How do you consult residents when you don't know who they are? How do you build a sustainable building in an industry which simply isn't geared up for it? Laudable in its intentions, Notley Green County Primary School underlines the extent to which the practice of architecture remains dogged by compromise.
The project was initiated as a result of a competition organised by the Design Council and Essex County Council, which by all accounts was run in exemplary fashion. In true democratic style, the competition was announced in the architectural press. The jury included such illustrious names as Will Alsop, Richard Burton and Jane Priestman, and, best of all, the competition organisers asked shortlisted practices to present an approach rather than a building - hence avoiding the competition pitfall of committing to a speedily designed scheme at an inappropriately early stage. Instead competitors were asked to establish the principles of using sustainable construction to produce a prototype high-quality building to a standard County Council budget. Allford Hall Monaghan Morris (ahmm) was appointed in 1997, largely as a result of its experience of school design and its track record in collaboration.
Working with structural engineer Atelier One and services engineer Atelier Ten, ahmm started from the basic premise that the school should be a simple low-energy enclosure with natural ventilation and light. The team undertook extensive research in order to source as many recyclable, low embodied energy, environmentally preferred materials as possible. As a result, the team specified floors from China, a sedum-planted roof from Germany and windows from Sweden - an outcome which Simon Allford acknowledges as fundamentally flawed: 'It's good to use products which are sustainable, but in sustainability terms, it's bad to transport products across Europe. The problem is that the products simply aren't available here.'
A key part of the client brief was that the design process should involve public and user consultation - a process which was also hampered by constraints. Located in a large new 'garden village' constructed as a speculative venture by Countryside Properties, the school was built to serve a community which did not yet exist. In mid-1997, when the design team started work, there were few local residents, no board of governors and no head teacher. Although a temporary board of governors was appointed in September 1998, and the new head teacher in January 1999, consultation in early stages involved a mock-user group, including head teachers from other schools.
Working for the Design Council, aj technical editor Alastair Blyth 'tracked' the project from the start, documenting both the process of participatory design, and the evolution of the project in technical and environmental terms. The tracking process was established primarily as a means of allowing feedback to education bodies, government and practice, and articles on the progress of the project regularly appeared in the aj (see bibliography). In fact, the project also proved to be an effective means of communicating with the public. A Design Council-funded exhibition on the design and construction of the school started life at the riba, then went on to tour numerous venues, both professional and public.
Ironically, the building's ability to capture the public imagination probably stems as much from its distinctive shape as its ideological agenda. The plan of the finished building is an almost pure equilateral triangle, achieving the instant impact which tends to boost the chances of a competition win. ahmm is quick to point out that the triangular form was relatively slow to evolve. Four generic types were modelled and tested before a triangular form was chosen, a crucial advantage being the excellent wall- to-floor ratio and the potential in terms of arranging internal spaces.
By organising the six classrooms along one edge of the triangle, and arranging all other accommodation around a central internal court, dedicated circulation space has been limited to a single corridor - reducing the overall area by almost 10 per cent and freeing up some £80,000 to reinvest in the rest of the building. Steep rooflights, described by Allford as 'Scud missile launchers', bring light and air deep into the centre of the plan. The internal court started as an external courtyard, but as Allford puts it: 'If you see a courtyard and you're an architect, your instinct is to put a roof on it'. This, and a covered external teaching area at the 'nose' to the north of the building, are 'bonus' spaces which are surplus to the requirements of the brief.
Practical considerations aside, ahmm clearly enjoys the fact that this is such a definite shape. The triangle offers a commanding presence, and is a bold response to the fact that the green-field site imposed no obvious constraints on form. There is, in fact, a vague nod to context, in that the cedar cladding is mildly reminiscent of low- lying black barns to be found in the Essex countryside.
The dark timber 'plimsoll line' on the elevations was adopted so that 'we could cut and paste the windows without messing up the design. Otherwise these elevations could have become increasingly studied.'
Given the degree of deliberation which shaped the project, it is a credit to the design team that it does not seem in any way contrived. It's a tough little building which will prove equally able to withstand children's paintings on the wall or a good kicking; which is just as well since, as Allford points out, 'buildings like this just don't get maintained'.
One understandable criticism of a building defined by such a pure geometric form is that it does not obviously led itself to alteration or extension. Allford is unapologetic: 'A lot of redundant flexibility gets built into schools.' That said, the school hall is bigger than it needs to be, and would still be serviceable if the school expanded to include 12 classrooms as opposed to six. If ahmm does get asked to build more rooms, it will simply stick a wing on the side. It won't be a triangular building anymore, but so what?