A vertical learning trajectory

Roseanne Field speaks to Bell Phillips Architects about their first education project – a new building for a fast-growing Kent grammar school which needed to provide a considered aesthetic result to harmonise with the historic buildings surrounding it

The Skinners’ School, a popular boys grammar school in Tunbridge Wells, Kent, was established in 1887 and expanded over the years as pupil numbers grew to become a campus of separate buildings; however it continued to need new facilities. In 2013 Tim Bell, director at Bell Phillips Architects, and a formal pupil, received an ‘old boys’ newsletter asking if anyone was able to contribute money to help fund a new sports hall.

As Bell explains to ADF, he wasn’t able to help financially, but instead offered his time to help with the design of subsequent buildings. “They had an architect and design team, but the next thing they needed to think about was a new humanities building,” he explains. “We spent about six months working pro bono to help them understand what this new building was, what was going to go in it, where it should go on the campus.”

With the completion of the new sports hall, the old brick gymnasium had become redundant, making the location for the new building fairly easy to pinpoint. However, there were still discussions about what the building would house. “We went through a process of looking at that, and it became clear that it was a sixth form centre, English department and library,” Bell says.

Despite having got this far, including going through planning, the school lacked the required funding, so the project was put on hold for a few years until the pressure on school places got so great that Kent County Council decided to allocate money to Skinners as well as other schools for expansion. This, plus an undisclosed donation from another ex pupil and a fundraising effort, meant they were finally in a position to begin work.

Planning consent had expired in the years since the initial plans were put together and the budget had shrunk slightly to £3.25m, meaning new plans were drawn up. “But from that point it moved quite quickly,” says Bell.

The project was the practice’s first foray into the education sector, which Bell admits presented an additional challenge. “We had to read all the design guidance and get our heads round it,” he says. “It was a way to get our first education project via a school and client that we already knew, the relationship and trust we had was very helpful in convincing them we were the right people for the job.”

A good education environment
The building has three storeys, with the main entrance facing onto the schoolyard. Upon entering via a ‘cloister’ area, pupils find the main staircase on the left and the sixth form centre on the right, which includes intimate study spaces as well as more informal study spaces and a breakout area. The first floor houses the English department’s classrooms, and the library and a conference room occupy the second floor. This layout was carefully chosen, as Ethan Ly, architect at the practice, explains. “It’s a hierarchy of concentration, as you go up it gets quieter,” he says. “With the library being a special place we put it at the top of the building to celebrate the form.”

Although the school were keen to ensure the building would function precisely to their requirements – “they had this vision of really functional spaces at its core,” says Ly – they were also open to letting the practice put forward ideas on the brief. In fact, Bell adds: “a lot of it came from us,” continuing, “they wanted high quality classrooms, a great library – something that was uplifting and motivating.”

Part of the required quality in the classrooms was making them dual aspect.

A single-loaded corridor runs through the building with classrooms separated from it by a series of glazed openings, allowing the good daylight that’s crucial to a good learning environment in from both sides. They also wanted to ensure good air quality, so installed an MVHR (mechanical ventilation with heat recovery) system – “ideally it would be entirely natural cross ventilation, but we couldn’t quite achieve that,” says Bell.

Getting acoustics right was a particular challenge in the library, which has a steep pitched roof. “We worked very closely with acoustics engineers to design the ceiling to perform in the way that it needs to for such a unique space,” Ly explains. Bell adds that the school has commented how successful the acoustics are in the learning spaces: “They’re very quiet; great places to concentrate.”

Materials played an important part in the project, both for reasons of heritage and practicality. The library is finished with a timber ceiling which refers to the buttressed hall in the Main School. Ly explains: “we wanted to emulate the Arts and Crafts feel but give a more contemporary twist to it”. Timber also features throughout the lower floors as well as the library. “It leads you through the centre of the building to the top,” Ly says. “It creates some warmth in the special areas. of the building.” Vertical planks of eucalyptus have been installed up the stairwell and in the library, adding a subtle echo of the verticality of the neighbouring 19th century buildings.

Elsewhere, the designers kept things fairly ‘clean’ and stripped back, largely for building efficiency reasons. “The overheating strategy heavily relied on an exposed concrete slab to absorb the thermal mass during the day,” explains Ly. “Part of that strategy was to keep that slab visible, and then we had to design an acoustic ceiling, so a lot of these spaces are simple in that way, functionally.”

Sensitive exteriors
It was a particular demand of the school that the new building would complement the existing gothic buildings – the Main School and Byng Hall – sitting on either side. “Their brief was that it needed to be a dignified building that very much responds to the context,” explains Bell. “They are very beautiful late 19th century buildings on the street frontage and ours sat bang in the middle, so it was really important that it was something architecturally worthy, and the client was absolutely in that mindset as well.” The new building’s visibility from the street made sensitivity even more pertinent.

In addition to verticality, the other main external approach used by the architects was exploiting the possibilities of brick, to tie into the earlier buildings. “We wanted to take the key Arts and Crafts and gothic features and try to translate that into something more contemporary, but also not steal the limelight from the existing buildings,” Ly explains.

To form the gable ends, as well as the window jambs, brick columns were rotated 45 degrees to create triangular piers. This was the result of “a lot of testing of what we could do to pay homage to these buildings,” says Ly.

The Traditional Brick & Stone bricks manufactured by Engel Baksteen were laid using traditional bricklaying techniques, with the resulting aesthetic being preferred by the architects. They consulted with the bricklaying subcontractors early on to “make sure everyone was on the same page.” The practice also included ‘soldier’ courses of brickwork above and below the windows, emulating the stone lintels that feature elsewhere.

Although not street facing, the practice knew the school facing gable was equally key, and therefore wanted to similarly echo the gothic style of the buildings next door. “It’s an important internal elevation for the school,” says Ly.

While the practice were careful to pay homage to the surrounding buildings, earlier additions had not been so considered. “Over the years they collected these buildings which don’t necessarily relate architecturally to the existing buildings, in part due to the fact they’re quite receded into the campus,” Ly says. They therefore also felt a responsibility to unify the campus with the design of the new building. “The old playground is very much at the heart of the site, and around the other side of that sit these various ad hoc buildings,” Bell explains. “It was really trying to create a fourth side to that collection of buildings that enclose the playground and create some sense to it so it adheres them together as a group.”

Although the building was replacing the old gymnasium, the architects moved its footprint to improve how it sits in the campus. “It was in a very awkward position, it was quite close to the school boundary and you couldn’t circulate around it,” Ly explains. “What we aimed to do was pull away from that boundary with our building but also give enough breathing room for the existing buildings as well.” As well as generally improving circulation, it proved especially useful in allowing the school to implement one way systems in order to fulfil its Covid safety strategy.

Despite being designed to echo the 19th century buildings, the new building also incorporates an array of sustainable features, including roof mounted PV panels, the HVAC system which exceeds Part L requirements, the glazing (reducing the need for artificial light), and the concrete to contribute thermal mass.

Constructing a building within a busy school campus was another challenge the practice had to overcome. “The location is safety-critical because it’s the main access route for fire tenders and emergency vehicles into the playgrounds behind,” Bell explains. They therefore had to keep that access open throughout construction. “We had to manage how we would design a building for the long term but equally think about how it could be built in the short term with students around.”

Where possible the team planned for the more disruptive work to take place during school holidays. “There had to be a lot of collaboration between us, the contractors and the school in terms of when the majority of the more intensive works could be done, and how that could be framed around keeping the children safe,” Ly says. Work began onsite in April 2019 and ended up clashing with exams only a few weeks into the programme, so the practice worked with the school on relocating exam halls away from the site.

The practice had the additional hurdle of completing the project while working under Covid restrictions. “We were lucky our contractor was very aware, and planned ahead as much as they could,” Ly explains. The main obstacle came in being unable to order materials, which along with other “compounded issues” added around eight months to the programme. The completion date was eventually reworked to October 2020. This allowed the school to start moving in during the October 2020 half term, while the contractor finished the landscaping (completing in January).

Ly says that in order to facilitate this phased completion, the architects had to work closely with the client and contractor to devise a strategy which would allow construction to continue, while simultaneously allowing free movement around the building, in the context of Covid. He comments: “Collaboration during these final few months was absolutely key.”

Despite lockdowns and school closures, the teachers – who the practice also consulted heavily with in order to provide what they required in the classrooms – and students were “keen on jumping in and starting to use the building,” says Ly. They have been in classes as much as restrictions have allowed, since the building’s completion.

“It’s been very well received, they seem to be enjoying it,” says the architect. However, the practice also notes that the new addition has been warmly received by locals, as well as the client. “I think the school are very proud of it,” adds Bell. “It’s been a really good learning process, and we’re keen to do more education jobs.” He concludes: “We enjoy a challenge, so it’s exactly what we wanted.”