Sheppard Robson’s Notre Dame Catholic College: a new model for school design

Notre Dame Catholic College in Everton opens its doors to 1,000 pupils this Monday, 16th of September. Sheppard Robson’s innovative design proves that quality, spacious schools can be built to an austerity cost plan. The secret to this success is to give more time to careful briefing, discussion and design.

It provides a useful case study in the ongoing public debate on the role that architects and designers have to play in school building in times of austerity. The £15million building was delivered on time and to a budget of £1275 per M².

Designing teaching and learning spaces
Sheppard Robson developed the design for Notre Dame Catholic College, and sister school Archbishop Beck College (due to open in 2014), in close collaboration with the schools, the Liverpool Archdiocese and Liverpool City Council, as part of the Liverpool School Investment Programme (LSIP). From the outset, the schools were involved in the architect appointment process and in briefing and developing the design. Sheppard Robson led engagement meetings with the head teachers, staff, students, governors and other stakeholders. Through clear and careful briefing, design and feedback, the practice met the two schools’ ambitious goals, while keeping the projects on budget.

Frances Harrison, Headteacher at Notre Dame Catholic College, said:

“We’re all thrilled to bits with our new school. Everyone who has been inside has been absolutely bowled over by how light, airy and spacious it is. It is such an improvement over the previous building, and will make a massive difference to the education we provide to our pupils.”

Building form
Notre Dame has been built with an overarching modern wide-span structure, which is quick to erect and far cheaper than the traditional method. It provides more flexibility, as the internal layout and even the entire use of the site can be changed in the future.

The school’s simple ‘shed’ form has a number of cost benefits: it encloses space efficiently; the repetitive bay configuration means quick construction; and as the building has only four facades and one roof, the proportion of junction to facade is low, meaning lower construction costs, and less ongoing maintenance, on costly problem-prone junctions.

Space design
The project followed commercial workspace design processes to maximize space planning efficiencies. Liberated from the need to meet building bulletin space standards precisely, Sheppard Robson was able to analyse the school’s requirements in detail, and then maximize the area to certain functions, minimise other areas, and accommodate overlapping functions in the same space where possible. As a result, teaching spaces benefit from a generous level of area provision, common before austerity.

Short and medium-term adaptability and flexibility in use
The building form and layout allows for flexible disposition of educational spaces, yet follows commercial office floor plate logic. The banding of primary and secondary accommodation, service routes and notional circulation routes, and the disposition of day lighting and ventilation through the facade, allows for easy adaptation of room shapes and sizes without requiring any modification to the fundamental building infrastructure. The building is divided into permanent elements (the stair cores, floors) and adaptable elements (partitions, ceilings, services). In the medium term, this will allow the school to easily adapt, meeting changes in teaching methodology and policy.

The ‘transformational’ agenda in education has been under a degree of challenge in recent years. While physically flexible spaces with folding screens and walls have lost favour, teachers still require two different types of accommodation to successfully educate young people: spaces, typically enclosed, that might be described as traditional classrooms, and spaces such as practical, social and study areas that are collected under the heading of ‘break-out’. At Notre Dame the building form, with its concentric bands of primary, service, and secondary accommodation, efficiently provides the required accommodation, without complexity or unnecessary cost.

The perimeter ‘primary’ accommodation provides the traditional classroom spaces with everything essential; acoustic control, good natural light, good ventilation and efficient heating and cooling. The inner secondary accommodation provides a flexible zone of break-out with good proximity to core teaching spaces, excellent passive supervision and a real sense of the wider school community. This latter point was stressed in the brief as being an important part of the college’s ethos and essential for a broad, successful education.

Long-term adaptability
The school building is a simple shell structure. All the internal floors and partitions can be removed, leaving a fully stable clear span shed (80x56x12m high). This provides great long-term adaptability, so that if changing demographics mean fewer schools are needed in this area in the future, the school can be reordered for other public or private uses. The building could be leased or sold, and used from anything from a community centre, to a gallery or a gym. The efficacy of this has already been proven, as 750m² of the building was originally intended as a GP surgery, but then taken over by a music school as construction began. This change had no impact on the fundamental design, cost or construction programme.

Local context and funding
Notre Dame Catholic College is part of the Mayor of Liverpool’s Investment Plan for Schools, devised as a rescue package following the scrapping of Wave Six of Liverpool’s Building Schools for the Future (BSF) project. The funding, a combination of city council and Government money, was negotiated as part of Liverpool’s City Deal.

Mayor Joe Anderson said:

“This is a great moment for the pupils and staff at Notre Dame Catholic College and I am absolutely delighted that it’s opening on time and on budget. This is the first of at least a dozen substantial investments in education in Liverpool which will transform the experience for tens of thousands of present and future school pupils.”

James Jones, design director at architecture practice Sheppard Robson, said:

“It’s been an exciting journey with the Notre Dame teachers and students, developing such an innovative new school design. The building opens up to its parkland setting and provides a light-filled school, which we believe will be an inspiring learning environment for generations of Liverpool students.”