School’s new home gets full marks for bringing together the old and the new

Jess Unwin examines a development that faces the challenge of creating the new home for a school that will be half renovated Victorian architecture and half 21st-century structures. And if that isn’t enough, the site is also in a town centre conservation area…

Just as a good teacher can foster learning for children of different abilities in one class, the new home of Harpenden Free School is set to breathe new life into a neglected 19th century building and then marry that with 21st century construction and design.

Harpenden Free School (HFS) – thanks to work funded by the Department for Education as a part of the government’s Free Schools initiative – will eventually cater for 420 pupils aged 4-11 close to the town centre in Harpenden, Hertfordshire.

The £4.5 million project is on a sloping plot in the midst of a conservation area. Bordering one part of the site is a listed building originally put up as a school in 1897 but which in later years was put to other uses including forming part of the town’s library. Once refurbished, these spaces will once again be filled with the sounds of children when they become classrooms for HFS’s younger pupils, plus a library, a staff room and a general office.

Surrounding the rest of the site will be brand new structures. Victorian architecture gives way to modern design in a section containing the main entrance, administration spaces and a meeting room for parents. Next to these will be a multi-purpose double-height hall, which it’s hoped will be used by the wider community at weekends and in the evenings.

Running adjacent to the railway lines that neighbour the rear of the development is a two-storey block that will be home to eight classrooms for the school’s older children. Beneath one end of the block is a basement kitchen.

At the heart of it all will be a courtyard play area – but with an unusual and intriguing twist. Taking advantage of the site’s three-metre slope, which runs from the two-storey new-build block down to the old Victorian school, this courtyard will take the shape of a terraced mound. Covered in all-weather turf, it will be more of an adventure playground with features including tunnels and climbing areas.

Nicki Whetstone, of project architects Haverstock, praised HFS’s input into the new school’s design brief:

“Our brief from HFS was extensive and they were very proactive, which was helpful. It’s important for the school that the interior design features clusters of classrooms so that year groups are able to integrate with each other. It was also key that as many of the classrooms as possible have direct access to external areas.”

Externally, the local planning authority was keen new structures weren’t out of place with the traditional architectural features of the Victorian building. As a result, long vertical windows, expressed gable ends, pitched roofs and traditional dormers are all incorporated in a contemporary fashion.

New-build areas may be steel framed with pre-cast planks for flooring but the palette of materials for exteriors – including red brick, sheet metal, dark horizontally banded cement board cladding and slate roof tiling – was chosen after months of negotiation to be sympathetic with their older surroundings.

There are other less aesthetic challenges. David Wynn, construction manager for main contractor Willmott Dixon, explains:

“It’s a tight space in the centre of town, which makes it a tricky build, for example, when trying to get precast components onto the site. There are also a lot of restrictions when working near railways. The basement kitchen was excavated close to the rail tracks and so, understandably, there’s a lot of bureaucracy around making sure the line is protected.”

The proximity of the railway presents another challenge – noise. Nicki explains:

“The designs for the two-storey new-build had to take into account the noise from passing trains. The orientation of the classrooms addresses that acoustic concern. All the classroom windows are on the internal side facing the central courtyard. WC blocks, plant rooms and circulation space have been placed at the rear of the block, creating a buffer between the classrooms and the railway.”

So as not to dominate the Victorian buildings across the courtyard, the height of the two-storey new-build block is constrained.

Nicki says:

“The pitched-roof, two-storey block we’ve incorporated is a reduced height to remain sympathetic to the older buildings. The five large dormer window elements in the design keep the classroom ceilings at a high level as well as bringing in a lot of light. It’s made for quite a rich design on that facade.”

Of course, the 19th century structures need a different approach. David says:

“We’re reroofing, reusing the original Welsh slate where possible, and reinsulating. Some structural alterations will be made to provide the spaces the school wants but, generally, original features will be retained – like much of the parquet flooring, which will be sanded down and refurbished, plus high ceilings, exposed wooden beams and the windows, which will also be refurbished.”

Nicki adds:

“Personally, I really enjoy bringing older buildings back to life. You can achieve such wonderful innovative solutions when you use contemporary methods to improve a building that’s more than a century old – it’s quite fulfilling and people are more supportive and excited about reclaiming a building that’s been in decline.”

Besides more prosaic necessities like all-new services and refurbishing the toilet block, Haverstock have worked closely with HFS to get the internal spaces the school wants.

Nicki says: “This will be a wonderful place for children to learn. Opening up areas to create a flowing movement through the building is important and we’ve achieved that. There are also smaller spaces which can accommodate clusters of rooms that the children can roam between and which allow the school more flexibility in how they want to use the space.”

Examples of structural changes that are being made are two areas of the Victorian school that were slightly taller and originally featured mezzanine floors within them with narrow staircases.

Nicki explains:

“What we’ve done is gutted the inside of those to create large double-height spaces which should be impressive and inspiring. Outside, they face onto the courtyard and the exteriors will replicate the existing timber cladding but also feature much larger window openings. One of these two new spaces will be one half of the library, or cybery, as the school is calling it. It’s a part of the school where new meets the old and the school are very excited about it because it will become a flexible open plan space.”

Nicki concludes:

“I’ve no doubt that the finished school will deliver on its brief. There’s been so much consultation with teachers and the children and we think there will be some stunning spaces to learn created.”

Currently based at another nearby location, HFS moves to its new home in September next year. Excitement in the school community, and interest among the wider community of the town is growing as building and renovation works progress. Ruth Martin, chair of governors at HFS, says:

“This building engages the emotions and lives of many, which we hope also means it can become a vital part of its wider community. At HFS we celebrate children and their education, thus this building has been designed so that every inch provides an opportunity for children to experience and learn; enabled by the physical structure.”

She continues:

“The indoor and outside spaces are as connected as possible to enable continuous use of both environments throughout the day. There is a children’s kitchen, which recognises the centrality of food, its production and enjoyment within society and for wellbeing. There is a parents room because education does not just happen at school and does not stop when we get too old for compulsory school either – parent partnership is vital.”

And finally she stresses:

“Through the arduous development process we have kept the experience of the children in this place as the criteria for choices we have made.”

In a year’s time it seems certain those children will be giving their new school’s design – whether it be the high-ceiling 19th century spaces or the 21st century new-build dormer windows that overlook the central courtyard – a mark of 10 out of 10.