Satellite Architects’ new Atrium Studio School gets good marks for improvement from alumna Eleanor Young
On a tight triangular site on the edge of South Dartmoor Community College, the Atrium Studio School’s A-shaped plan is the starting point for the school’s logo, a geometric ‘A’. In plan though there is a missing piece of the A as it steps back to give breathing space to a magnificent copper beech, one of a majestic row.
The trees are the glory of this rather dour hodgepodge of the existing school, edging what used to be called ‘the drive’ when I slogged away at this, my local comp, 20 years ago. It has hosted building sites much of those two decades, for designs that make the sixties system build along the top of the site look like an elegant classic by contrast.
Those who follow education fashions will understand that this new 375-place school for 13-19-year-olds, piggybacking on the larger College, is one of a new breed of small scale specialist studio schools. They are intended to bridge the gap between education and employment – that is vocational education without any concessions to academic achievement. A shortage of construction skills in the South West led to the choice of specialism; here the focus is on preparation for the construction professions. It is striking to hear of the 13-year-old girl who was prepared to leave her previous secondary school to come and study here to further her early ambitions to become an architect.
As if to highlight the documented shortage of South West professional construction skills (though the small pool of talented local practices won’t thank me for this aside) I travelled from London with associate director James Harper of Islington-based Satellite Architects. Through an ongoing south west connection to Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s River Cottage, and ensuing relationships, the firm has completed a number of projects down here and is on site with another studio school in Plymouth.
But back to the Atrium Studio School in Ashburton. The apparent parochialness of the small town setting is belied by its proximity to one of the two fast roads into the south west, the A38, which delivers its pupils from far and wide. It also transports visiting lecturers from industry to set up in the central atrium – the 5pm finish and longer school days for the students meaning that ‘Flexible Friday’ can be devoted to the real world these speakers bring in. Later, as the first two intakes of children get into their stride, they will also go out to placements.
The atrium is what most visitors will see, though from here the whole of this tiny 1690m2 school is visible. The plan resolves itself around the atrium, edged by classrooms, labs and workshops. Even with only two of the year groups so far in the school, it still has a sense of life – a pair of students talking through a problem, chairs set up as if for a seminar and a group of small tables suggestive of a busy café once there are enough students to open the small kitchen.
Yellows boldly mark out the lower spaces. The central stair is a simple form but elevates the whole space with its white water cut steel balustrade which refers back to the school plan.
An ‘industrial’ space was what the brief asked for. It is not quite that stripped back but it did make a positive of the constraints of a budget of £1715/m2. The exposed primary steels have their dimensions and torque strengths spelt out on them and the concrete floor has a pleasingly raw edge. Roof forms are reflected inside, with ceiling tiles in the circulation suspended just shy of the walls to give a sense of the shape and depth beyond.
This approach also sanctioned the display of the air handling kit, which gives the natural ventilation a boost. Supplied by Cambridge University spin-off Breathing Buildings, the reversible heat exchangers in their white boxes, with white socks for air delivery, are not hidden in a deep and mostly redundant void but left on show. The weakness of the Breathing Buildings solution to classrooms though was that it was hostage to changes in the programme and plan – vents having to move as room designations shifted (labs have a different strategy, for example) leaving some awkward vents interrupting what should have been a well scaled and modulated facade onto the school.
In diagram, the three volumes of the school are clear, their height stepping down towards small scale Ashburton housing. At the entrance the slippage of shapes makes itself felt as the taller volume cantilevers out – a small assertion of dominance – with the lower volume broken up into meeting rooms and the central one read as the void of the atrium. Some of this carries through into the external form – plant in the subservient volume is clad in white for instance. But you read the building primarily as a piece, the folded steel sheet imparted with rural grit by agricultural-grade profiled fibre cement, which also adds a delicacy to the facade (despite the vent issues) and enough roof angle to break up any boxiness. It is probably the best addition to the college for many years – never mind the fact that any school with an A for a logo must surely be destined for success.
£3.7m total contract cost
£1715 GIFA cost per m2
14kg/m3 carbon emissions
Architect Satellite Architects
Client Atrium Studio School
Structural engineer Sands
M&E engineer Design Solution Fire Toga
Technical advisor Mott MacDonald
Cladding Marley Eternit Profile / EuroBond Opus Plank
Steel William Hayley
Windows Window Glass
Internal doors Cotswold