Natural light, ventilation, landscape and a CLT structure are priorities at dRMM’s Wintringham primary school, which should set the tone for the identity of the new district to grow up around it
It’s clear that dRMM’s Wintringham Primary Academy is very much at the pioneering stage of the expansion of the Cambridgeshire town of St Neots. Visiting the site in early November, the £11 million primary school, now in its second year of operation, looks a little lonely amid the swathes of farmland-turned-building plots that will provide 2800 new homes – and a pipeline of pupils for the school. And while this will soon change – the first residents at Wintringham moved in last year and diggers were busy at work nearby when I visited – completion of the first phase is expected to take three years and the entire development another 15.
It’s encouraging that such a vital building has been prioritised so early in the new district’s development, which is being led by master developer Urban&Civic. The 205ha site expands St Neots to the east, beyond the East Coast mainline railway track and follows the recent major Love’s Farm expansion to the north.
Wintringham is just one the many town expansions under way nationwide to provide new housing, and among several around Cambridgeshire – including the 6500-home Alconbury Weald north of Huntingdon, and the University’s own North West Cambridge. Cambourne, a new town that was planned in the 1990s and is going through regular expansions, is just 10 miles away. Mostly the developments have the same mass housebuilder aesthetic. Central to the success of these sensitive and often controversial new developments is a well-considered masterplan that creates the right supporting infrastructure and a mix of uses as well as housing, in the hope of not only complimenting the existing town but seeding that all-important sense of place.
At Wintringham, the 3615m² school has a key role in creating this identity. Clad in colourful shades of terracotta, it is the first building to be completed on the civic square that will form the heart of the new district. This will be joined by commercial premises, a community hub, shops and a café.
‘There is a sense of pressure because the first building will set the tone, and with residential it has to set the values as well…and start to define the character of the area, and its success,’ says dRMM director Philip Marsh. He knows well from the practice’s previous education projects, such as Clapham Manor Primary School, how vital schools are in forming the social ‘glue’ in a community, and in a new district, this is even more the case.
dRMM’s first involvement at Wintringham was at the masterplan stage. Asked by Urban&Civic to test the principle of having a primary school fronting directly onto the square, dRMM developed a concept school design to inform its optimum arrangement within a masterplan by JTP. By pushing the school perimeter back to the front of the school building, the hustle and bustle of drop-off and pick-up was conceived as naturally helping animate the square itself. dRMM was later appointed to design the two-storey school as part of a team led by contractor Morgan Sindall.
The practice was able to work closely with school executive head teacher Tracy Bryden of Diamond Learning Partnership Trust to find out about her priorities and aspirations for the new three form entry school.
‘We could get involved right from the start,’ she says, clearly delighted with the resulting design, which supports an emphasis on outdoor learning, forest school approaches and connections to the natural environment. Every class has a welly rack: ‘There’s no bad weather, just bad clothing.’
dRMM aimed to create a school that was both inspirational for the children and built on principles of ‘naturalness’, with particular attention to light and ventilation and the landscape. The practice soon settled on the concept of a CLT-structured ‘school in the round’ designed around a central courtyard known as the grove. In this ‘pixelated avocado’ arrangement, the grove is the stone while the external contour is staggered rather than smooth in response to the arrangement of the classrooms around it.
It’s not the practice’s first school in the round. In 2012, its Four Dwellings Primary School in Birmingham grouped classrooms around a central sports hall. At Wintringham, putting the hall at the front of the building facing the square made it well-placed for community use out of hours. This arrangement freed up the centre for the grove, giving classrooms a second aspect of natural light to supplement that from the fully glazed corner that each has on the external elevation.
Classrooms are arranged in year clusters of three, with children moving around the courtyard each year and then progressing to the upper floor at Year 3. By the time they reach their final destination of Year 6, the oldest cluster is positioned fittingly looking outward over the civic square and beyond.
This is a school that feels generous and flowing in its common areas, helped by the pleasing in-the-round circulation of the courtyard, where full height curtain wall glazing brings light deep into the school plan. This focal point element ensures instant easy orientation, as well as a pleasant view of the outside space that will be enhanced as the shrubs and trees grow. A feeling of spaciousness is also engendered by the inclusion of a flexible use area between the entrance and courtyard. Yet the design still manages to meet BB103 area guidelines, thanks in part to several such multi-use areas. The central grove itself – although slightly inclined to echo as it waits for the landscaping to mature – is used for teaching small groups.
For dRMM, as a long-time advocate of CLT, the use of the material for the school structure was something of a no-brainer. Nor was there any need to convince Urban&Civic, the school or contractor – all were swiftly on board from day one, says Marsh. Indeed the use of CLT in the Department of Education’s new GenZero research initiative into achieving ultra-low carbon schools suggests it is gaining increasing acceptance.
As a low embodied carbon, low waste material, CLT contributed to the BREEAM Very Good design and helped reduce site time – the whole frame went up in just two and a half months. Exposed CLT soffits on the oversailing, monopitch roof give a hint of the nature of the structure from the outside, but the material’s aesthetic qualities really come to the fore inside. Here, expanses of exposed spruce provide a warm and friendly feel that seems particularly suitable for primary school use. In addition to sustainability, wellbeing and aesthetic considerations, dRMM also points to research findings that timber teaching spaces can help reduce stress levels.
Use of CLT has not stopped dRMM addressing the need for built-in flexibility. With the exception of the Early Years and Reception clusters which operate as one space across three interlinked classrooms, the other years have cellular classrooms. To give the potential to reconfigure these spaces in the future, dRMM incorporated plasterboard-faced stud partition ‘soft spots’ within the CLT structure that can easily be opened up between the classrooms – without, as Marsh puts it, needing to take a chain saw to the CLT. There is also the potential to harvest additional usable space from the upper level of double-height classrooms positioned at the rear of the school.
‘All school buildings need to be inherently flexible as education thinking changes and schools will want to manage spaces in different ways,’ he says.
Drawing on research into optimum learning environments by Salford University, the classrooms deliberately limit visual distraction in the choice of colour and furniture, with storage joinery chosen to complement the CLT. Common areas are also fairly restrained, with the exposed structure providing warm tones alongside grey acoustic wall panels, and with different colours denoting areas for different year groups. With a full-height window at the end of the washrooms, the toilets look bright and pleasant.
Externally the school makes a colourful impact in customary dRMM style, with a ‘colour loop’ of terracotta panels running around the exterior ensuring that it will be a natural focal point in the area amid the duller hued housing. Inspired by the seasonal colour variations found in woodlands, these are another part of the building’s nature-based narrative. Marsh says the aim was to surprise and delight as you move around the outside of the building, and the effect is pleasing.
Like the headteacher, he is delighted with the final result, although it will be many years before rolls are large enough to fully put the new building through its paces. Next September, it is still expected to have well below three figures of pupils across three years, compared with a maximum of 708 pupils when all years are in operation. It will certainly be interesting to see whether pandemic-led changes to working modes such as commuting will have an impact on the pace of house sales in Wintringham, and the timescale for future phases of the new area.
‘We are really lucky. I just wish we had some more pupils!’ says head Bryden.
With the town extension clearly so far away from critical mass, it requires some effort to imagine Wintringham as a fully-fledged district of St Neots. But when it is, there’s no doubt that this bright and appealing school will be ready and willing to play its central role in the new community.
£11m contract cost
Client Cambridgeshire County Council
End user Diamond Learning Partnership Trust
Main contractor Morgan Sindall
Structural engineer (superstructure) Engenuiti
Structural engineer (sub-structure/civil) Peter Dann Consulting Engineers
MEP Roger Parker Associates
Landscape design Bradley Murphy Design
Acoustician Hann Tucker Associates