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Capita Percy Thomas, the building-design division of Capita Symonds, includes architects, engineers and designers specialising in healthcare, education, leisure and the commercial sector. It is involved in a number of high-profile projects, from the recently completed Wales Millennium Centre in Cardiff, to the newly started £46 million joint-venture university in Penryn, Cornwall.

But the parent company is involved in construction projects from the consultancy and construction side as well, including the acoustic design at the new Wembley Stadium and pulling together the environmental and strategic assessments for the London 2012 Olympic bid. Significantly, the overall company's operating profit margins increased by nearly 18 per cent in the past six months to more than £68 million.

So is it simply a profit-driven architectural arm of a corporate practice? Or does its claim to 'provide innovative and value-adding design solutions that delight our clients' hold water?

We visited its Cardiff HQ to find out the truth.

Capita Percy Thomas was asked to pin up work on its academy schools. The intention of the crit was to explore the practice's design ideas with paticular emphasis on the Oasis Acadamy in Enfield, which is currently at Stage E and has been put in for planning.

NB: Capita Percy Thomas only presented planning drawings at the crit (eliciting some criticism). The additional sketches etc. were obtained afterwards on request to help illustrate this article.

THE PANEL COMPRISED:Richard Weston, Welsh School of Architecture Alan Francis, Partner, Gaunt Francis Architects Alistair Sunderland, Director, Austin-Smith: Lord Wayne Forster, Welsh School of Architecture Austin Williams, Technical editor, The Architects'Journal AND REPRESENTING CAPITA PERCY THOMAS, THE DESIGN TEAM AND THE CLIENT:Paul Healy-Jones, Senior associate director Richard Wood, Associate director Robert Okpala, Buro Happold Laura Murdoch, DfES, Academies Division Richard Wood There's a good opportunity when you're working with young people to do something that makes a difference to their lives. They're at an impressionable age and we believe that architecture can have a positive impact on them.

I like Peter Blundell-Jones' quote that: 'Architecture is neither pure technology, nor pure art, but a dialogue with the people and the place.' We are interested wherever we go in looking at what's already there and trying to respond to those clues that will make each place unique, different or special. We probably spend a disproportionate amount of time trying to understand what our client is trying to achieve in terms of curriculum, pedagogy and their particular take on education. It matters to us that there are so many views on teaching, and it is important for architects to listen to that so that we don't frustrate - through ignorance - what we are trying to achieve.

I've always thought that showering your client with options has often been a sign of diffidence and uncertainty. But on this project we developed six options - everyone in the office had a go - and we laid everything before the whole design team - clients, engineers and QSs who all had a critical input. It was a vulnerable process but actually it was quite interesting.

Austin Williams So you would have been happy to go with any of the six designs?

Did you not have any critical discernment in this process?

Paul Healy-Jones As it happens, they picked the strongest of the six anyway. They picked ours.

Yes, but were you actively pushing your personal designs or were you, as you profess, really laying yourself open to the client's whims?

Austin Williams Richard Wood It does raise an interesting question as to what we would have done if the client had run away from our personal designs, and we can't answer that.

But what we learned was that by not putting up a barrier and saying 'you're having this', it worked quite well in the end. Such a vulnerable consultation process probably becomes less important the more we work with the same client.

Wayne Forster Will you say a bit more about the organisation of the buildings and the ideas behind them?

Richard Wood There was very little on the Enfield site. It's on the edges of a business park.

It's typical Essex, very flat with no real sense of place. The site is surrounded on the north and west by two- to three-storey fairly modern housing. The only real notable feature was a bund of reclaimed soil around the southern edges rising to about five metres. It acoustically separates the site from the housing but also gives some sense of containment and we toyed with the idea of the bund slightly enveloping the building to continue the line of enclosure.

Paul Healy-Jones For the kids, we have tried to provide a gentle harmonisation between their primary school environment and the new Oasis Academy. The blocks that are rotated off the main wing are the Year 7 and Year 8 classrooms, which stand distinct from the rest of the school but are still intended to be an integral part of it. Teaching comes to them rather than them to it. This makes it more reassuring for the youngest children. It's nurturing through separation.

Richard Wood Also, traditional school buildings with straight corridors and no natural lighting tend to be disorientating, alienating, dull and depressing environments. We have arranged for south light by orientating the structure on the east-west axis but needed to turn the classrooms slightly to maximise the benefits of direct southerly orientation which hopefully also creates a richness and diversity along the circulation routes.

What happens in the triangulated spaces left over between the main route and the classrooms?

Austin Williams Sometimes they're void; sometimes they're breakout spaces.

The client was keen on the 'agora' concept: the courtyard or marketplace where people bustle through. We have located it in the knuckle of the bend.

Paul Healy-Jones Spaces around the agora are predominantly those for community use, following the logic of the marketplace motif.

Richard Wood Austin Williams I have a sense that you have designed either by rote - complying with certain design criteria - or have responded fairly compliantly to client demands.

How do you respond to that?

Richard Wood We are not about designing what we think is the perfect school, dropping it on a site and washing our hands. As it happens, the bit that is really important to us, and often neglected, is the quality of the space that links up all the individual teaching spaces? Well we haven't seen much evidence of that. You've talked a lot about 'placemaking' but you haven't shown us.

Wayne Forster Richard Wood Well there are three major centres of place: the courtyard, the atrium (our interpretation of how you can grapple with solar benefits in a positive way, but also to make a space that is magical) and there is a richness? Wayne Forster Well it may be, but you haven't given us much chance to recognise it in your presentation. You've just shown us standard plans, elevations and facades.

Presumably, at this stage you must have hundreds of visualisations and they would have given us a better sense of the progression of the scheme, how it sits on the site, its scale, its relationship to neighbouring areas etc. The problem is that we are struggling to understand your success in complying with what you say you want to do.

Richard Wood We are looking for an elevational approach that has a singularity of expression. But because it is quite long, if you made it banal it could look heavy-handed and so we've gone for a copper crust, with three different types of patination, which starts above ground floor level to allow people to see the life within the building at ground level, particularly within the more 'buzzy' vocational spaces. The glazing pattern has not been regularised because that would have compromised the internal spaces, but we enjoy the irregularity which creates a necessary diversity along the elevation.

Austin Williams I think it's safe to say that you have been a long time out of college and you've forgotten what is required for a crit. I agree that the images you've chosen haven't helped us help you. To a certain extent, the external finishes - the one element where you have had an opportunity to show off your own design decisiveness - seem to be pretty naff. Does aesthetic treatment come a poor third to internal placemaking and environmental auditing?

I'm quite pleased with it.

Wayne Forster When did you decide to use copper? Looking at the early stage white-card model, the whole thing looks far less aggressive. Surely, that's a fundamental starting point for a community-focused building.

Richard Wood Between Stages C and D we wanted a material that had a natural quality to it and that would change over time. We could have gone for lead, but, to be honest, I don't like the colour. Kingspan panels are relentlessly flush and inhuman. But copper comes in different shapes; it's a classic and it's malleable, which means that we can get some light and shade into the surface and it should change over time, but also the colours and light will change depending on the viewing angle as you walk down the street. Unfortunately, on our coloured presentation drawing it all looks a bit ginger.

Alan Francis I can see that you've taken the option to use one corner of the Enfield site (although I'm not sure why you haven't taken the building to the boundary) but what happens in the middle. And how does it really relate to what's outside the site as well?

Well at the moment there's very little there.

Then isn't it important to start creating something beyond a 'building' in its own terms?

Alan Francis Paul Healy-Jones Well the only thing that we had to respond to was the bund and we have made the building form contiguous with that; offering a transition between the natural to the man-made. The landscape architect then created an external amphitheatre which connects back to the agora.

Alan Francis The base of the agora is a triangular space about 15m high. It has classrooms overlooking it, it has circulation routes through it, it has teaching space potential within it. Does it really work acoustically?

We are absolutely assured that it does.

Where's the front door?

Paul Healy-Jones It is on the north-east side leading directly into the agora - the heart of the building. The lantern at the top of the building offers you the promise of something beyond? But you're going to have to be miles away to see that shallow lantern over the top of such a large building.

Alan Francis Well, talking about genius loci, the M25 is quite close and so many people will note its presence.

Paul Healy-Jones Alistair Sunderland As I understand it, academies are higher up the food chain than your average secondary school. So is this school going to be an exclusive encampment on the edge of habitation? Is it really going to engage with the local community? My question is, why is this building happening here, on this particular site? Why a school, for example?

Actually, Oasis' interest is more about community building than it is in education. Its hope is that this will provide the missing community hub.

Richard Wood Richard Weston When you look at the classic school designs by Hampshire etc, the presiding metaphor was that of 'the street' which was to be a route open to the public.

That naturally fell foul of concerns over security etc, but is this 'agora' simply another fad - a more venerable one, perhaps?

Richard Wood Child protection is a huge issue. All things being equal, they would aspire to having adult education classes during the day, a farmers' market in the agora, and this becoming a truly community-owned building. But everyone has to be checked when they come through the front door, and so maybe this is a school in the day and a community facility at night.

Wayne Forster I haven't got a problem with the community focus but I have got a problem with the end result. It all seems so heavy. The elevations have such a horizontal stress. And why the colours?

Richard Wood We instinctively wanted to break up the uniformity of the elevation. By introducing randomness, we think that we've introduced visual interest: the material will look different at different times of the day and over time.

Austin Williams But surely that can be achieved by architectural massing? Is it the case that you have plumped for a monolithic elevation and then had to devise methods to distract from its massiveness, by breaking up a problem of your creation.

Did you not think about scale, layers, setting back some elements?

Richard Weston It seems to me that the school's 'look' is completely up for grabs, there's no real consistency. Did your client simply want a wow factor, or did you try to persuade them to go for a 'quieter' scheme?

Wayne Forster But what is the image of the school that you are trying to convey? Partly there is a sense that you are struggling with 'time and meaning' but I don't think that you've got there yet. The Smithsons wrote about the humanity of the long elevation, for example, and you could have gone down that route of expressing the 'longness' - of celebrating it. But you seem to be worried about expressing the scale for fear of being too monolithic, while being worried about breaking up the form, for fear of losing coherence? It seems as if you have come up with a unified design that you have then tried to disguise, rather than resolve architecturally.

Alan Francis Wayne Forster The totality of the 'place' is what it's all about. What you've done, given the contradictory advice, is understandable but disappointing. The agora idea, for example, leaps out of the page and, from what you've said, it could work as a central organising concept but you haven't really followed it through. It's all very well getting the DfES space standards to fit, to get the solar shading to work and all that, but you seem to have underplayed the interstitial spaces.

Paul Healy-Jones There are a limited number of ways of designing spaces like these and we have prioritised social space because we feel that these are important civilising areas. We have managed, for example, to push up the circulation space to 22 per cent, up from 19 per cent in the guidelines.

I can't get over how the front door faces the business park. Not very community focused is it?

Alan Francis We admit that permeability isn't high - as we've already said - but the community will still have free access through? Richard Wood Alistair Sunderland The assumed community! I struggle to appreciate places that are supposed to strengthen a sense of community but don't arise out of a community.

Effectively schemes that are superimposed on - to all intents and purposes - a blank site (which isn't really blank at all). You say you are responsive to the unique contextual qualities of each project - so what are they?

Paul Healy-Jones There is very little there. The landscaping exists, as we've said, and we've worked with that but ultimately we want the building to evolve naturally into being part of the local history - to be part of the setting. The usual model for schools is to be set back from the street with a vast area of playground. We wanted to be directly onto the street. To claim a secure bold statement that gets rid of miles of imposing railings? Actually you haven't got rid of the fence; the building has become the fence.

There's something positive about seeing children playing. By presenting a blank wall to the street aren't you building a defensive community?

Austin Williams Parent collection is within the central courtyard, so there is visibility.

Yes, but not from the street. . .

Paul Healy-Jones Well, the transparency of the ground floor - raising the copper elevation - allows some views through the building from the outside.

To a certain extent, I agree that this may not be a totally satisfactory result but we have tried to resolve a number of contradictory messages as best we can. But procurement alignment is almost impossible and the mixed messages about inclusive schools that maximise security is a nightmare.

Alistair Sunderland In terms of dealing with 11,500 children arriving each morning, presumably at a similar time to business park workers, do you think that your landscaping and external works layout has addressed the arrival moment satisfactorily?

Paul Healy-Jones We are still working on the landscape? we intend to utilise the ground-level changes, to provide a nature walk for the children, although, for security reasons, we'll have to keep it separate from the rest of the play areas. Also, the landscaping around the agora will emphasise the auditorium's potential for spilling out into the open, to be able to take the business of the school outside into the open.

Austin Williams It's a shame that the mounded earth that gradually envelopes the building can't be used as an egress route leading directly to the carpark. It is one area that seems to have a certain sense of drama, however contrived.

We are actually looking at this possibility.

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