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Feilden Clegg Bradley Architects (FCB) was formed in 1978 by Richard Feilden and Peter Clegg. Keith Bradley joined in 1987, becoming senior partner in 1997. The practice's expertise in environmentally friendly design has earned it a Queen's Award for Sustainable Development and the Civic Trust's Sustainability Award. It has won the AJ100 Sustainability Award for the last two years.

Academies should be high-quality buildings that provide adaptable and challenging learning environments, allowing teachers the exibility to deliver the curriculum in as positive a way as possible.

With Feilden Clegg Bradley's experience and inuence I was expecting Northampton Academy to be designed with an emphasis on the ow of spaces and an overall concept that embodied the practice's signature approach to sustainable design, use of natural light and air, and a careful, considered choice of materials.

The academy sits neatly within its surroundings. Its appearance doesn't give away much to the approaching visitor, especially with the car park set in front of the school which reduces the building's impact. Once you enter the building, however, you immediately discover its beauty.

The project's single greatest asset is its location on a gently sloping site that falls naturally towards a dense wood.

The architect has oriented the school to lie across this slope, creating varying internal levels that define and break up the interior spaces, framing views of the wood throughout the building. A clever expression of the contours is evident in the central courtyard, where the natural slope divides the space into small play areas and further defines the building's relation to its site.

The school sits over four levels, with half-level changes that express the topography of the site, and is designed as clustered units of accommodation that wrap around a central open courtyard. The larger and more public spaces are around the main entrance to the building, with the teaching spaces formed into clusters accessible from the ground-level courtyard or the first-floor internal circulation.

The academy has specialisms in business and sports, with the need for extensive sporting facilities. These specialisms have had little impact on the architecture of the building, and it was not clear from my visit that the specialisms are being spread across the curriculum. Instead, the architect has designed a building that provides a blank canvas which the school can claim ownership of and embellish with its own signature over time.

The design clearly demonstrates the benefits of natural light, with the use of north light in larger areas providing a wonderful atmosphere to what is essentially a circulation corridor. The architect also had the foresight to open out these spaces to other functions, enhancing the impression of light and space. Views are cleverly incorporated into the design, especially in the links between clusters which frame views into the courtyard and out to the woods, removing any sense of enclosure.

The owing connection of the spaces is the most successful aspect of FCB's design. Although the building has a complex plan and initially looks difficult to navigate, the way the circulation is handled doesn't create any issues with legibility and you are moved successfully from one space to another. Passageways are interspersed with learning spaces and constantly change in width to create a dynamic interior, with an abundance of natural light that further distances this design from the traditional school corridor. Before you know it, you have been led naturally into the next space.

The interior spaces are connected visually too, through the use of clear glazed walls and the half-height changes in level.

This openness not only creates an architecturally legible and animated building but, in addition, allows for the passive supervision of pupils.

FCB's design for Northampton Academy maximises the environmental potential of the site's orientation through the generous use of daylight and natural ventilation. Rainwater is drained away through a sustainable urban-drainage system that works in combination with a swale to contain the effects of peak rainfall, reducing the impact of the building on the local drainage network.

Underfloor heating and the sensible placing of windows make good strides towards a low-energy building. Clever Corbusian vertical openings allow the internal control of natural ventilation, and exposed-concrete soffits enable night purging and level the peaks and troughs of temperature change. In addition, a palette of natural materials is well used and detailed.

Although some internal circulation spaces appear overly hot, this issue can be attributed to the occupiers' understanding and use of the sophisticated building they inhabit. (One of the issues with underfloor heating is the lag time associated with turning it up or down, which often results in higher or lower temperatures in the space until the system levels out. ) It was also disappointing that, when I visited, the lights were turned on when there was ample natural light. But hopefully once the building has been used over the four seasons, the occupiers will understand how they can tune it better and benefit from its environmentally sensitive design.

The scale of the external central courtyard is well judged, with a half-change in level that emphasises the building's relation to the sloping site. The material treatment of the first fl oor in timber gives a ribbon-like feel to the building's circulation elements, with simple detailing at the base of the timber cladding adding to the visual impression that these elements are suspended in the air. From this level there are views of the courtyard, which convincingly connects the building to its site. The clustered arrangement of classrooms is visible from this space and helps people to orientate themselves. Very little signage is a clear demonstration that this central space guides users effectively through the building.

Although each of these clusters has a different function, they have a similar architectural treatment. My biggest criticism is that the architect could have had a little more fun expressing the different internal functions of these clusters, creating a different atmosphere as you enter each group of classrooms.

Northampton Academy is extremely well designed and offers its users an array of teaching and learning spaces. The use of natural materials and delicate formal treatment have created a soft, flowing building. FCB adopted a sound approach to the budget and an understanding of where best to spend it, and this is visibly demonstrated in the finishes, the central courtyard and the circulation elements that wrap around it.

Northampton Academy exemplifies the important elements of school design, circulation being the most essential of these. The design illustrates the manifold benefits of clear, organised thinking, and the effectiveness of the flow of internal and landscaped spaces is evident to anyone watching students use the building. The academy is well detailed and shows, at times, a juxtaposition of building elements that is akin to that of Behnisch Architects.

The architect visits the school on a regular basis to educate the staff and students on how the building was designed and how it can be operated to achieve the maximum possible benefits. As we continue to develop ever more environmentally sophisticated buildings that utilise the natural potential of their site, such an education is essential - a clever building means nothing if it isn't used as it should be. FCB should be applauded for designing and delivering an exemplary academy and remaining dedicated to educating its occupiers on how best to use their school.

STRUCTURE From the outset, the academy structure was designed to respond to the organic plan-form of the building. Once a flat slab had been chosen for the primary structure, considerable freedom was given to placement and integration of supporting columns around the building. Early contractor input confirmed that the choice of circular columns and avoidance of shear walls would speed up construction, so a framed solution with 300mm flat slabs, spanning up to 8m and cantilevering up to 3m, was chosen. An exposed concrete, Class B soffit was used, exposing thermal mass to the spaces below. The need for open spaces in the building required the installation of load-transfer downstand beams, left exposed to become a feature.

In certain areas the flexibility of the flat-slab design allows the roof to be 'peeled back' to form rooflights. Here the slab is supported by double-height 8m-long inclined steel columns. Longer span structures for the sports and assembly halls, dining room and dance studio are steel-framed structures, designed to be 'pluggedin' to gaps in the concrete frame. Each was designed to have an autonomous stability system, allowing the concrete frame to be completed while these longer lead-in elements were constructed independently. The whole site was heavily profiled during enabling works in order to integrate landscaping as a key component of the academy. The formation of a swale provides both a wildlife resource and surface-water retention to mitigate the rainwater entering a nearby floodplain. Gabion retaining walls adjacent to the swale help accommodate abrupt changes in level. Galvanised-steel escape stairs at the end of the faculty wings cantilever over the swale. The stairs are supported by a series of vertical trusses, the overturning forces from which are resisted by the floor slabs at each level. Vertical loads are thus carried directly to the foundations.

Jane Hurd, structural engineer, Buro Happold Credits Gross external floor area 12,480m 2Start on site March 2004 Completion December 2005 Architect Feilden Clegg Bradley Architects: Richard Feilden, Peter Clegg, Ian Taylor, David Saxby, Ray Kearney, Alina White, Amos Goldreich, Jennie Green Walker, Hannah Garlick, Trevor Brown, Jonathan Mitchell, Toby Lewis, Carol James Project management and quantity surveyor CM Parker Browne Structural, civils, M&E service engineer and planning supervisor Buro Happold Fire engineer FEDRA Landscape architect Plinke Landscape Acoustic consultant Fleming and Barron Main contractor Miller Construction Approved inspection Approved Inspector Services Educational and project manager Alligan Subcontractors M&E ECG; roofing Rock Asphalt; standingseam roofing KGM; internal partitions/light gauge steel Measom/Renaisance; furniture, -ttings and equipment Vari-Tech; ironmongery AICS; architectural metalwork Capital Structures and 316 Engineering; acoustic rafts Armstrong; groundworks P J Carey; structural concrete MPB Structures; structural steelwork Barretts; landscape/external works English Landscape; timber cladding LSC; curtain walling/glazing and cladding Alumet/Velfac/Reglit/Schüco; IPS Excelsior; ooring Veitchi; lift Kone;

kitchen design/fit-out Moss Trejo Cope

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