Scabal’s sports hall for Dunraven secondary school in Streatham, London
Could recycled shipping containers be the future of low-cost, fast-build structures? Scabal’s sports hall for Dunraven secondary school in Streatham, south London, is proving a success
Regular readers of these pages may remember that a couple of months ago we featured a beautiful little ensemble of bird hide, classroom and toilet block which the architect Landroom has designed for the RSPB at Rainham Marsh (Works April 17). The buildings were assembled from reclaimed shipping containers and communicated a vivid sense that every judgement that had informed their design was directly predicated on that primary decision. What then to make of another project that employs the very same technology but puts it to quite radically opposed expressive purposes?
This time we are in the south London suburb of Streatham, at Dunraven, a secondary school in line for a £20 million overhaul under Lambeth Council’s Building Schools for the Future programme. The masterplan for that transformation has been developed by the architect Scabal and anticipates the preservation of a fine group of sixties buildings and the replacement of much of the dross built subsequently. Lambeth has split its BSF programme into two phases and has designated the redevelopment of Dunraven as part of the second tranche, with the effect that work on site is only likely to start in another 18 months.
However, in establishing the programme, the local authority did set aside funding to allow schools in the second phase to undertake limited projects in advance of that date, where they might relieve pressing issues of capacity. Dunraven’s new sports hall is one such scheme.
When Scabal was asked to design the building it soon discovered that this delivery structure had generated a dilemma. While the school was adamant that, as a seed project for the larger transformation to come, the new building should be a thing of architectural distinction, the patch-and-mend funding that had been made available barely stretched to the most basic off-the-shelf shed. The decision to construct the building out of reclaimed shipping containers offered one way — perhaps, indeed, the only way — of meeting these competing requirements.
The market in reclaimed containers — known as “deadheads” within the industry — is a product of the trade imbalance that exists between the developing world and the west. The number of containers being shipped from the Far East to Europe is significantly more than that required by the return traffic and the economics of shipping empties is prohibitive.
Ask at any major European port and you will find that for a couple of thousand pounds you can pick up a container that might have undergone just a single journey from Shenzhen or Mumbai. The economic — let alone the green — argument for the technology’s adaptation is therefore compelling. In the case of the sports hall, a building that the contractor estimates would have cost £2.25 million had it been built by conventional methods has been realised for £1.5 million.
The economic — let alone the green — argument for container technology’s adaptation is compelling
That contractor was, however, arguably the only one in Britain that could pull off such a coup. Eric Reynolds founded Urban Space Management in 1971, initially as a development firm geared towards the introduction of short and medium term uses in under-employed sites. The informal light-touch occupation of London’s Camden Lock and Gabriel’s Wharf were both early success stories for the company.
In 2001 it embarked on the development of Container City at Trinity Buoy Wharf in the far east end of the capital. This project pioneered the architectural reuse of containers in the UK. Its success led Reynolds to develop further schemes on the same basis and also to take on the role of specialist contractor for external projects. Scabal chose to develop its design in discussion with his company and ultimately persuaded its client to negotiate the contract directly with the firm.
What makes container technology a particularly appropriate constructional method for a sports hall is the simple geometry inherent to the typology. The Dunraven hall is circumscribed on three sides by a stack of containers, which were erected in the course of just a few days. A monopitched roof spans them on steel trusses, while the fourth elevation — which addresses the road to the north of the school — is formed by a wall of translucent polycarbonate. The uppermost of the three layers of containers serves a purely structural role but the lower ones are occupied. Changing rooms have been sited at ground level — requiring a double-width band of containers on the south and east elevations — while the second level has been given over to a viewing gallery-cum-gym.
So far, so rational. How though to turn this dumb proposition into a work of architecture? There are, perhaps, two diametrically opposed modes of expression that immediately suggest themselves: on the one hand — and as a scheme like Container City amply demonstrates — the construction technique offers the potential for an additive, lego-like architecture, in which a recognition of the individual container is upheld at all times. On the other, one might seek to consolidate the building’s fundamentally shed-like nature, which is to say dramatise its qualities as a singular sculptural mass.
What is immediately striking about the Scabal scheme is that it does neither. The practice’s first move has been to introduce an intermediary scale between that of the individual building block and that of the building as a whole by painting the outside of the containers in four colours — oyster grey, sky blue, midnight blue and kick-you-in-the balls chartreuse. These break the elevations down into distinct zones, each of which wraps around one of the building’s corners. The resultant order offers no reflection of the hall’s internal organisation and has no direct relationship to the surrounding context, but it does lend the building a more approachable scale, as if it were composed of four independent structures that had been clustered together.
These complications are exacerbated by the openings that have been cut into the containers. The building presents two independent elevational treatments — one that extends around its exterior and another that has been applied to the internal surfaces which address the hall itself. Both sets of openings are of a highly figurative nature and — in an amusingly late-in-the-day nod to the demands of context — have been conceived as abstract representations of objects to be found in the gardens of the neighbouring houses.
Externally we are presented with what are, in effect, the gable ends of five enormous greenhouses. This motif has been subjected to varying degrees of disintegration, becoming particularly mangled where it has been wrapped around the building’s corners. Its most explicit expression is on the north elevation. Here, in order to combat the attentions of any dubious lurkers, the school insisted on the use of mirror glass. One might think this a somewhat paranoid stipulation but it is one that this full-bodied and gleefully contrarian architecture finds no difficulty in incorporating. A couple of enormous Scots pines are growing immediately in front of this facade and feel very much part of the composition. The blank wall of polycarbonate, the cartoonish mirrored opening and the majestic trees stake out different positions on a sliding scale from abstraction to figuration rather like the improbably co-existing parts of an early David Hockney painting.
The imagery can be interpreted as a dissident celebration of the joys of non-competitive recreation in this temple to sport
Internally, the greenhouses are exchanged for trowels and wheelbarrows. That source material has been abstracted to the point that you might struggle to pick up the reference but, in truth, it is of no great concern if the joke is lost.
The design’s semiological foundations are really something of a tease — an alibi that has allowed the architect to concoct forms that run counter to the inherited tectonic order. The imposed cut-outs are again at superscale, spanning multiple containers and indeed running across the different bands of colour. The effect is complicated still further by the fact that the openings reveal the insides of the containers to be painted in different colours from those used externally. The whole feels very much of a piece with the scale and gaudiness of the hall’s floor graphics.
It has something of the quality of a monumental frieze and, if you do pick up on the imagery, one that can be interpreted as a dissident celebration of the joys of non-competitive recreation in this temple to sport. A more explicit acknowledgement of the limited appeal of organised games can be found in Scabal’s masterplan, which is careful to make space for entry level sports such as skateboarding and French cricket. Given that 27% of Britain’s children are now deemed to be overweight, the need to find a more inclusive approach to the physical activities that Britain’s schools provide has clearly been ignored for too long.
A building of refined details, this is not. Neither, however, was it conceived as such. If I suggest that it looks like it was designed entirely at 1:100, I offer the observation not as criticism but as an acknowledgement of Scabal’s skill in gauging the available scope for engagement. The end result does show signs of having been a product of — how shall we say? — negotiation with the contractor but the more casual moments of assembly are largely robbed of visual impact by the raucous architectural expression.
Indeed, Scabal and Reynolds are both rightly delighted with the building and are now keen to find opportunities to team up again and refine the concept further. Having completed their research and development they are confident that given another go they could make significant savings on the £1,300/sq m achieved at Dunraven. But as impressive as that figure is, it would be a mistake to see the project as merely a triumph of value engineering. Scabal’s real achievement is that it has produced a building as bloody-minded, exotic and engaging as you could hope to realise on twice the budget.
Original print headline - Shipping forecast
Architect Scabal, ClientDunraven School, Structural engineer Furness Partnership, Mechanical & electrical engineerCBG Consultants, Quantity surveyor Keegans, Principal contractor Container City — Urban Space Management, Planning supervisor Baily Garner
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All images: Jun Keung Cheung