Walters & Cohen's Wembley Primary School, London
Walters & Cohen overcame considerable site constraints to create Wembley Primary School with large courtyards at its heart to bring the community together
“Wembley Primary School is one of the largest primary schools in the country,” says Walters & Cohen project director Elaine Henderson, “and from the beginning we wanted our design to balance the scale of the institution with moments of intimacy.”
With more than 720 pupils — in 26 classes and ranging in age from three to 11 — the school’s size is the result of merging an existing infants and juniors with additional nursery and foundation provision. Referring to the sheer volume of pupils, Henderson continues, “it has the feel of a secondary rather than a primary”.
Walters & Cohen won the job in October 2005 after an Ojeu competition run by Brent Council. The programmatic complexities of the brief presented several challenges, which the practice started to explore through copious sketch plans. Conceptually these were informed by its work in 2004 on the Building Schools for the Future Initiative, where the DfES commissioned 11 practices to imagine how the nation’s schools could be organised spatially around modern educational needs.
Asked to produce an exemplar for a primary school, Walters & Cohen broke its proposal into three parts: a community zone; the main teaching wing and an administration block. Although this strategy is manifested on this later scheme, it has been substantially modified for the site, which presented a number of restrictions.
Fronting on to East Lane, a busy main road in north Wembley, the location is surrounded by post-war, mostly semi-detached housing. And although Foster & Partners’ and Populous’s Wembley Arc can be seen in the distance, the scale of this large new school had to be
in keeping with an immediate context much more suburban in character.
But the major limitation came in the form of an existing three-form-entry primary school, which had to remain in use while the new-build was constructed. Most of the first diagrams were ruled out because they would have had to be built in two stages, with the disruption of decanting pupils between phases.
Sadly, the existing school occupied the most advantageous portion of land, but the practice felt it necessary to limit itself to the available space so the school could be built in one go.
Walters & Cohen has, however, internalised the project’s numerous constraints so that the pupils and teachers must be hardly aware of them. Occupied from September 2008, the com-pleted school successfully reconciles the practice’s two ambitions of generating a unified architec-tural whole and a hierarchy of smaller spaces.
Essentially there is a simple plan, arranged around two courtyards. The larger of these is enclosed by two storeys and on three sides contains the classrooms for the older children (years one to three on ground, and four to six above); the fourth side, contiguous with the main road, contains more communal provision.
This arrangement allows for amenities to be used — and rented — by the wider community and accessed through a separate entrance. Here the dining room is screened from the double-height library space with folding doors, so it can become one large assembly hall.
“The large courtyard provides the heart of the school,” says Henderson, “on to which the main hall and classrooms for the older children look.” The ground-floor rooms open directly on to this generous central space, while the upper level has covered deck-access. This was decided upon to avoid great stretches of corridor, which would cost more to build, heat and maintain.
All classrooms therefore have their own front door, and those on the ground-floor also open to the rear to allow external play-based learning. The front doors have glazed panels and the courtyard facade has been elegantly fenestrated — with lightwells cut into the deck — to give the classrooms an aspect to this collegiate space, and enable monitoring of teaching standards. Furthermore, there are no hidden corners in the plan, so there is good passive supervision.
The arrangement of these classrooms is fairly conventional, with a pair sharing a space between for WCs, cloakrooms, and such. The greatest variation comes in year six — for the oldest children — where three classrooms can be transformed into one when needed. Built from an in-situ concrete frame, classrooms could be opened up elsewhere at a later stage if the school so desired.
The smaller courtyard creates a discrete annex for the youngest children (reception and nursery), and is only of one storey; when the budget becomes available this will allow a garden to be made on the roof terrace. Perhaps unusually, the architects were asked to make a single large space for all the children in reception. If the idea of 120 four-year-olds in one room sounds like chaos, you might be right, but from appearances it looked to be well-managed chaos and the teachers’ seemed to be winning.
As with most new-build schools, the budget and statutory guidance have made a significant impact on its final appearance. At 4,000sq m, the project cost £8.5 million, but that had to include all the demolition and landscaping.
So for the elevation to the noisy street, acoustic glazing was too expensive, resulting in a mostly blank, rendered facade, with the interiors top-lit instead.
But where Walters & Cohen has added the most value is through its creative negotiation through the red tape. It has, for example, reworked the BB99 requirements, centralising the circulation provision and aggregating it with the library to create a larger, single volume.
Compared with its generic proposals for an exemplar school, it is to Walters & Cohen’s great credit that at Wembley the trajectory it has forged through the project’s particular constraints create a result that is enriched rather than diminished.
The engineer’s report from Max Fordham
The ground-coupled earth pipes temper the fresh air supply to the building to improve comfort and save energy. Air is drawn into the building at low velocity through a large array of pipes in the ground; the relatively constant yearly temperature of the ground heats or cools air in the pipes.
The thermal mass of the ground reduces the ventilation heat load in the winter and provides cooling in summer. Due to the low velocity of the air in the pipes, the fan drawing the air through uses negligibly more energy than in a conventional mechanical ventilation system, so its efficiency is high.
An anti-microbial film on the inside of the pipes prevents microbial build up, they are also laid to a fall to enable condensation to drain. A bypass is used when it is unnecessary to pre-heat or pre-cool the air.
Curtain walling, glazing and doors
Windows are aluminium thermally-broken Schuco System Royal C sections with hinged casements. Glamalco supplied, designed and installed the window assemblies, doors, sliding entrance doors and curtain walling. www.schueco.co.uks firstname.lastname@example.org
Timber sprung floor
Flooring to the hall, studio and heart space needs to be hardwearing and appropriate for many school and community uses. Junckers New Era system beech timber sprung floor was used as it is easy to clean and maintain and is also sprung for PE use. www.junckers.co.uk
Allgoods supplied all internal door ironmongery including door handles, locks and escutcheons. www.laidlaw.net allgood.co.uk
Architectural Lighting & Controls supplied the 600mm-wide Light Beam direct/indirect wire suspended luminaire modules in all the classrooms.
Each section is polyester powder coated, body-formed in bordered perforated steel with acoustic side panels filled with 45Kg/msq Rocksil Slab. Each luminaire includes a left hand 65 degree cut-off MIRO 6 louvre, integral high frequency DSI dimmable control gear, two 35W T5 lamps and two separate wire-ways for through wiring. Integrated into the tray are pattress boxes for smoke detector mounting, presence detectors and projector connection. email@example.com
Bison designed and supplied the main circulation stairs. Being external and forming a key part of the fire escape strategy, the staircases needed to be robust. Gradus’ XT range heavy duty, non-slip nosings were post-fixed to the concrete treads. www.bison.co.uk www.gradusxt.com
Rivermeade Signs supplied the large red PPC aluminium sign running along the front elevation. A large graphic sign was important to announce the school in the urban setting. www.rivermeade.com
Powder coated balustrades
The transparency from the galleried circulation that allows all pupils and teachers to partake in any events within the courtyard is a key point of the design. All PPC galvanised balustrade railings around the courtyard were fabricated and installed by Premier Architectural Metalwork. www.premiermrx.com
Walters & Cohen’s top five education references
Exemplar School Competition, Wembley Primary School, north west London
The design for Wembley Primary School develops the work Walters & Cohen started with the competition to design an Exemplar School under the Schools for the Future initiative. The three main elements taken from the Exemplar design are a community zone, an administration block and the main teaching wing with a heart space, where school activities take place — in the Exemplar it is located centrally. The scale of Wembley Primary School could not accommodate an enclosed central heart, so it is at the front of the school, where it can also be used out of hours.
The Enclosed Garden, Wembley Primary School, 2007
Circulation within schools is often a problem, with narrow corridors unable to take large numbers of students, resulting in bottlenecks as pupils cram to get into classrooms. At Wembley Primary School, Walters & Cohen’s philosophy was to minimise the amount of corridor circulation and provide external circulation around a central courtyard; a protected garden for the school. This layout offers a sense of openness, airiness and a human scale in this large school. All movement is easily observed. Circulation around the courtyard encourages calm behaviour.
Le Thoronet Abbey, Provence, France, 12th century
The courtyard reflects the ideas and themes of a monastic cloister. The succession from an urban setting through the solid entrance into the courtyard provides pupils with a sense of retreat, concentration, security and, most important, school community and identity. The vertical quality of the two-storey central courtyard is emphasised by the exposed concrete structure of the galleried circulation and the formal grid of 16 gleditsia trees. The covered circulation around the courtyard — and open to the courtyard — provides a galleried link to all the building’s elements.
Dan Kiley, American landscape architect, 1912-2004
Kiley used geometry and structure to gain comprehension and bring order to the landscape, and this influence can be seen in the formal grid and material quality of the proposal for Wembley Primary School. The 8.4m grid for the exposed concrete structure frames numerous views of movement around the courtyard and landscape. The exposed concrete structure for the building allows the structure to be used internally as a heatsink, provides thermal mass for the building, and its robust quality and exposed finish provide good lifespan qualities for the school.
Arkitema, Hellerup School, Copenhagen, 2002
The central atrium of Hellerup School has a large staircase and stairwell, accommodating a range of activities such as social gatherings, group work, presentations and film shows. Arkitema call this “an organic internal design” that allows “fertile diversity”. This influenced the hall and heart space at Wembley Primary School, where three separate hall spaces can be opened up to each other to accommodate whole school assemblies, or closed down to allow activities such as gym classes, ICT lessons, group work and role-play to take place simultaneously.