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At Parliament Hill School in north London, clever design unites the original Edwardian brick building with Haverstock Associates' performing arts building and design technology block; a scheme with sustainability at its core.

A school could not ask for a more ideal site: backed on to north London's Hampstead Heath. Parliament Hill School in Highgate, or 'Parli' as it is affectionately known, was founded as a girls' secondary school in 1905. Since then it has grown by accretion.

The original Edwardian brick building was followed by a major extension in the 1950s and, more recently, by a design technology block in 2005 and a performing arts building/sixth-form entrance by Haverstock Associates in 2006. Conditions at Parli prior to this latest transformation apply to many secondary schools across the country: cramped facilities in need of modernisation; security and accessibility issues; lack of purpose-built accommodation for specialist teaching; and a wish-list far exceeding available funds.

Haverstock Associates was initially commissioned in 2004 to undertake an accessibility audit, curriculum analysis and a long-term school development plan. The architects embarked on a consultation process which included analysis of the school by a curriculum specialist; pioneering use of Design Quality Indicators; and field trips to relevant buildings, including the Laban Centre as research for the dance A level requirements. They also observed design technology, dance, and drama classes, and looked at the way students moved around the campus. The brief which emerged highlighted the need for design technology studios and specialist sixth form performance spaces, as well as increased visibility on Highgate Road.

An earlier feasibility study - which had recommended an isolated new building at the south-east corner of the site - was discarded in favour of two new buildings: a design technology studio in the middle of the site and a performing arts centre at the north-east corner which would link the original Edwardian structure to the other existing buildings at the rear of the site.

The new 'Corner Building', as it became known, could provide the school with 'street cred' and incorporate lifts to solve the accessibility requirements of the adjacent existing buildings. The design team opted for a separate sixth-form entrance in the new Corner Building which was seen as a way of minimising any antisocial behaviour towards the younger girls. Car parking was relocated nearer to Highgate Road.

The design technology block took priority, while funding was sought for the second building. Because the low-rise building would be overlooked from all sides, a green roof seemed an obvious choice. A sustainability agenda was developed for the block (AJ Specification 02.05), elements of which were incorporated in the Corner Building. The music department is housed on the ground oor, within the thermal mass of brick and block walls that also provides acoustic isolation. A multi-purpose performance space occupies the first oor with a dance studio above.

Haverstock partner Clare Barton explains that they felt the need for 'striking materials' for the Corner Building and opted for a bold use of copper and Reglit. The Reglit seems just right on the sinuous north-facing wall of the technology block, but it seems all wrong facing the street - like a blind eye. Although the shadowplay of activity through the translucent wall is intriguing (a nod to Laban? ), one longs for something more in scale with the rhuthmic pattern of the adjacent Edwardian facade. The massive copper roof which wraps down to form the north wall of the building appears arbitrary, and the overall effect is self-conscious.

Inside it's a different story. Barton says that the design team gave a lot of thought as to what would be an appropriate aesthetic for sixth formers, and it shows. Generous circulation spaces finished in robust but unassuming materials with exposed services and occasional bold use of colour successfully link the new spaces to their older neighbours. Plasterboard and PVC are minimised in favour of galvanised steel and timber. These are comfortable spaces that can survive inevitable wear and tear.

Getting the right balance of ventilation and acoustics is one of the hot topics in school design, and the recently established British Council for School Environments (BCSE-modelled after the BCO) has already formulated an acoustics and ventilations group to evaluate Building Bulletin 93 (acoustics) and Building Bulletin 101 (ventilation). DfES guidance calls for natural ventilation in school buildings, but Barton explains that, 'in winter when it's cold, people don't open windows, CO 2 levels rise and everyone falls asleep. Most people consider mechanical ventilation a dirty word, but we do it a green way with heat recovery.'

In Parli's performing arts building, classrooms are mechanically ventilated with heat recovery, and circulation spaces are naturally ventilated. Acoustical requirements proved very challenging. Extensive use of acoustic bafes was required in both classrooms and circulation spaces to achieve the required decibel levels. Bafes made of rigid sheets of insulation with edges hardened with resin hang from the ceiling.

Over the project's three-year life, the architects managed to maintain a strategic overview, while solving a never-ending string of problems to enable the school's day-to-day operation.

The practice even attended assemblies to explain how the site fencing and access would change at each relevant juncture.

The architects are aware that getting the building to operate as designed is an important challenge. Interestingly, this is exactly in line with the findings outlined in the BCSE's draft discussion paper, 'Sustainable Schools: Getting it Right'. The paper notes that there is no point designing a state-of-the-art sustainable school if staff and pupils are not shown how to operate it.

If school design is about satisfying the client, stretching the budget, and designing a building with community presence, the first two have been achieved admirably at Parliament Hill; the third less so.

See www. bcse. uk. net/downloads//sustainable_schools_ discussion_paper. pdf for the draft discussion paper, which is available for comment

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