Murphy says that he had Barry Gasson’s Burrell Gallery (AJ 19.10.83) in the back of his mind when designing the classrooms, commenting: ‘I wanted the kids to be working almost in a forest.’

It’s hard to tell how much the pupils appreciate this attention to detail. Harmeny’s headmaster, Patrick Webb, reports that ‘if you ask the children which is the best space, it is definitely the sports hall’. Architecturally, this is the least remarkable part of the entire development - a bald, indestructible space which is a little too reverberant for comfort, and perhaps the only room which is not recognisably Murphy.

In contrast, the music room at the opposite end of the crescent is a warm, characterful space, full of natural light. As the venue for concerts and events this is the ‘public face’ of the school, and doubtless visitors will be impressed. Ample storage for chairs and musical instruments is concealed behind generous timber doors, while the pitched roof rises to a double-height glass facade which faces the old house across a small lawn. Here, the formal relationship between old and new is made explicit, with sliding glass doors opening onto a child-size outdoor amphitheatre directly on axis with Lorimer’s porch. One of Webb’s long-term plans is to insert a tiny, glassfronted library within the stone porch.

The two residential houses are set apart from the school itself. Faced with extensive grounds, and few limitations on where to build, the architec t posit ioned them at the end of pathways wh ich cut through existing niches in a yew tree hedge - an arbitrary strategy, but one which seems to have worked. The houses are close enough to each other and the main building for convenience, but remote enough to be private. Client and architect agreed that the residential buildings ought to feel like ordinary, largish family houses. In fact they are, perhaps, not quite ordinary enough. The simple whitewashed elevations are pleasing enough, and a little reminiscent of Scottish croft buildings, but a dip in the roof gives them a slightly bulging appearance which verges on twee.

There is nothing twee about the interiors, where the architect has managed to create spaces which are durable without being institutional.

There are no signs of wear despite having been occupied by six residents plus one or two day children since August 1998. The one room which suggests that this is not just a generous family house is the much-larger-than-average playroom.

‘The playroom is incredibly important, ’ says Webb.

‘Play for these children is often something which has gone by the board.’ They have also, in many cases, been deprived of privacy, and it is a golden rule that each child gets a bedroom to themselves.

Each of the houses has a double-height living room with a staircase at either side - a move which is reminiscent of Murphy’s Maggie Keswick Jencks Cancer Care Centre in Edinburgh (AJ 13.3.97), but which has been modified to withstand any amount of rough treatment.Where Murphy would have liked a balcony overlooking the main living space, he has had to content himself with a corridor fully enclosed with balustrading, so that there are views down to the ground floor ‘but the children can’t hurl themselves - or each other - over the top’. It is a little inconvenient that the balustrades need to be unbolted whenever furniture needs to be taken upstairs but, then again, says Murphy, ‘if you look at in a positive light, it means that furniture can’t be hurled over either’.

The houses have the own gardens which are being designed and cultivated by children and staff. Inevitably, and rightly, the users are putting their own mark on their surroundings, treating the new buildings as a backdrop rather than a finished, untouchable masterpiece. Murphy shrugs resignedly as he notices the multi-coloured climbing frames which have sprouted up in front of the main building. ‘The truth is, ’ he says, ‘I’ve just learnt to loosen up a little.’


Costs based on estimated final account

SUBSTRUCTURE FOUNDATIONS/SLABS £82.39/m2 Strip foundations with in situ concrete floor slab on top

SUPERSTRUCTURE FRAME £70.97/m2 Structural steelwork frame

UPPER FLOORS £4.60/m2 Precast concrete floor slab

ROOF £58.16/m2 Mill-finished aluminium roof cladding

ROOFLIGHTS £4.62/m2 Purpose-made rooflights over two classrooms

STAIRCASES £1.13/m2 In situ concrete staircase

EXTERNAL WALLS £104.58/m2 Blockwork cavity walls with self-coloured render externally

WINDOWS £46.26/m2 Steel double-glazed windows and high-level screens

EXTERNAL DOORS £25.24/m2 Solid core timber doors complete with ironmongery

INTERNAL WALLS AND PARTITIONS £31.03/m2 Blockwork walls

INTERNAL DOORS £24.21/m2 Solid core internal doors

INTERNAL FINISHESWALL FINISHES £16.33/m2 Emulsion paint to block walls

FLOOR FINISHES £26.19/m2 Contract carpeting and no-slip vinyl. Timber sprung floor with vinyl covering to sports hall

CEILING FINISHES £23.93/m2 Plasterboard and acoustic plasterboard finished with emulsion paint

FITTINGS AND FURNISHINGSFURNITURE £44.98/m2 Purpose-made classroom fittings, kitchen fittings, staff room fittings, commercial kitchen


SANITARY APPLIANCES £8.11/m2 Hand basins complete with four taps and WCs to toilets

DISPOSAL INSTALLATIONS £10.71/m2 Box gutter and aluminium downpipes

WATER INSTALLATIONS £35.84/m2 Hot and cold water supplies to WCs, kitchen and classrooms

SPACE HEATING/AIR TREATMENT £57.69/m2 Underfloor heating installation (oil-fired). Ventilation to commercial kitchen (extract system). Electrical supplies to all equipment, switch sockets

ELECTRICAL SERVICES £40.85/m2 Infra-red burglar alarm, fire alarm installation, emergency lighting


COMMUNICATION INSTALLATIONS £5.29/m2 Conduct and boxes for telephone/data system. Wiring of telephone/data system




LANDSCAPING, ANCILLARY BUILDINGS £203,380/m2 Formation of footpaths and hardstandings, soft landscaping to music room and central courtyards. Precast concrete steps and seating to music room courtyard, underground drainage, field drainage, mill-finished aluminium canopy over cloister, tracks etc for services, external platts

Cost summary

Cost per m2Per cent(£) of total



Frame 70.97 7.82

Upper floors 4.60 0.51

Roof 58.16 6.40

Rooflights 4.62 0.51

Staircases 1.13 0.12

External walls 104.58 11.52

Windows 46.26 5.09

External doors 25.24 2.78

Internal walls and partitions 31.03 3.42

Internal doors 24.21 2.67

Group element total 370.80 40.84


Wall finishes 16.33 1.80

Floor finishes 26.19 2.88

Ceiling finishes 23.93 2.64

Group element total 66.45 7.32



Sanitary appliances 8.11 0.89

Disposal installations 10.71 1.18

Water installations 35.84 3.95

Space heating/air treatment 57.69 6.35

Electrical services 40.85 4.50

Protective installations 12.38 1.36

Communication installations 5.29 0.59

Builders’work in connection 3.40 0.37

Group element total 174.27 19.19

PRELIMINARIES 169.20 18.63

TOTAL 908.09 100

Costs supplied by Andrew Brown, Armour Construction Consultants


TENDER DATE 19 October 1998

START ON SITE DATE 23 November 1998

CONTRACT DURATION 58 working weeks


FORM OF CONTRACT AND/OR PROCUREMENT Design and build/negotiation

TOTAL COST £1,620,000

CLIENT Harmeny Education Trust

ARCHITECT Richard Murphy Architects: Robert Black, Allan Gray, James Mason, Andy McAvoy, Walttie McCallum, Richard Murphy, Jonathan Riddle, Keith Ross, Ian Strakis, James Taylor, William Tunnel

QUANTITY SURVEYOR Armour Construction Consultants


SERVICES ENGINEER Vector Design Services




SUB CONTRACTORS AND SUPPLIERS roofing Procladd (Scotland); steel windows Parkwood Mellowes; steelwork Lothian Fabricators; concreter Barden Aggregates; slater, leadworker WQ Walker; brickwork/blockwork Mowlem Bricklayers; joinery SD Young; catering equipment Scoble McIntosh; blacksmithArbuckle Welding; decorator Scotpro; sliding door gear Hillaldam Coburn; precast copes, sills etc Plean Precast Muracast plasterboard from British Gypsum; roof cladding Ward Building Components; floor screedsRMC Readymix; ironmongery Millar paving Blanc De Bierges

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