AOC, working as part of 4 Futures, Southwark’s local education partnership, has successfully completed the extension and refurbishment of Spa School in Bermondsey, part of Southwark’s Building Schools for the Future (BSF) programme.
The existing London Board School, situated in a conservation area, is a special secondary school for students with autistic spectrum disorders. The extension is part of a campus master plan providing a new Key Stage 3 teaching cluster, an orchard and science garden. The new accommodation is like a doughnut, with two floors of four teaching spaces arranged around a top-lit, double height circulation space. The design has been developed as an architectural expression that needed to tie together the disparate forms of the school campus, in a neighbourhood of 1970s houses.
The design approach is one of mannerist wit that has characterised the mostly paper projects of AOC to date — and one that hasn’t lost its immediacy now built at scale. The building’s principal facade is expressed as a tripartite composition, like three houses of an eccentric terrace, aligned on axis as a terminus to the street opposite. The middle bay rises to a house-like 45 degree pitch, mimicking the end bay of the Victorian school, while the left-hand bay is capped by a 30 degree pitch — the optimum angle for solar panels. The right-hand bay is finished with a squashed, semi-circular barrel-vault, which echoes the bowed roof of the sports hall and rhymes with the stately curving architrave of the board school’s large ground-floor window.
Materially, the building looks to the polychromatic brickwork of the old school, but filters it through the suburban lens of its neighbours into a flattened stage-set frontage. Knowing details, such as the way the cream brick headers of this frontispiece abut the red bricks of the side facade flat-on, emphasise the stuck-on, rainscreen nature of the walls. This is a building keen to display its “decorated shed” credentials.
Originally every elevation was to be entirely clad in red brick, but a steer from the planners — prompted by one councillor calling the design a “bizarre red lump” — pushed the architect towards a two-tone option. The final brick combination was chosen after an extensive consultation event, involving local residents and four mock-up walls of differing brick and mortar samples. And it is a much happier conclusion for it.
A bold, red-brick plinth now extends across the base of the Monnow Road elevation, set at the datum of the original boundary wall (which has been reconstructed at either side), on top of which sits an expanse of cream brick, punctuated by a diagonal grid of recessed, red diamonds. It looks like a giant slice of cartoon fruitcake, red cherries spaced at regular intervals across the grain.
Red mortar is used throughout, which gives the red-brick base and return elevations a massive quality — to prevent it from becoming “too cartoony”. Three big picture windows — unusually generous for a BSF school — are framed in protruding red-brick borders, set proud from the facade with brick-and-a-half deep reveals, which lend them a sturdy, civic presence. Ground-floor windows, meanwhile, are tall and slender, echoing the proportions of the board school, if not quite the size.
Throughout the building an economical palette of materials - brick, blockwork, ply - have been creatively used to provide an affordable, familiar and distinct learning environment within the constraints of the government’s school building programme. The new building has a steel frame to the eaves, with pre-cast concrete planks for the floor and steel framed walls. The roof was constructed from pre-fabricated timber trusses, and onsite joists, allowing a high level of precision combined with swift site installation.
The building is predominantly naturally ventilated. On the ground floor air enters the building through perimeter windows and exits via the central lantern, raised to enhance the natural stack effect. Exposed concrete soffits maximise the benefits of thermal gain and ensure a steady temperature. At first floor the rooms are naturally ventilated through a combination of perimeter vents and remote-controlled rooflights. In addition, as a response to the pupils’ heightened sensitivity to heat, mechanical conditioning has been fitted to all first floor classrooms for occasional use, with localised heat exchangers ensuring energy loss is minimised.
Particular care was taken to replicate the generosity of the Victorian building whilst creating more appropriate spaces. Classroom designs were developed by studying the very particular way the staff and pupils used the existing school building’s teaching spaces. Existing furniture was surveyed and new classroom designs explored with 1:1 mock-ups in the old school hall. This allowed the creation of new classrooms that are both specific to their immediate needs and flexible for an unknown future.
The project has been a huge success and two more larger schools are underway with Southwark.
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