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Fettes College Preparatory School, Edinburgh, by Page\Park Architects

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Page\Park’s prep school is a subtle, contemporary addition to historic Fettes College, says Alan Dunlop. Photography by Renzo Mazzolini

A new building by Page\Park Architects, a preparatory school for 157 children, has recently been completed in the grounds of Fettes College, an independent boarding and day school in Edinburgh.

Originally conceived as a school for the city’s orphans and poor children, Fettes’ alumni include high court judges, university heads, writers and US senators among their number. Tony Blair graduated from Fettes, as did actor Tilda Swinton, and James Bond fanatics will tell you that 007 was also once a Fettes pupil. Today, the school has more than 650 students from all over the UK, and many expatriate families send their offspring to board. Until 1970, Fettes was a single-sex boys school, but it has been co-educational since 1983. Unlike most Scottish schools, it follows the English GCSE educational system, and it has the feel of an English public school, often being described as ‘the Eton of the North’. Fees cost between £16,896 and £23,499 a year.

Despite the recession, Fettes is expanding and in the past eight years has invested £22 million in new facilities. In 2004, Glasgow-based architectural practice Page\Park was commissioned to prepare a masterplan to ‘set the foundations for the next century’ through the provision of additional teaching space and the development of new buildings to accommodate an increasing school roll.

It is difficult to imagine a better match: Page\Park has a track record of adding new structures to listed buildings within sensitive historic settings, and manages to reconcile even the most ardent conservationists with its well-detailed, yet pared, modernism and practice partner David Page’s convincing contextual approach. The prep school is the Glasgow firm’s second building for Fettes.

Its first, completed as part of the masterplan, was Craigleith House, a centre for the school’s sixth form and a residence for boarders. That project, at four storeys high and a cost of £8 million, has been critically acclaimed, and was shortlisted for the RIAS Andrew Doolan Prize in 2007. The new preparatory school is modest in comparison: a single-storey, horizontally expressive timber-frame structure built for £1.75 million.

The expansive landscaped grounds, a prime site, equivalent in size to five Murrayfield rugby grounds or 10 Scottish Parliaments – are dominated by the Main College building, by Edinburgh architect David Bryce, completed in 1870 in Scottish baronial-French gothic style. The new building is in the far north-east corner of the grounds, near the headmaster’s house, with a new all-weather playing field to the north and a grassed play area to the south. It is secluded but not isolated, and strongly integrated with the campus. Sports facilities and a dining room are nearby. Externally it is clad predominantly in larch, stained with a lime-coloured wash both to blend with the adjoining woodland and, according to architect Karen Nugent, ‘to dampen down the potential sauna effect of lots of tongue-and-groove cladding’. Rather than blending in with the woodland, however, it seems more to resemble the nearby white-rendered Arniston Building from the 1970s, which has a similar weathered hue.

The building is angled towards a new pedestrian entrance on East Fettes Avenue, sits low to the ground and has a subtle, domestic feel of a setting and scale appropriate for children. The plan is oriented along an east-west axis to make best use of sunlight from the south to the main circulation space.

As in a number of Page\Park projects, the new prep school is meticulous in its detailing

Viewed in plan, five classrooms, a library, a double-sized art room and new changing rooms step back in a controlled, saw-tooth pattern from the art display corridor, which constitutes the main circulation space and which is day-lit from above. This controlled effect creates small vestibule entrances to each classroom. Nugent says the art room can easily be returned to two separate units. She adds: ‘The layout allows for a possible later expansion phase. If additional teaching space is required the nearby squash court could be developed as a second wing of classrooms.’

As in a number of Page\Park projects, the new prep school is meticulously detailed. Shadow gaps, a common feature of the practices work, are used extensively and particularly within this area. Yet, although bright and airy, the display corridor gives the impression of an upmarket office space, not helped by the choice of black slate floor. In response, perhaps, some teachers have stuck pupils’ artwork on the oak-veneer panelling at the entrance to their classrooms.

A monopitched roof, clad in zinc, covers the structure in a single plane. What would have been a clean line is, however, compromised by bulky ‘wind-catchers’ that provide ventilation to the classrooms. The roof also covers external deck spaces adjacent to each classroom, which face on to the all-weather playing field. It’s a nice touch. The roof opens up to the south to bring sunlight into the circulation space, giving a certain presence and sense of scale to the ‘public’ part of the building, while it dips at the north, lending a more intimate scale to the classrooms.

In addition, when seen from the corner on to East Fettes Avenue, the building’s lower profile is respectful to the landscape setting. But it also means ambient light to the classrooms is minimised and, on a dull day, without additional support lighting, they are darker than they need be.

At Fettes, the architect was given time to work with the teachers and pupils to develop the design and, unlike the majority of new state schools in Scotland, procured under PPP contracts, the preparatory school was tendered and procured under a traditional contract. As a consequence, the design is responsive both to the site and to the client. Fettes College has a building fit for purpose, a subtle, contemporary addition to the 140-year-old school.

Alan Dunlop is a practice partner at gm+ad architects

Tender date June 2007
Start on site October 2007
Contract duration 12 months
Gross internal floor area 1,135m²
Form of contract Traditional SBCC
Total cost £1.75 million
Cost per m² £1,540
Client Fettes College, Edinburgh
Architect Page\Park Architects
Structural engineer Will Rudd Davidson
M&E consultant Harley Haddow
Quantity surveyor/CDM Thomas and Adamson
Main contractor Fleming Building
Timber cladding and joinery Kiwi Joinery
Internal glazing Deko Scotland
Windcatchers JRF Chimneys
Annual CO² emissions Uncalculated

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  • Alan Dunlop is critical of the impression given by Page/Park's use of black slate flooring and oak veneer panelling in the display corridor of the new classroom block at Fettes College. But rather than suggesting an up-market office space, as he says it does, I would say that it actually recalls the dark stone-flagged, pitch-pine corridors which wrap their way around the ground and first floor of David Bryce's original college building. It is here where the boys and girls of the preparatory school will soon be clicking their heels waiting for morning chapel, moving from classroom to classroom or standing reading the notice boards. I know; I did it for five years.

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