In recent years there has been much discussion over the design of schools, notably during the government led Building Schools of The Future (BSF) programme of 2004-10. Its generous funding model that encouraged excess at times has led to school architecture to go under scrutiny. Today, one could say we have a model of austerity for building schools.
Hackney Free School, a mixed-ability school with a music specialism, was founded in 2013. It is an interesting case study in this context showing the way forward for Free School architecture despite current constraints. The new building is designed by Shoreditch-based studio Henley Halebrown.
Henley Halebrown has needed to think hard on how to work imaginatively within a tight budget of just over £10 million to accommodate this 500-pupil secondary school that includes a 200-pupil sixth form. It was clearly time to look beyond the way things had been done in BSF years and to come up with an economic solution but offering far more than a utilitarian shed for pupils, teaching staff and the wider Hackney community.
For Henley Halebrown, it was also important for the practice to challenge from the short-termism of the 25-year lifespan currently prescribed by Education Funding Authority (EFA)for schools. Instead, Henley Halebrown has provided Hackney New School with a contextual steel framed, brick-clad building designed to last at least a 100 years exceeding Government expectations and overall aspirations for new-build Free Schools. Henley Halebrown believes in designing buildings worth keeping for future generations and with the potential for re-use.
Thrift aside, Henley Halebrown wanted to rethink the design of contemporary schools, challenging the recent trend to make them feel like out-of-town office blocks. The Hackney New School site provided an ideal situation for creating a truly urban school building.
As Simon Henley founding partner of Henley Halebrown explains,
“Hackney New School now sits on what was one of the last undeveloped sites on Kingsland Basin. This project was therefore an opportunity to break the uniformity of the latest developments and respond to the surrounding townscape and listed buildings to make a new piece of the city that has an identifiable character as well as providing social infrastructure lacking in the homogenous residential-led schemes that have come forward in the last 10 years. The School is essentially the last piece of the jigsaw.”
As a practice, Henley Halebrown is interested in using historic precedent, typology and analogy as bases to generate a new architecture. The architects looked at the history of wharves in general and Kingsland Basin in particular. The findings of the practice’s research are manifested in the site layout and in the choice of materials.
Simple, robust forms, primarily of masonry, predominate. Detailing is direct and unfussy. The weight of masonry is expressed through the depth of the openings and the singular use of one material relieved with minimal detail around these openings.
Another key driver in the design was the “home room” teaching model adopted by the School, whereby most lessons are taught in the same classrooms. This helped to keep costs to a realistic minimum because of a reduced need for circulation space.
Simon Henley elaborates,
“During the ‘Teaching Morning’, pupils remain in their classrooms while teachers move from one to another. Only music, drama, ADT, science and SEN are taught away from the class base. It was this approach to timetabling that provided the clue to the design strategy. It gave us the confidence to shrink the circulation, in effect to improve the net to gross of the school enabling us both to reduce the overall area and to accommodate significantly more music teaching spaces and storage for musical instruments than a conventional brief would allow.”
It took just three months for Henley Halebrown to make a planning application for Hackney New School and a further three months to receive consent. Overall, the scheme is highly space efficient, approximately 10% smaller than the EFA had originally calculated. However, it is important to emphasise that this has not been achieved at the expense of net teaching, learning and support space but rather because of the unusually efficient circulation adopted by the architects that is a key component of the wider design strategy.
Hackney New School is a mixed-ability Free School with a focus on music, combining a 500-pupil secondary school and 200-pupil sixth form. The site, in a conservation area next to the Regent’s Canal Kingsland Basin, is tight. L-shaped, it combines a disused builders yard - formerly Union Wharf with the Wharf Master’s House intact - and a Post War telephone exchange.
School building components
The 5,500m2 scheme is planned around a central ball court and play space.
The 6-storey Canal Building accommodates a double-height multipurpose dining, music and drama performance space, a floor for music, another for science, the staff room, library, 6th form study and social spaces, and 60% of the secondary school class bases.
The 4-storey telephone exchange is adapted with a storey added to accommodate the remaining classrooms and sixth form seminar spaces, SEN, the changing rooms and storage “warehouse”.
The 5-storey Kingsland Building forms a buffer between the school and the noise and fumes of Kingsland Road accommodates offices, IT and ADT.
The original Wharfmaster’s house is to be converted into a pupil wellbeing centre.
Form, Silhouette and Material
The new warehouse (Canal building) presents a squarish elevation, but with asymmetric haunches, to both basin and the schoolyard. The profile of the southern haunch opens up views of the brick gable wall and zigzag roofline of the next-door grade II listed warehouse. The northern end is marked by a brick chimney and opens up glimpses of the canal basin through the bridges that span between this and the telephone exchange. Much like one would expect of a daylight factory, large evenly distributed windows daylight the interiors. Buttresses exaggerate the verticality of the elevation to the schoolyard, whereas the elevation to the basin has a large horizontal slot cut out of the base putting a different and greater emphasis on the masonry haunches.
The tower (Kingsland Building) is altogether different. The street façade is a tripartite composition. An existing shopfront forms the plinth, above a new precast concrete screen marks the piano nobile, on top of which there is a 3-storey blind brick mass punctured by just one window.
The north and west facades are punctuated by substantial windows, liberally distributed, each orientating an interior to a particular aspect. It is both an expression of the more liberal ADT subjects and an acknowledgement that the city may be the subject matter, and contrasts with the ordered fenestration in the warehouse denoting a more structured pedagogy.
All four buildings are faced in brick. Copings and a number of other details are precast concrete. Windows are powdered coated (ivory, red oxide, salmon pink and dark brown) aluminium and timber composite. Anodised aluminium-faced canopies mark entrances to each building. For the new buildings the contractor selected a steel frame for speed of erection.
Pupils are taught in groups of 25 and spend much of their time in their class base. Teachers come to them. Only music, drama, ADT, science and SEN are taught outside their base.
Inside, the teaching spaces are well proportioned and generously day-lit by substantial “Chicago” windows. The painted permanent steel shuttering is exposed, as are the services, below which acoustic rafts and lighting are suspended within the spaces.
Construction Start: 2014
Form of Contract: Design & Build
Architects: Henley Halebrown
Client: Willmott Dixon
Contractor: Willmott Dixon
Services Engineer: Skelly & Couch
Structural Engineer: Pure Structures
Planning Consultant: CMA Planning
Building Control: MLM
Project Manager: Mace
User Group: Hackney New School