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Scotland’s best school: Holmes Miller's Heathfield Primary

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[School design] The skilful mix of new and old at Heathfield Primary won it a commendation in this year’s Doolan Prize, writes Neil Baxter. Photography by Andrew Lee

In Scotland, and doubtless much of the rest of the UK, the standard approach to replacing tired and outmoded school buildings in recent years has been straightforward demolition and replacement.

One mechanism frequently employed has been the construction of the new school on existing playing fields. This allows education to continue in the existing building, which is subsequently demolished when the new provision is complete. Then, the existing site is cleared and resurfaced to replace the lost sports provision. The premise is simply, to paraphrase George Orwell, ‘new buildings good, old buildings bad’.

Irrespective of the merits of contemporary Design and Build schools provision or the variations on PFI, PPP or other acronyms that conceal devious and often costly funding mechanisms, there are, by comparison with the plethora of new builds, relatively few examples of the considered reworking and re-use of existing buildings. Heathfield Primary is an exemplary project and should be the model for a radical reconsideration of how we renew our school estate.

As its architect, Clara Garriga of Holmes Miller, points out, the existing 1930s classroom block at Heathfield, a simple brick and concrete construction, is devoid of any architectural flourish or pretension. However, it is a long established and treasured feature in its locale. There is, as she has noted, real merit in the original building and merit in a solution that has created a state-of-the-art teaching facility for this very large, 650-pupil primary school for a sum that is probably significantly less than half the cost of the demolish-and-replace solution.

This approach challenges the architects, but hey, that’s what they’re for. Doubtless, it was inconvenient during the build process, but that inconvenience is now long forgotten. And it’s not a shiny new box, but then who really wants to see their children educated in a shiny box?

This reconstruction of an original building that had previously been extended in several phases, the last as recently as 2002, acknowledges the value of the existing building.

Its worth was not merely sentimental or as community collateral, but as a solidly built and rather elegant solution to the provision of well-lit, usable classrooms. The new-build replaces some clutter to the rear and meshes the existing building with a new dining hall, new entrance and office provision and new library. It also provides the inevitable but important supervised and secure new entrance.

There is no attempt at pastiche here. New provision is clearly differentiated from the existing, although in scale and the simplicity of its materials palette it complements the original school. The new gym hall doubles as a drama studio, complete with timber sprung floor. The glulam timber structure of the new dining room is carried through the large glazed screen wall to delineate an external ‘room’.

While much of the architect’s attention has been focussed on these new-build elements, a number of simple interventions, even minor details like colour-coded coat hangers outside the classrooms, contribute to the lively, bright and welcoming appeal of the subtle and intelligent re-modelling of Heathfield Primary School.

There is no question that the architects of the renewed Heathfield Primary School have done a sterling job. However, the fact that South Ayrshire Council’s educational procurement is in the hands of an experienced architect is undoubtedly a major contributor to the building’s success. It may be a hackneyed sentiment, but without an enlightened client good buildings are much more difficult for architects to achieve. In this case, it is quite apparent that architect, client and users, including the children themselves, have all brought ideas to the table.

The result is a superb teaching environment which, in its creation of gathering spaces of great quality, will undoubtedly make a huge contribution to the lives of generations of Ayrshire children to come. A view resoundingly endorsed by this year’s RIAS Doolan Award judges. 

Neil Baxter, secretary and treasurer of The Royal Incorporation of Architects in Scotland

AJ Buildings Library

See images and drawings of Heathfield Primary School by Holmes Miller

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