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Monday28 July 2014

Foster's academy building is a nightmare, says school's boss

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A flagship academy school, designed by Foster & Partners, has been branded a “nightmare” by the woman who runs it.

The £31 million Business Academy Bexley, a 2004 Stirling Prize nominee in south-east London, was the UK’s first city academy, and was opened by former prime minister Tony Blair seven years ago this month.

But it has been hit by a catalogue of maintenance problems, and the school’s chief executive Sam Elms said this week that if she had her way she would move the school into a building more suitable for teaching.

The constant problems have meant the school’s deficit could now rise from the current £500,000 to more than £850,000 next year, according to the Times Educational Supplement.

The school has had to shell out £15,000-a-year on temporary changing facilities because Foster’s building has just two changing rooms for 1,350 pupils. It is also spending a further £14,000 on external storage because there is not enough room on site.

Other problems include broken boilers, sewage defects, peeling paint, and a leaking roof which has continued to baffle experts.

Elms told today’s Times Educational Supplement: “The roof leaks across the building which causes the floor to bubble.”

She added: “It’s a hugely expensive building and costs us an absolute fortune. It’s a nightmare to run. If we could move to another building, we would. It’s not great but we do the best we can.”

The academy was intended to set the standard for New Labour’s city academies programme – and includes high-end fixtures and fittings such as taps, door handles and even toilet seats shipped in from Italy.

It has now begun an austerity drive which has included not replacing staff who left over the summer and swapping pricey broken taps and toilet seats with less expensive models.

When it was launched it was hailed as a model of future learning.

Cabe said at the time: “The light and airy exterior is full of bustling young people busily engaged in activities, although regrettably not visible to the outside world.”

And on the fit-out of the building, it added: “The provision of furniture and equipment is almost lavish.”

Foster & Partners declined to comment.

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Readers' comments (28)

  • Once again the great and good come unstuck, to much time and effort is spent on coming up with flambouyant designs for schools and not enough on how it's really going to work, KISS (keep it simple stupid) is perhaps the way to think instead of look how great I can make this look, CABE might want all buildings to be landmarks but sometime function has to take precedent over form.

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  • Too right Ian! It's easy to criticise without knowing the full facts but I doubt Foster will be able to blame the structural engineer for this one. ;o)

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  • Yes, the architects have been partly responsible, not least in proposing some ridiculous solutions to the brief, but and its a real big but, the brief was clearly inappropriate and a weak and over enthusiastic and inexperienced client charged ahead more filled with dreams than should have been possible. Clients have a responsibility to ensure that they buy in experience when they dont have it, and appointing a top artiste without the necessary hard nosed checks and balances is a recipe for overspend and quite possibly disaster, which it sounds like this place verges on.

    By the by these comments apply to virtually the whole BSF and Academy process as mismanaged in the past. I doubt the new coalition will do any better as the public servants (not so civil these days!) are as out of their depth in procurement of construction projects as they ever were.

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  • I thought these schools were Builder lead, so the blame might lie there. But the difficulty is being associated with projects which are very political, and where times change and things get tough, the easy answer is to blame the architect.
    Who for instance agreed the number of changing rooms, or the size of the store?
    Which experts are baffled by the roof leak? call back the roofing company, most roofs have a 10 year warranty.
    It is hard to judge without all the facts.

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  • I agree that it's too easy to blame the architect for poor client performance. Time to learn some lessons about what a generic brief for a school should be - my own area of expertise is museums and there's a wealth of precedent knowledge about the necessary ratio of public space/support space. 'School bosses' should show some initiative and come up with a generic brief. There's nothing efficient about creating a building of any type that ignores it's own support requirements.

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  • Indeed it is time for some sort of easily available, easily controllable generic brief. Such things have been used successfully and profitably in the hotel sector where Whitbread, Hilton etc use comprehensive online systems that ensure standards are known and which result in complete as-built building models on completion. Architects still have very wide design freedom but do not miss the necessary basics, and individual 'school bosses' can add what they want beyond the core brief; see www.hotel-standards for the type of thing I'm talking about. Government could even save millions by instigating central purchasing through such a system.

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  • I wouldn't be concerned with the number of changing rooms plural, but rather whether the rooms were sized for the peak number of pupils who have to use them at any one time.

    This is basic brief-writing input, and so essential to get right and anyone who cocked it up should be fired or resign, whether in the school board, the building company or the architect, and the others who let them should go too.

    Having said that, two rooms sounds woefully inadequate.

    Also there is no excuse for specifying items that are not robust enough unless it can be shown that they have been the subject of persistent vandalism.

    As for leaking flat roofs - will nothing embarrass these paragons of "modernism"?

    Hundreds of years of successful use of vaulted and/or sloping roofs in mild, damp climates cast aside to "discover" that horizontal surfaces don't drain well and occasionally leak.

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  • What staggers and amuses me, and yet beguiles me more, is that 99% of you respondents are supposedly educated, and yet are surprisingly illiterate and have little understanding of grammar! How sad!!
    A reflection, one must say of the comprehensive system!!
    For shame

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  • Substandard workmanship at every level is what this all boils down to: at the building stage (without oversight or site management expertise). Rubbish materials? Rubbish everything from the sounds of things.

    Indeed! May I also say: at the planning level. Where were the consultation responses and planning department queries leading to corrections and improvements? Had the planning application been properly scrutinised the insufficiency of changing space and storage space would have been picked up and dealt with! So local authority and planning committee blunders too.

    This is a textbook case study example that should be used in a load of different disciplines to show what rules are for.

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  • I have to say another typical example of style over substance. Architects need to learn that their 7 years in education need to amount to an understanding in at least the basics of construction detail, not how to bullsh**t they're way through life with architectural waffle. Blaming other people for poor design DETAILING shouldn't cut the mustard and nor should Bad brief this and bad client that. As the appointed designer it is your responsibility to ensure fit for purpose! NEVER take anything as gospel. No wonder this profession has had all of its responsiblities stripped away. Its embarrassing!

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