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Friday01 August 2014

Penoyre & Prasad’s Wren Academy

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Penoyre & Prasad’s Wren Academy in north London specialises in the built environment, meaning that the building itself is a teaching aid

More than any other practice, Penoyre & Prasad has formed an optimistic image of the ideal 21st century school. In 2003, it was approached by the Department for Education & Skills to create an exemplar secondary school for a restricted site – a typical programme for a London academy – which had five storeys plus a roof garden.

The practice has since gone on to create some of the more attractive academies. Last year, it received two RIBA Awards for education projects including one for the Merchants’ Academy in Bristol. This dramatically reintroduced the cloister into the vocabulary of secondary education and was a real departure from its first, high-density exemplar.

The Wren Academy in Friern Barnet, north London, is also an exemplar, but to a more immediate group – the pupils. The specialism of this school, sponsored by the Diocese of London, is the design and the built environment. So although this factor is not registered in the eight design principles listed in Penoyre & Prasad’s Stage D Report, the idea that the school building itself should instruct informed the design in a more pervasive manner.

For example, project architect Ian Oppenheim points to the way the exposed vertical steel members rise through the atrium in the new north block and then connect with the pitched roof beams. On either side, the steel forms a slightly different profile, which together with the natural light strategy creates a contrasting feel to the classrooms on either side of the building.

Throughout the building there are some delightful textural moments that express a real pleasure in design. One can see these moments as instructive: an external staircase screened in strips of cedar to the rear of the north block is one example. Then there is a sedum roof at eye level, on top of the sunken biomass boiler room. For the colonnade beneath the first storey of the new design technology block, cranked columns form the letter W for Wren.

“It doesn’t have to be overt but it shows the kids that if you want to play with steel you can,” says Oppenheim. It is hard to think of a more laudable goal for an education building than that.

Yet while these incidental moments provide glimpses of the fun aspect of design, the real story of the architecture is about the compromises required and much harder victories won. The very real achievements of an era of school building, of which the Building Schools for the Future programme was such an important part, is now passing into history.
The compromises this period required are built into the very fabric of the building. In 2008, Penoyre & Prasad and Galliford Try looked at using cross-laminate timber panels
on the Wren Academy. Given the manufacturer’s order book and the contractor’s programme it appeared more costly and a higher programme risk, so it was value engineered out. The £18.5 million budget for the design and build contract wouldn’t allow it.

The landscape architect’s report

The landscape concept was all about creating a new social heart to the school within a richly planted framework. This 2,000sq m courtyard is designed as a flexible space for free play and social activities as well as providing scope for external learning. Changes in level provide interest around the courtyard edge with low walls and sheltered colonnades for opportunities to gather. A simple palette of macadam and resin bound aggregate will be complemented at a later date by line marking and graphics by the school.There’s also a dining courtyard that doubles as a social and teaching space, and to the south there’s a sun terrace overlooking a multi-use games area.

We wanted to create a site for nature, to enhance the ecological value of the site and establish an educational resource. It sits within a low valley and the landscape design evolved to accommodate the challenging levels (4m level difference across the site) through subtle terracing and slopes.

We also wanted to create a landscape for learning – the whole school is designed as an opportunity for learning on a confined urban site. We tried to blur the inside/outside edges of the building as much as we could through the inventive use of outside space.

Andrew Haines,Senior associate, Grant Associates

Indeed, the whole project was eked out of a refurbishment budget. According to Oppenheim, “Wren was originally predominantly a refurbishment project with some new build. Through exploration of options and funding it became a predominantly new build academy with some refurbishment.” As a project it ended up with a capital cash limit of £23.4 million to cover all costs.

Oppenheim, working with Penoyre & Prasad partner Gillian Horn, has created a dynamic campus, extrapolating a building type from a concrete-framed brick-lined assembly hall built in the seventies on the site, and using powder-coated aluminium as the main material.

Standing in the central playground, it is clear that he has achieved this feat with real panache. As school principal Michael Whitworth says: “It’s got a hint of the workplace about it. It’s got a hint of the industrial, which is great for the youngsters because they feel they’re in a place which is quite grown up.” Nestled amid the suburban villas of Barnet, the campus is as dynamic as its principal.

Unlike most other academies in London it has nothing of the office or the administrative block about it. It is a low-rise campus, with the mass of classrooms hidden within the centre of the campus, so as not to loom over the students in a foreboding manner. With the buildings arranged around a playground, a passive, less authoritarian style of surveillance is permitted than at a school with more storeys. Pupils are thereby encouraged to take ownership of the school: one of the Whitworth’s most fervent wishes.

Indeed, despite the fact that the design and built environment block is separate from the rest of the building, Whitworth believes the school’s specialism is not one of its unique selling points. He was more interested in promoting pupil ownership of the building and compelling non-teaching and teaching staff to mix freely with pupils – there is no separate staff room for relaxation but a series of glass fronted staff offices that contain staff workstations. The sponsor’s programme meanwhile, apart from a small contemplative space for the chaplain, is totally absent from the school’s form.

PROJECT TEAM

Architect Penoyre & Prasad
Structural & civil engineers Buro Happold, CSC Engineers
Services engineer Buro Happold
Construction project manager Buro Four Project Services
Cost consultant Appleyards DWB
Landscape architect Grant Associates
Acoustic consultants Fleming & Barron, Pace Consult
Access consultant HADA
Main contractor Galliford Try Construction

The first part of the school pupils enter is the north block on the north west of the site, a three-storey building resolving in a pitched two-storey cloister, clad in profiled powder-coated aluminium. This contains the heart of the school – the library, which sits at the foot of the atrium a floor below entry grade. It is a simple, impressive space, made workable by perforations added to the oak panelling for acoustic deadening.

To the east is the refurbished assembly hall, where the curtain walling has been upgraded. Adjacent to it, but slightly apart, is the design and technology block, and then, raised slightly, the sports block to the south, both clad in powder-coated aluminium from the first floor up and Lignacite block at ground floor. The cloister that would have run east-to-west in front of the restaurant block was the victim of another cost-cutting exercise. What remains is a progression of low-rise buildings in a vibrant, highly textured material that enhances the horizontal orientation of the low-rise buildings that form the courtyard.

Most of the classrooms are housed in the north block, clad in metal structural liner trays that hold the roof up and assist acoustics. They are lit by north lights to the south and by horizontal windows recessed into the facade to the north. The north block is characterised by the exposure of the vertical steel members.

In contrast, in the new design technology block where the design classrooms are predominantly located, the horizontal beams are exposed. In the north block, the facing is
off structure; in the new design technology block, it is flush with the structure, giving the two buildings markedly different feels.

Inevitably, the compromises within the scheme are marked by unfortunate absences. At Stage D, the designers had proposed a large mural on the sports hall’s south-facing wall. This is in effect the school’s marker on the main Woodhouse Road. As it is, the wall is blank, a rather foreboding first impression of the school as one walks down Hilton Avenue. The block cladding is also unfortunate. It may match the brickwork in terms of colour, but any material that looks like an off-colour breeze block is always going to feel like a cheap option.

And yet despite these moments, the building rises out of the adjacent suburban villas and allotments of Friern Barnet as an exemplar, its undulating roofscape a signpost to a bright future. Last month, in the face of likely cuts, schools secretary Michael Gove announced that any school could become an academy. Penoyre & Prasad has created another, more pragmatic exemplar for academy schools to come with the impressive Wren Academy, a rebuild by stealth. We will just have to hope that the sponsors of these new academies will all be as benign as the Diocese of London.

Gillian Horn’s top five references

Sheds

 

Gillian Horn reference sheds

I really enjoy the simplicity and elegance of agricultural sheds; their strong forms, linearity and simple use of materials are compelling. But working from such a reference we were conscious of the need for clean and well considered detailing to retain the simplicity of the farm shed and not fall into the clumsiness of the retail shed. In the design of Wren we were also interested by the groupings of farm buildings and their casual, relaxed disposition that forms a family of buildings that aren’t identical but are related to each other both aesthetically and in purpose.

Valleys and hills

 

Gillian Horn reference Haveli valleys and hills

We were interested in the potential of creating the sense of a landscape from the collection of buildings on the Wren site and what better inspiration than the beautiful Welsh hills and valleys that together create a series of contained places that are both dramatic and peaceful. In much the same way we see the buildings and series of courtyards between and around them as a single flowing element. The roof profile is a key element to the scheme, bringing character to the buildings while still working at the scale of the neighbourhood’s semi-suburban detached housing.

Indian Haveli housing

Gillian Horn reference Haveli housing

Architecture that is embedded into the landscape like a Haveli courtyard house can be very powerful, being rooted and grounded in its specific place.

The one-storey level change at Wren gives opportunities for views and connections across and through the main teaching block that really opens up the building and integrates it into the site. We tried to make the most of the section change both in the opening up of the building from the main entrance and in the views right through the building, across the LRC hall and out to the allotments beyond from the playground.

Iced cakes

Gillian Horn reference cakes

For me, Wren is quite cake-like, with the contrast of its solid base and light topping, wrapped like icing across its profile. The gable ends are treated like a cut slice to reveal the contrast between icing and cake.

The academy’s specialism is in design and the built environment which we really wanted to celebrate in the architecture.

One of the ways in which we have tried to do this is by simply expressing the layering of the construction from structure internally to the wrapped facade externally.

Church screens

Gillian Horn reference church screens

With Wren being a faith school one can read several church references such as nave and transept in the design but these weren’t explicit intentions. In terms of church architecture we were more interested in the way screens operate as furniture or dividers.

We didn’t want the school to be the product of a series of stacked and aligned discrete boxes. Instead, we want it to be read as an overall structure with screen-like elements filling in the spaces to make the classrooms, so a sense of connection to the whole is retained within the required separation of the parts.

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