Timber, light and space are the antithesis of Kingswood School’s previous preparatory provision. Stonewood Design’s expansion puts wood among the trees
High on a hill above Bath perches the grand and rather gloomy gothic set piece of Kingswood School. Tall walls spell privilege, the timber panelled dining hall promises a rewarding trajectory through a series of similar halls of Oxbridge colleges and the inns of court, while the historic narrow corridors behind the facade summon echoes of straitlaced tutors and classroom banishments.
Start walking down the hill and the lower school reveals itself as a quite different animal – at least in its new incarnation. The mature beeches along the city skyline are now joined by pitched-roof volumes in cedar with an airy, woody feel and relaxed circulation you could happily skip along. The expanded preparatory school, now joined by a nursery, can take children – babies really – from nine months. The ambitious expansion of two buildings was guided by governor and architect-educator Gill Smith and its shortlist included dRMM, Walters and Cohen and Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios. The job was won by small practice based just outside Bath, Stonewood Design.
At this stage Stonewood Design was working on tiny precious projects such as Myrtle Cottage Garden Studio and Pod Gallery. But its principals Matt Vaudin and Nicola du Pisanie had a track record of running far larger projects while at Feilden Clegg Bradley. Vaudin’s Woodland Trust headquarters (RIBAJ Nov 2010) for FCBS had – not surprisingly – used timber extensively as cladding, structural system and interior finish. This fed into Stonewood’s buildings at Kingswood.
Part of the argument for investment in the new buildings was simply to build classrooms that were fit for purpose. For years half the classrooms had been cramped into the living rooms of a grand Georgian terrace with a dining hall tacked on the side. The other half were in a stepped section facing a sunny playground in an old walled garden, completed in 1995 by FCBS.
Moving into the new buildings and selling off the Georgian terrace has shifted the centre of gravity further up the hill towards the gothic senior school. Stonewood saw this progression but wanted its building to be part of a growing family of accessible spaces. This starts with the nursery’s low-windowed reception and baby and toddler rooms, going up to the older children’s slightly more formal spaces on a gently articulated, light mortared brick plinth that echoes the brick of the senior school.
The early years buildings are split in two, slightly canted away from each other to create a protected little courtyard and ensuring a calm entrance for the youngest children. One building houses the reception classes while the other three rooms for young children are organised with a spine corridor running along their serviced edge of changing rooms and loos – which are accessed directly off the toddlers’ classes. Project architect Adam Chambers imagined his own young children here and has instilled a sense of play in the rooms with slides and little houses creating structures for movement and the imagination.
There is a lot packed into the S plan of the larger prep school building. It is bookended by airy communal spaces. The first gathers classrooms around it; here you see the life of the school – children gathering around the library shelves, tripping down the steps, clustering on the first floor landing, spotting friends on the opposite stairs. Its generosity, top light and the oversized steps for impromptu perching or performing suggest an independent way of being in and moving around school – something that is not even an option for painfully lean state school budgets. The materials are generous too – the brick running into the building and parquet lending seriousness (but also dynamism) to the space.
On the lower level are the classrooms for years five and six (9 to 11 year olds); above is the STEAM Innovation Centre with classrooms kitted out for science, technology, arts and maths. In a way there is nothing special in these spaces but they do everything right and more, with plenty of natural light through simple generous windows, timber-lined volumes that extend into the pitched roofs on upper floors, good storage and internal windows opening connections in what can be a very hermetic environment.
At the other end of the new prep school building, slightly dug into the top of the slope, is another communal space – the school hall, its roof criss-crossed with glulams under the hipped pitches of the roofs. On two sides this sports hall cum assembly space has a regular rhythm of generously sized punched windows and doors, with views of the trees and forest play area alongside. Here the whole prep school can comfortably come together. The music room and practice spaces behind double as a back stage area, so it also works for plays and concerts. The foyer, and loos off it, can be secured from the rest of the school so it can easily be used out of hours.
The whole atmosphere of the building is set by cross laminated timber panels that for the most part form the structure (there are just three steels) and the finishes. It is a lovely space to be inside. Where it feels just a little less convincing is in its positioning on the site. Within the prep school it has taken the privileged higher ground, which makes even the low volumes appear larger than they are. But more significantly, the way it is pushed to the edge of the contours makes it seem a little less grounded than it should. And in the green rectangle left between the three new buildings there is neither the openness of the old site nor a sense of enclosure, it feels somewhat unresolved, though this could change in summer and with future planting. More comfortable – and valuable to the school in all weathers – are the protected spaces between classrooms in the nursery, part screened from the elements by laser cut marine ply throwing dappled shade onto the play area.
These buildings suggest play and creativity without demanding it. In the competitive private school market in Bath they help justify the £10,000-£12,000 a year day school fee, making it more attractive for parents of younger children – who may well grow up through the school giving it a guaranteed pipeline of pupils to 18. It is impossible to compare build costs with the state sector where not just facilities but also the space per pupil would be far more pushed, but it is a reminder that in the right hands a technology such as cross laminated timber, which is increasingly common in schools, can be used well and simply to make a good space extraordinary.
Circa £6m total contract cost
85 nursery pupils
36 reception B pupils
120 prep school (years 5&6) pupils
JCT standard building contract with quantities 2011
Client Kingswood School
Architect Stonewood Design
Structural and civil engineer + highways and acoustics BuroHappold
Services engineer BuroHappold
Cost consultant Edmond Shipway
Contractor Midas Construction
Planning consultant GVA