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Seven-year-old zero carbon school demolished due to leaks

Dartington primary school

A primary school designed by White Design, lauded for its sustainability credentials, has been demolished just seven years after completion

Work started last week on flattening Dartington Primary School near Totnes in Devon following the failure of a rainwater harvesting system on its roof.

The council settled out of court after issuing proceedings against the school’s architect, White Design, and contractor Interserve, in which it claimed £7 million in damages arising from the problem.

One of the first zero-carbon schools in the UK, Dartington Primary opened in 2009, fitted with a system at roof level to harvest, store and filter water to supply toilet cisterns.

Soon afterwards, however, classrooms were affected by water ingress from the roof, and the council concluded that the buildings were beyond economic repair following a technical report.

The report found that the major cause of the ongoing water ingress was likely to be the result of the scheme’s design. It pointed to complexities within the rainwater harvesting system and concern about the materials specified for it.

According to parents, locally sourced sweet chestnut cladding on the roof buckled and warped, allowing rainwater to seep in. This meant that, instead of flowing into the rainwater harvesting cisterns, the water seeped into the building creating damp and mouldy walls.

Construction of a replacement building, designed by Atkins, is expected to begin in the new year, having gained planning permission in October. It will provide 315 primary places and a 30-place nursery school.

A council report on the replacement school said: ‘The building has a number of sustainable design and energy efficiency elements, meeting building regulations requirements.’ 

These include natural ventilation, natural lighting, lighting control sensors to minimise the use of artificial light and a canopy along the south elevation to reduce solar gain, but no rainwater harvesting system.

Craig White, director at White Design, said: ‘There was a claim that has now been settled. We are all bound by a confidentiality agreement, so that is about as much as I can say.’


Readers' comments (12)

  • .... clients do take risks with experimental designs....

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  • So do Architects....

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  • I hope the demolition allowed for recycling of materials not damaged such as windows, doors, lighting etc. That would slightly offset the environmental damage by this disaster.
    Do clients reall have to take risks with experimental designs. Surely not if the design is sound and the detailing thorough combined with a high quality build the building should not fall apart with rot. It is possible that odd features may not perform as intended but not the whole building fail.
    Buildings like this really set back the promotion "green buildings" at a time when they are needed especially in schools.

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  • ECO with the truth!

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  • Having spent most of my working life in the USA may account for my utter disgust with the UK building profession.
    That disciplinary proceedings against the architects have not been initiated by the RIBA can only attest to the complete and utter lack of understanding about timber construction shown by all parties connected with this shameful saga.
    Not just the architects; sure, designing a building with no acceptable primary roof covering is pretty bad, but what on earth were the structural engineers and CLT fabricators thinking? To design a building that in event of water intrusion - whether external or from condensation - requires demolition, demonstrates an almost criminal incompetence. Even more shocking, details of the project were published in most construction periodicals, and no one raised a red flag!!! No AHJ in the US would have spared the plans a second glance and would have rejected them of hand.
    I will state it quite categorically: Architectural education must be reformed.

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  • We do not know exactly what the failure mechanism is for this project and even traditionally-designed constructions can leak if incorrectly detailed and built but there is a general point here to be made.

    It is possible to design a building that is a so-called 'Eco ' building and minimise the risk of internal water ingress. What one needs is wide eaves, gutters and external downpipes leading to external tanks.

    Reduce parapet gutters and internal gutters where possible (these may not be able to be designed out easily on some plan forms). But where they are internal, keep them as wide and easily accessible as possible. With climate change in mind, rain storms will be heavier and more intense.
    Our response in this practice is to design where possible wide eaves and gable ladders so if the rainwater disposal system is overwhelmed, the water can cascade off without getting into the head of the walls.

    Our latest completed church has overhangs from 0.5m - 1.8m and overflow spouts to the catch-pit the end of wide zinc-clad sloping box gutters (this is at the 1.8m overhang) .And our two recent private houses (including a hemcrete house) have generous overhangs and gutters .

    But the outlines are less sleek (so less magazine-friendly for publication) and gutters are a lot harder to model in 3D in a hurry!

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  • Kieran Gaffney

    Dear AJ

    I think we need a air-accident style investigation on what went wrong here. I understand that White Design may be bound by a CA and won't be keen on this for PR reasons but we need as a profession to learn the lessons from failed projects like this. Can the AJ investigate and report on this and show what details failed? I'd be very surprised if warped timber on the roof was the problem - wasn't that just a rainscreen?

    Desperately sad story.

    The "good hat and boots" response is not good enough there has to be a more beautiful way of building that is leak proof.

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    I remember going on an RIBA visitor site visit during construction and as the SIPS panels were being erected. If you were to visualise the rhombus forms of the roof meeting along the hip lines of a thick pair of SIPS panels, I can remember querying at the time how the join was to be sealed as daylight would often be seen through the gap, i.e. they fitted where they touched. We came away unimpressed and fearful for the insurance policy.

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  • Just because one has a good hat and good boots it does not make an ugly building (this very small practice having designed one RIBA Regional award winner and a Regional Commendation plus a number of branch awards...). And the Japanese have rather lovely wide-eaved traditional buildings..

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  • A very sad story indeed for all and especially for the innovation of architectural enquiry into sustainable designs. One can imagine the concept, the sexy models and visuals of timber cladding all being greeted with enthusiasm and generosity. It seems like a classic case of too much innovation with limited budget and the power of the image seduction in search of architectural 'fame'.

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  • It is a pity to see how a good looking design comes to such an end. It is the reason that I started TMhouttechniek to prevent this kind of failures during design. We give advise on which timber is best used for which use and what the demands are for fixings, bearers, maintenance and so on. Feel free to contact me.

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  • I really must address Vijay's comment above.
    It is indeed a sad story, especially for the poor taxpayer on the hook for £7,000,000.00. Quite how the design - widely publicized in the professional magazines - was not nipped in the bud, can only be due to the complete lack of familiarity with basic timber design. This speaks to the need for more education in the practical aspects of construction and less emphasis on the "Airy Fairy" side of the profession.
    Case in point would be Kiernan's (above) doubt as to whether a warped roof would be the cause of leaks!!!
    Experienced architects need to rattle some cages.

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