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St Mary Magdalene Academy Roundtable: 'The Project got pretty political'

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[TRANSCRIPT] The team behind St Mary Magdalene Academy discusses the making of the building and the wider issues surrounding school design

Round Table DiscussionClick on the image to see the participating experts

If schools procurement has had a bad press, St Mary Magdalene Academy by Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios demonstrates that an articulate, tough and collaborative team can achieve the best of results. My evaluation of the school itself can be read here, but to further understand the dynamic behind the team that delivered the project, we brought them together for a discussion.

Two members of the panel brought an outsider’s perspective to bear: Andrew Rainsberry, senior vice president of Knowles, is an expert in risk management, and quizzed the team about how they dealt with cost cutting and planning problems. Martin Stockley, a member of CABE’s schools design panel asked challenging questions. Rather abbreviated extracts are below, but you can see more in the complete video of the discussion.
Kieran Long


Kieran Long: Can you describe some of the ups and downs of the project?

Ian Taylor: I think it would be fair to say that the project got pretty political. There were opponents of the academies programme. Lord Adonis [then the government’s schools minister] lived nearby. There were debates around whether Islington should have a Church of England-sponsored school and how many pupils were churchgoers. Some felt the site was too small for a school of this size, and worried about Islington’s reputation in education. Then there were planning issues, and the physical constraints of the site meant we had to phase the design, which had programming implications on the contracts.

Andrew Sweeney: But communication was fantastic. Everyone came up with ideas about solutions to get things done irrespective of responsibilities.

Stephen Henley: Everyone understood their roles. There was no conflict or confusion about
who was doing what.

Mike Entwisle: Knowing Feilden Clegg Bradley for decades helped.

Chris Churchman: We’ve worked on several academies and not all have been this successful. You start out with the same level of aspiration, but the delivery process just sort of wears the product down.

Martin Stockley: There’s always a risk that a good concept gets blunted. Design review gives the team a chance to stand back and say, ‘Let’s bring the priorities back to the surface again’.

SH: I think we managed to hold on to the key ideas. Some of the detail changed - initially most of the external paving was granite, which would have been fantastic, but it’s been changed to tarmac.

MS: I prefer the tarmac. It would have been wrong to have had some kind of poncey stone. It’s an urban school.

IT: White lines on tarmac are better than white lines on granite.

MS: It’s about managing the expectation of the school. You present a fantastic scheme at the outset and if it looks nothing like the original plan, they will disappointed.

KL: Where are the best schools coming out of the current round of building? And the worst?

ME: There is a distinction. We review nine school designs a day, but even the best of those are not ones that people around this table would be very supportive of. It’s a pretty unsatisfactory process.

IT: The problem with BSF is that you’re in competition. And it’s fraught with paranoia and duplicity.

CC: BSF, as a process, is flawed for treatments of external space. It’s very formulaic. The benchmark is set particularly low.

KL: Does budget really achieve quality?

SH: Cost for us comes from being able to procure the work with confidence. Compared with two years ago, the same job would be a million pounds cheaper today because everyone is cutting each other’s throats so they don’t go bust. You have to do the financial checks and obviously keep your ear to the ground.

MS: It’s about knowing the people you’re dealing with. It’s about relationships again. Andrew Rainsberry The completeness of the design information is vital. It takes a huge risk away from the contractor and reduces the incidence of disputes.

SH: There are different types of budget. If the budget’s extremely tight and you’re at the bottom end of the pounds per-m2, quality is compromised.

ME: One of the interesting things about the academies/BSF discussion is that I’m pretty sure none have been procured through the contractor-led framework. All the academies we’ve done are through the old traditional design team-led framework.

AR: Sometimes you get an overrun or budget squeeze by the funder, and there’s a mad search for savings. The contractor tries to come to us with savings and, in the end, it takes more time to find a saving, and the cost in terms of time is greater than the saving that’s generated.

SH: With value engineering, nobody minds someone advising you that doing a detail in a different way is better and cheaper. We can all take than on board. When you’re changing things to drive down price, people are less comfortable.

KL: Can you comment on design?

IT: One of the main issues was safety, and the separation of age groups in the public realm, which the community felt was appropriate.

MS: That tends to be driven by insurers as much as parents. There are insurance requirements, such as a 2.4m minimum height for a boundary fence.

ME: The facades have been very carefully designed. There’s external shading, which means that you can keep the sun off the majority of the classrooms.

MS: Everybody rightly focuses on the inside of the building, ventilation and lighting, and so on. But the external spaces often get left behind. I ask people, how does the school relate to its neighbours? How do pupils get in and out? I walked around the outside of St Mary Magdalene Academy and I wouldn’t give it 100 per cent - but I think it’s 80 per cent. At least it has a front door that looks like a front door to a building, and that building looks like it’s probably a school, not an office block.

CC: When you’re working on a tight site, you’ve got to be pretty imaginative about getting value out of it. Like the rooftop ball games area.

IT: There are precedents for rooftop playgrounds, but I think it’s the best five-a-side football pitch in London. Every bit of roof has got learning space or social space. That’s one of the reasons the site doesn’t feel as small as it is

CC: Another is the transparency between internal and external space. The reason we chose granite was because we wanted the same floor material internally and externally, to give the illusion of distance.

MS: In terms of the outside, I think the privacy of the early years centre is really important. It’s actually not about protecting children from attack, but protecting their privacy because they can’t do it for themselves.

IT: We had interesting discussions with Islington planning department. It felt there should be classrooms all the way around and wanted us to almost build up against the back of the footpath. We explained that you can’t actually have a long, linear school with a big playground. It wouldn’t be very efficient or very nice.

KL: How sustainable is this building?

ME: This building didn’t have to comply with the 60 per cent carbon reduction from renewables and other sources that BSF schools do. Having said that, all the design methodologies we used then, in terms of daylight, summertime conditions and insulation, we use in the designs we’re doing now.

SH: To control waste during construction, we segregate it into cardboard, wood or contaminated waste. Then it gets taken to the various sorting depots or landfills. The main problem is packaging with deliveries - everything comes in a cardboard box.

IT: In terms of the design, there are aspects relating to the materials and detailing that I think are done well. The timber cladding is all FSC-certified hardwood.

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