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School house

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John Pardey’s residential retrofit of the former Oaklands College points the way for similar buildings ripe for conversion, writes Felix Mara. Photography by Andy Matthews

Hertfordshire is the thinking man’s home county. With no coastal resorts and little rolling countryside to distract, a high population density and en route to indisputably real destinations in the Midlands and further north, it appeals to temperaments more given to work and reflection than to leisure.

There’s something in the air. To architects it evokes new towns and the work of Hertfordshire County Council Architects’ Department, with its ambitious programme to deliver an estimated 176 schools in response to demand generated by the 1944 Education Act, which promised free secondary education in England and Wales. This programme was notable for its rigorous and intelligent use of technology to tackle this challenge in an era of post-war scarcity of steel and other resources: a genuinely Modernist project, which was also distinguished by its stylish output, as recorded in contemporary monochrome photography.

Oaklands College in St Albans, which in response to today’s demands has been retrofitted as flats by John Pardey Architects, belongs to the late, mature, period of this programme and benefits from the years of research which preceded it. 

When the campus was completed in 1960 it comprised St Albans College of Further Education, which provided general education for 15 to 18-year-olds and leisure and vocational courses for a wider age range, and the Hertfordshire College of Building. Its construction is characteristic of the programme, with extensive off-site fabrication and dry construction, demountable partitioning and a dimensionally co-ordinated light gauge steel structural frame, which could be quickly bolted together on site, with stanchions fabricated from angles and welded lattice beams.

Its floors are precast, pre-stressed planks and the decks supporting its roofs are trapezoidal asbestos cement. But, whereas earlier Hertfordshire schools had precast concrete cladding, by this stage the department was experimenting with aluminium curtain walling, plastic spandrels, cedar weatherboarding and facing brickwork.

The campus is also distinguished by its informal site layout, with pavilions of various heights connected by bridges and landscaped interstices, planted with more than 200 trees, nearly all of which have been retained.

When Oaklands College relocated, the client saw the campus’ potential for its redevelopment as housing and John Pardey Architects made proposals for retrofitting the seven original buildings, all Grade II listed, and adding 15 new blocks, laid out in a similar Mondrianesque rectilinear pattern, creating a total of 329 flats. The central concept for the retrofit involves pods containing all services, kitchens and bathrooms, which separate living and sleeping areas, avoiding the need for walls for this purpose.

‘You couldn’t get away with building it now,’ says John Pardey Architects associate Hugh Richardson. ‘The challenge was to make the envelope work by today’s standards.’

Asbestos in the original building was a health risk, so the spandrels were removed but the roof deck was retained, with the proviso that no fixings should penetrate it. Another concern was insulation standards. Double glazed units were installed and, in order to retain the profile of the original spandrels and cladding by reducing the build-up in these areas, as required by the conservation officer, the roofs were heavily insulated. To avoid heavy fascias, the thickest build-up of the roof is set inboard, forming up-stand kerbs. The finish, originally bitumen, is single-ply membrane. Rather than re-anodise the original aluminium cladding, the client chose to brush clean it and apply a new finish.

‘It was a typical balancing act between the requirements of the Building Regulations and the planners and, in a way, we were pleased there were so many planning constraints,’ says Richardson. ‘That’s the reason why it looks the way it does – commercial factors would have taken away its elegance.’

Concerns about the load-bearing capacity of the original floor slabs proved unfounded and tests on the party wall and floor construction, as completed, demonstrated compliance with Approved Document E. There were, however, compromises in the project’s environmental performance. Plans to adapt the college’s boiler system as a replacement for the original electric air-heating system were a victim of the recession and the flats have geo-condensing boilers.

‘The new blocks adopt a palette of natural materials that picks up on the grey, ordered and calm expression of the existing units, using aluminium-framed windows, pre-weathered zinc storey-height cladding panels and grey terracotta rainscreen tiles,’ says director John Pardey, who likens this strategy to Paul Smith’s ‘classics with a contemporary twist’ approach to tailoring.

‘One of the highlights of the project was our contact with the original architect, John Wakely,’ says Pardey. In the spirit of Modernism, he provided his expertise, helping Pardey to adapt the buildings for a new purpose. Just as Wakely et al ’s original building dispels the notion that architectural quality cannot be achieved with systems building, Pardey’s retrofit busts the myth that lightweight construction isn’t suitable for residential architecture in Britain. This project will help to free up similar buildings which are ripe for conversion.

AJ Buildings Library

See full project data, photographs, plans, sections and details for Oaklands College by John Pardey Architects

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