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Witheridge, Devon

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The Designers Collaborative has produced an elegant box for this primary school, providing an effective yet simple response to changing needs

Though Witheridge is a feeder school for Chulmleigh (p32-33), the experimental approach there is replaced at Witheridge by a more simple one, more focused on creating an immediately usable, refined piece of architecture. As architect Michael Wigginton said to the contractor, he wanted the building to look as carefully made when viewed from a distance of 1m as when seen as a whole from 20m or more.

The project extends the 1965 timber framed and clad primary school, fitting-in in form and materials, tidying up the connection of old and new. The new classroom is located at the south end of an existing arm, which has advantages.

Being an internal dead end, the 24m 2space immediately outside the classroom doubles as lobby and wet space. And the north wall of the class space looking onto this can be largely glazed without concern about distraction from passers-by, while improving daylight evenness in the classroom.

East and west walls are kept solid, with the potential for further classrooms to be attached either side. This leaves the south side open to the sun. Again, in contrast to Chulmleigh, where direct sunlight is largely excluded as a too-variable nuisance for convenience of energy management, Wigginton wants to embrace the sun as part of life's natural animation.

There have to be solar controls of course, for glare and overheating. The glazed south wall has both internal louvre blinds and, outside, a teaching space with motorised roller blinds beneath its sloped glass roof. These blinds are the first line of solar defence, controlled via a combination of internal thermostat and external solar cell. Computer simulation suggests that, with this protected south wall, the north wall glazing and a 7.2 x 1.2m rooflight toward the north side, artificial lighting should never be needed during the school day to meet the 300 lux requirement.

However, on a bright day when I was there, the louvre and skylight blinds were closed and the lights were on during a succession of classes using laptops and an interactive whiteboard.

Initially it looked gloomy inside, but the eye is very accommodating. Especially for IT-based teaching, there may be questions about the assumptions on user behaviour built into such computer software.Monitoring should tell.

If energy consumption were to go to plan, the prediction is of 25 per cent of the consumption of a Building Regulations classroom.

Other energy measures at Witheridge include 150mm of insulation to walls and roof. Heating is underfloor electric: extending the existing wet system was costly and would have made monitoring difficult.

Timber rainscreen cladding echoes the boarding of the existing school. Red Cedar was rejected as too soft. Samples of Siberian and European Larch had too many knots and shakes. Fortunately the timber supplier managed to acquire a load of second-hand Iroko.

South window frames and doors are also Iroko.

The elegant canopy is framed in 75mm CHS and tension cables. Given maintenance budgets, its glass roof, and the rooflight, have wisely been given a finish (Ritec) to inhibit dirt buildup, which after six months can be seen to be working. The canopy is relatively expensive (£27,380), so might not survive in this form if the classroom was rolled out across the county.

More widely applicable is the basic idea of the simple box with outdoor covered space. Its square plan follows staff preferences for flexible accommodation. There is significant storage (16m 2, including a computer bench) which allows some switching of furniture and equipment between uses. And while it has some clever control automation, there are also manual overrides. There is a lot to be said for keeping it simple and legible.

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