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West Buckland School, Devon, by Rundell Associates

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[BUILDING STUDY + DRAWINGS] Rundell Associates timber-clad arts centre complements the existing 19th-century West Buckland School and adds coherence to the campus. But where is the masterplan? By Felix Mara. Photography by Ben Blossom

The volume on Devon in Nikolaus Pevsner’s Buildings of England series is emphatic: ‘No English county contains so great a variety of building materials as Devon.’ But at Work Stage B of the expansion of West Buckland School near Barnstaple, the architect, Rundell Associates, seized upon an exterior cladding material that was unfamiliar in this part of north Devon: timber boarding.

The client, an independent school that was founded in 1858 to provide a public school education for the sons of farmers and middle-class families, was sceptical. It had bought into the environmental logic of a timber structure at a very early stage. But the London architect had to demonstrate that timber would work as a cladding material on a practical level, and that untreated sawn Siberian larch would sit comfortably next to the local stone facades of the Victorian gothic Karslake Hall when it weathered to a silver-grey finish.

West Buckland School, which comprises a senior and prep schools and a nursery, appointed Rundell Associates in 2006 to design a range of new facilities that opened last month. The completed building provides exemplary teaching facilities for art, design and technology, together with a theatre and drama studio. The school refers to it as the 150 Building because its principal structure, the Grade II-listed Karslake Hall, was completed 150 years ago to designs by prolific local architect Richard Davie Gould.

The real strength of the project lies in its internal arrangement

The school’s bursar, Roger Jackson, explains that the project was prompted by a generous donation. Because the school has limited resources, previous construction projects have been modest and piecemeal. Rundell Associates principal Mike Rundell is very conscious that the school doesn’t really have a masterplan. ‘Why weren’t the new buildings aligned with the existing?’ he asks. He laughs at the tennis courts in front of the hall and has no regrets that some rather ordinary buildings were demolished to make way for the new development.

Rundell Associates’ addition adds coherence to the site layout at a local level. It is divided into two oblong blocks aligned with Karslake Hall. The south block accommodates art, design and technology and the north block a theatre and drama studio for an audience of 120, with additional seating in a gallery. These blocks are connected by a bridge and they define a route between the hall to the east and the prep school and car park to the west.

The two blocks are offset, so that the one to the south slides westwards to provide space for a loosely defined courtyard. This is open to the south and partially framed by the west facade of Karslake Hall. Project architect Daniel Burt suggests an allusion to, on the one hand, college quads, and on the other, farmyards. This courtyard would be more convincing if there wasn’t a vehicle access on its east side. But the traffic is intermittent - mainly for deliveries - and there is talk of a shared surfaces arrangement in the future.

Despite the alignment of the principal axis of the new building with the hall, you couldn’t really say that it has a strong geometrical relationship with its neighbours; it is as though it doesn’t want to get too friendly with them. Nor could you say that the architect has taken the site by the scruff of the neck. Although this wasn’t a requirement of the brief, it might have been possible to make proposals for the new building which anticipated the long-term development of the school more fully, rather than merely rejecting it as a site without a masterplan. But, given the ramshackle nature of the campus, it is understandable that Rundell Associates allocated its resources elsewhere.

The configuration of these spaces and routes is the essence of good design

The real strength of the project lies in its response to, and development of, the brief through the arrangement of the internal accommodation. The layout is notable for the way in which it avoids hierarchies. As security is not a great concern, there are several entrances to the building; for example, through the tall doors into the drama studio foyer, up the steps to the art department, or down the generous steps between the blocks and into the workshop and technology suite lobbies. You can go straight into the prep school art studio or up the stairs at the west end to the art corridor. As the building will be used mainly by a closed community, it is of little concern that it isn’t obvious that one set of courtyard doors leads to the drama studio while the steps lead to the art department.

This is a building you can walk through: up the generous steps to the art department and along its daylit gallery, leading to an external staircase, or across the bridge and into the drama studio foyer. The bridge is the point at which everything comes together, taking full advantage of the half-storey difference in levels between the two blocks. On the north side of the bridge, an internal staircase and platform lift (with doors on opposite sides of the car) connect all the major levels in the development. The thoroughfare between the hall and the prep school passes below, and on the south side there is an enfilade through the art studios, plus a terrace with a framed view and steps where pupils can sit at the edge of the courtyard. The configuration of these spaces and routes is the essence of good design.

The project has a strong environmental agenda that reflects the aspirations of the architect and the client. As Burt points out, due to the nature of the site and the brief, there were limited opportunities to gain BREEAM points in categories such as consultation and proximity to facilities. With only a few exceptions, all rooms are naturally ventilated and have high daylight levels. Renewable energy is provided by a wood pellet biomass boiler and photovoltaic panels on the roof.

Externally, the Siberian larch boards and slats form subtle rhythms

But this isn’t just a worthy ecology project. It is graced by Rundell Associates’ experience of gallery design, which includes collaborations with Damien Hirst. In this, his first school, Rundell draws on his experience as a painting student at Camberwell College of Art. That south London institution had a students’ exhibition space, which inspired the long glazed gallery that allows passers-by to view the paintings on display. On the other hand, Rundell chose not to emulate Camberwell’s painting studios, which were daylit by side windows only. The art classrooms at West Buckland have rooflights, providing a more uniform distribution of light, and these generous spaces are one of its joys. The floor-to-ceiling composite curtain walling has slender glulam mullions and the combination of exposed timber structure and white acoustic panels is fresh and appealing. This is reinforced by exposed and carefully set-out services: light fittings, conduit and dado trunking.

Externally, the Siberian larch forms subtle rhythms, with horizontal bands to emphasise the bridge, horizontal plant room louvres precisely framed by metal sections and slatted light-filtering screens. On the south side of the art, design and technology building there is local flint walling which reads as a plinth and forms a visual link to the facades of Karslake Hall. The decision to specify timber cladding may have been influenced by cost and Rundell Associates has done well to work to a rate of £2,120 per m², which puts many Building Schools for the Future and Academy projects to shame, including Elmgreen School by Scott Brownrigg at £2,128 (AJ 25.03.10) and Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios’ St Mary Magdalene Academy at £2,500 (AJ 24.09.09). But when explaining the choice of cladding, Rundell invokes neither the building’s context nor its budget, but the fulfilment of its brief. ‘We wanted it to do what it said on the can,’ he says. Likewise, the can’s label is a good indication of the environmental considerations within.

Project Data

Start on site February 2009
Contract duration 12 months
Gross internal floor area 1,400m²
Form of contract SBC05
Total cost £3.25 million
Cost per m2 £2,120
Client West Buckland School, Devon
Architect Rundell Associates
Landscape architect MHP Design
Structural engineer Atelier One
M&E consultant E3 Consulting Engineers
Cost consultant Gardiner & Theobald
Main contractor Pearce Construction (Barnstaple)
Annual CO2 emissions 8.1kg/m²

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