Thursday17 August 2017

Building Study

DSDHA’s double chemistry lesson in Guildford

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A year after its opening, DSDHA’s special needs school is joined on the site by the practice’s fantastically impressive Christ’s College secondary school

This time last year I visited Guildford to write about Pond Meadow (Works February 13, 2009), a really terrific school for children with special needs designed by DSDHA for a site on the town’s residential edge. While a stand-alone facility, it was conceived as one part of an ensemble, the other major component of which was nearing completion at the time of my visit.

This is the new home of Christ’s College, a Church of England secondary school that had formerly occupied the entirety of the site on its own. The school’s previous accommodation was a dispersed post-war campus, generously provided with green space but which latterly had been ringed by a security fence in response to a string of arson attacks. This intervention had an inevitably damaging effect on the school’s self-image and also introduced a large no-go zone at the heart of the community that it sought to serve.

In drawing up the masterplan for the site’s redevelopment, one of DSDHA’s central ambitions was to return it to a more perforate relationship with the surrounding housing — a task it approached by proposing a much more compact building envelope than had been presented by the earlier campus. The practice even investigated the possibility of uniting the two schools in a single structure, but the fact that they drew their funding from different sources put pay to that idea.

What it ended up with was therefore two buildings stood side by side. In response to the pronounced disabilities of its students, Pond Meadow was designed as a single-storey structure, punctuated by internal courtyards and animated by a restless roofline. Its neighbour is finished in the same hard, beetroot-hued German brick but is a three-storey building of tauter profile and grander bearing — a country house, perhaps, to Pond Meadow’s stable block.

The decision to keep the plans of the schools as compact as possible makes sense both as a means of minimising build costs and of ensuring the most environmentally efficient envelope. It also ensures that in spite of the site now accommodating two institutions rather than one, plenty of green space remains. A road now cuts through the site — with the schools set to either side — allowing residents who live to the north a far stronger connection to their immediate neighbourhood. In particular, it has given them a more direct link to the primary school that lies to the south of DSDHA’s site. The days when younger children would habitually break through Christ’s College’s fence to avoid adding an extra five minutes to their daily commute are thankfully now gone.

If there is a disappointment, it is that this concession to community access is not pursued further. The two buildings maintain a powerful visual dialogue and once the trees that have been planted around them have matured, they will communicate a still stronger sense of occupying a common landscape. Yet, for all the intelligence of their siting, the fact remains that the buildings are set apart from each other and from the wider world by many hundreds of metres of fencing.

A revealing point of comparison is offered by Peter Märkli’s Im Birch school in the Zurich suburb of Oerlikon. It too is conceived as an ensemble of free-standing buildings but the interweaving play areas are made publicly accessible through the integration of automated security shutters over every window, thus obviating the need for a perimeter fence. Is it really unthinkable that such a strategy might be adopted in this country or am I naive to imagine that the social pressures faced by a school in a well-to-do Swiss suburb might be remotely comparable to those with which a school in urban Britain has to contend? It is surely a question worth asking as the two examples present a fundamentally different relationship between school and community and it is a difference felt in the projects’ ability to speak to the wider city, to attain a sense of the civic.

Indeed the dominance of the fences at Guildford is all the more frustrating because DSDHA’s buildings go a long way towards meeting that goal, perhaps further than any school built recently in the UK. One senses it in the solidity and sobriety of their construction, in their scale — Christ’s College is particularly monumental — and in the way that the they command such an expansive territory. One could not mistake these buildings for offices, housing or any commercial use; they are, in the most positive sense, institutional.

While they share a material palette, the facades of the two schools are articulated in markedly contrasting ways. On Pond Meadow, the bronze anodised aluminium windows are set flush with the outer face of the wall, maintaining a tautness that is interrupted only at the entrance and at the building’s end conditions. Christ’s College presents an altogether more chiselled appearance. Its windows are recessed by 300mm — the length of one of the unusually formatted bricks that have been employed on both buildings — while the depth of a select few openings has been further dramatised by the use of a heavily splayed reveal to one side. The wall’s thickness has also been articulated in a manner that only becomes apparent as we draw close to it. Immediately below each classroom window, we find a zone of brickwork within which randomly selected perpends have been widened and left without mortar. This scattergun of openings enables air to be introduced to each classroom by way of its own heat recovery and ventilation unit (See In Detail, opposite) while maintaining a sense of the wall’s mass in a way that no applied louvre surely could.

Blockwork is left exposed in the classrooms.

Credit: Helene Binet

Blockwork is left exposed in the classrooms.

DSDHA’s Deborah Saunt likens Christ’s College to a 17th century hôtel particulier, a type that characteristically married a highly formal external expression to a surprisingly animated internal arrangement. “A building like the Hôtel de Beauvais,” she explains, “brings the visitor from the public street through to a low entrance archway into a courtyard and then via a grand staircase up to a series of spaces with varying degrees of privacy, and with the promise of a roof terrace — a fragment of nature, offering an idealised retreat with a simple view of the sky.” While the horses and carriages may be absent, the spatial sequence offered by Christ’s College closely corresponds to this description.

We enter by way of a low-ceilinged recess that extends along much of the principal elevation. Its recessed face — within which the doors are set — is fully glazed, a gesture that literally undercuts our reading of the building’s mass. Our sense of spatial compression is maintained by a narrow lobby before we are suddenly released into a triple height room — the equivalent of the hôtel’s courtyard — which extends up to a series of skylights. Although DSDHA terms this space the atrium, that description conjures a more corporate image than is suggested by the room itself. Its walls and ceiling are faced in softwood and where openings are made, they are scaled so as to maintain a sense of this surface as an enveloping lining. Indeed, the relationship between the atrium and the corridors that encircle it is gauged with particular delicacy. Fearful of the acoustic implications of the arrangement — the atrium is where the students eat lunch — the school at first argued that all internal openings should be glazed. DSDHA resisted that idea and has been proved right — a tribute to the acoustic insulation behind the softwood boarding but also to the fact that the high level of visual communication allows the space to be monitored effectively by staff.

Windows are recessed by the depth of one of the extra-long bricks that DSDHA specified.

Credit: Helene Binet

Windows are recessed by the depth of one of the extra-long bricks that DSDHA specified.

While Pond Meadow employed a steel structure, Christ’s College is a concrete framed building — a choice that is baldly articulated throughout the plasterboard-free interior. The walls of the classrooms are in blockwork; those of the stair cores, in-situ concrete. As with the boarding used in the atrium, both are left unfinished. In fact, pretty much the only painted surfaces are the classroom doors, the departmentally coded colours of which were specified by regular DSDHA collaborator Oliver Klimpel, of the graphic design firm Büro International. While this commitment to the use of as-found materials has strong aesthetic implications it also lends the fabric a robustness that the school will surely appreciate in the years ahead.

Although the plan harbours moments of real surprise, its fundamental logic is immediately apparent. On each level its footprint is defined by a horseshoe of classrooms, loaded to one side of a continuous corridor. Staircases are sited at the corners and terminations of this racetrack, their presence registering externally through the provision of windows of unusual height.

The atrium, where students eat lunch.

Credit: Helene Binet

The atrium, where students eat lunch.

The art and science rooms are somewhat larger than the others and sited so as to benefit from north light, but otherwise, the arrangement could hardly be more adaptable. If a department expands or contracts all that is likely to be required is a change of door colour although the blockwork partitions can be stripped out without any structural implication if needed.

Caught within this frame of cellular accommodation are the collective spaces, the presence of which — in keeping with the hôtel particulier model — is concealed from outside view. The sports hall has been tucked to the rear where its minimally fenestrated bulk goes unnoticed. Meanwhile a double-height theatre lies alongside the atrium, a top-lit space which lends light to the encompassing corridors by way of glazed openings in its perimeter wall.

Finally, lodged immediately above the theatre is an enclosed roof terrace, access to which is available solely to sixth-form students. Starkly detailed and offering a view only of the sky, this is very much the “idealised retreat” of Saunt’s Parisian imaginings. Some students may take it to be an ideal place to dream of their imminent escape from Guildford, and yet, in providing the city with this fantastically impressive campus, DSDHA has hopefully persuaded a fair few of them that it is a place worth investing their hearts in.

In detail

Christ’s College School Guildford

Christ’s College secondary school replaces a series of 1960s structures with a single three-storey building. Classrooms are arranged around the perimeter with views out to the Surrey hills. An innovative ventilation and heating system has been integrated into the facade giving each classroom local environmental control.

Fresh air is delivered to each classroom via its own heat recovery and ventilation unit concealed in a cabinet under a window. The unit contains two fans, one for supply and one for extract and a heat exchanger. Until the room comes up to temperature a damper cuts off the fresh supply and the unit works in recirculation mode with an electric heater battery to heat the air, so no boilers or radiators are needed.

The building has a concrete frame with blockwork infill and concrete floor slabs which have been left exposed. The thermal mass helps store heat and regulate fluctuations in temperature. Once the room is occupied the heat generated by the occupants is sufficient to maintain a steady temperature without using the heater battery. A CO2 sensor on the unit monitors the air so that the CHRV unit only comes on when fresh air is required. In summer the system provides secure night ventilation to cool the structure.

The external walls have a brick outer leaf. Instead of using conventional grilles some of the perpends have been widened to allow air to pass through to the extract plenum behind. The supply air is brought in through a continuous slot beneath the window cill.

The 290mm x 90 x 50mm bricks have been laid in varying coursing patterns and with deeper raked perpends at low level to break up the scale of the elevation.

Rather than a repetitive, industrialised effect the brickwork has been detailed with a sense of craft.

Original print headline - Double chemistry

Project team

Architect DSDHA, Client Surrey County Council, Structural engineer Adams Kara Taylor, Services engineer Atelier Ten, Project/cost manager Davis Langdon, Collaborative artist Martin Richman, Main contractor Wates Construction, Landscape consultants Townshend Landscape Architects


Readers' comments (5)

  • This has to be the best school building to have been built in many years. Bravo to DSDHA, the school and Surrey CC for their trust in allowing a clearly talented practice deliver such a crisp design. I visited the school 3 weeks ago, and was stunned that the level of detail which so many strive too have been delivered with such skill and clarity. Wonderful, and again, a fine example which puts shame to the BSF process.

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  • but i fear that it won't be properly maintained by the school and look very grubby in a few years.

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  • I like the exterior but I wonder what the children think who use it? this building is for them afterall. I would say that the rather austere interiors of the classrooms are somewhat depressing. I think its the lack of interesting materials that makes me feel that they will find it drab and cold.Pehaps not colour but something more than just exposed concrete and the greyness of the blockwork would achieve a better result.

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  • why do people (including some architects)assume that children are only stimulated by interior schemes that are super jolly and highly coloured. I would think that this is perhaps a somewhat patronising viewpoint that believes that certain members of society are not sophisticated enough to deal with more visually restrained physical environments There is certain anecdotal evidence that children are perfectly able to develop in a context in which the quality of the teaching itself is to the fore which is not reliant on endless visual stimulation. Supergraphics and primary clour fields cant alleviate classroom overcrowding and a lack of a shared identity and culture within the school body. Anyway my seven year old daughter loves vibrant colour in clothing, graphics etc. but hates brightly coloured buildings and interiors

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  • Come friendly bombs and fall on this building. I'm a resident of Guildford and was horrified when I first drove past this school rebuild. It was pretty dreadful before - but this is a missed opportunity. The buiildings are chilling and austere, surrounded by miles of high wire fencing - it only lacks sentry posts. My personal opinion is that it looks like a borstal - maybe it is more friendly inside - we can only hope so for the sake of the children who have to go there every day. Hopefully some good landscaping will soften it within a few years.

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