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Rotherhithe Primary School: clear, civic and connected

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Words:
Hugh Pearman

New Southwark school gives pupils an early step up with space, light and presence in a coherent, flowing design by FCBS, a rare thing in a post industrial hinterland

I don’t think I’ve ever encountered a more enthusiastic or engaged client than Galiema Amien-Cloete, head teacher of the new Rotherhithe Primary. But then, she’s been involved throughout the process of replacing her ‘temporary’ 1971 single-storey prefab school on the site, defining the brief and helping judge a five-way architectural competition. The resulting building is a genuine collaboration between her and her chosen architect Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios. ‘I just spoke,’ she says, ‘and was amazed to see the ideas appear. They listened intently.’

The result is a rare thing: a large, high quality, well-landscaped bespoke school building in a poor area. It sits next to a 1960s council estate in the post-industrial hinterland of London’s former Surrey Docks, a part so far not engulfed by the rampant redevelopment a little further north. Designed and delivered on a traditional contract, it clearly goes beyond the minimum government standards. 

 

The plan opens up to Southwark Park opposite. Large council estates lie to north and south; the southern part of site is earmarked for housing.
The plan opens up to Southwark Park opposite. Large council estates lie to north and south; the southern part of site is earmarked for housing.

For that the local authority, Southwark, must take great credit, although it also took a big slice of the previous school’s land to build new council housing. By going higher in order to reduce its footprint, opening up a long informal axis from inner courtyard to the street and beyond, and providing views out all round, the new school compensates for the land loss and still manages to make its surroundings feel spacious. 

Architect and client wanted to do five things in particular. First was to provide a welcoming learning environment and mix of indoor and outdoor spaces presenting a range of activities for people from a broad mix of cultural and personal backgrounds (42 languages are spoken by the pupils). Next was a desire to achieve clarity of function and circulation – the way everyone moves around makes an almost cinematic spectacle seen from outside (specifically M. Hulot’s progress through the old house in Tati’s ‘Mon Oncle’). Aesthetically, the aim was to give the school the civic prominence it had previously lacked; to connect its landscape with that of the Victorian Southwark Park opposite; and to reflect the area’s maritime/industrial heritage. 

The Surrey Docks used to specialise in the import of timber from the Baltic. The Scandinavian connection in the area is strong. There is a memory of the stacks of timber in the layered finish to the chalky-cream brick facades, and (they say) the central courtyard is meant to echo the former basins and dry docks. That’s not at all obvious but what is clear is the thoroughly Scandi-modern feel to the place, with great use of timber and natural light internally.

  • Two-storey wings surround three-sided courtyard designed for open-air teaching.
    Two-storey wings surround three-sided courtyard designed for open-air teaching. Credit: Hufton and Crow
  • Multifunctional welcome space beyond the entrance can also be used for community events.
    Multifunctional welcome space beyond the entrance can also be used for community events. Credit: Hufton and Crow
  • Broad south wing terminates in an open stair with first-floor lookout and covered arcade.
    Broad south wing terminates in an open stair with first-floor lookout and covered arcade. Credit: Hufton and Crow
  • Outdoor teaching in action.
    Outdoor teaching in action. Credit: Hufton and Crow
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There is a toughness and simplicity to the orthogonal elevations which feels appropriate to its context. For this reason the main school hall is pressed into service as the commanding feature of the street frontage. It has a row of four simply enormous north-facing high-level windows with nicely modelled brick reveals top and bottom. From inside, you see the tops of trees in the park – or when needed the windows can be blacked out remotely. 

The layout is logical and pleasing. The main entrance is very secure, with three successive sliding glass doors, the sequence overlooked by reception, but you hardly notice them because your eye is drawn to the space beyond. This is a large informal meeting area with chairs and tables, for use either by the school or outside community events: the rest of the school beyond this point can be simply closed off.

From there the school proceeds by size of pupil. Rooms for the littlest and special needs are closest to the front downstairs, moving round the ground floor in increasing stature (furniture and windows keep pace), then proceeding to the older pupils upstairs. Classrooms for the youngest each have their own set of toilets. And this being a sizeable school, it has a lofty secondary hall, opening up to the main courtyard.

The circulation starts in Aalto fashion by running round the courtyard. The wider southern wing does have double-loaded corridors, but arranged so that you can see right through the rooms to the outside world. 

South wing arcade and enclosed sitting area with tiled surround. Credit: Hufton and Crow
Throughout the building the quality of natural light is exceptional. Credit: Hufton and Crow

There is a lot of glass in this school, with everyone essentially on display, something that might well take some getting used to. Along the way there are breakout areas for small-group working. There is a stately covered external stair, featuring some blue-green tilework, descending from the end of the south wing to the play areas.

Amien-Cloete points out that many of the pupils come from flats with no open space of their own. So the school landscape is important, providing secure open space in a variety of forms from an open-air classroom arena in the main courtyard to play equipment and quiet sheltered places for those not wanting to play boisterous games. A fair number of mature trees have been retained around the edges and many more planted. There is a developing woodland-school area, and more private garden and patio areas with various ground-floor rooms opening into them, for staff and pupils.

In overall feel this school reminds me somewhat of the much smaller Storey’s Field community centre and nursery school in North Cambridge by MUMA which has the same feel of care and craft about it, especially in its use of light textured brick and courtyard plan. 

This was achieved in spite of Michael Gove. It’s Southwark deciding to spend on its children

  • Wall thickness is exploited at points to make window seats.
    Wall thickness is exploited at points to make window seats. Credit: Hufton and Crow
  • Typical first-floor classroom for older pupils.
    Typical first-floor classroom for older pupils. Credit: Hufton and Crow
  • Scandinavian-inspired timber detailing.
    Scandinavian-inspired timber detailing. Credit: Hufton and Crow
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The fact that a large multicultural state primary school in a tough part of south London can have something of a Cambridge air to it is an absolute victory, especially as it started to be planned in 2011, the year after former education secretary Michael Gove axed the Building Schools for the Future programme. As FCBS partner Helen Roberts drily observes: ‘This was achieved in spite of Michael Gove. It’s about Southwark deciding to spend its money on its children.’

The construction – undertaken while the previous school still operated alongside, from which pupils transferred as demolition took place – is simple. Heavily insulated brick cladding – mostly hand-laid – sits over a concrete frame, with steel used in areas with wide spans such as the halls. There is rooftop photovoltaic power generation, plus automatic air-filtered ventilation with night-time heat purging. There are also manually-opened ventilation panels throughout behind louvres with flyscreens. The design targets BREEAM ‘very good’. 

The school has had one year in use and looks immaculate, its limited palette of materials – including, I was pleased to see, proper Marmoleum flooring – working well. Acoustics are good: I didn’t pick up clatter or echo anywhere. It smells nice. 

The children, says Amien-Cloete, were not daunted by their new school. Though there was a moment, right at the beginning, when she was asked by one child: ‘Is this really for us?’ 

The main hall, taller than usual, with four very large north-facing windows.
The main hall, taller than usual, with four very large north-facing windows. Credit: Hufton and Crow

IN NUMBERS
  
Full agreed contract cost £15.5m  
Gifa cost £4403/m²
Gifa 3520m²
Site area 9390m²
Predicted on-site renewable energy generation 12,177kWH/year 
Predicted potable water use, litres per person per day 15
Actual annual gas usage (kWh/m²/yr) 60
Actual annual electricity usage (kWh/m²/yr) 37.5
Embodied carbon 610kgCO2e/m² 
RICS modules A1-A5
Traditional contract JCT
BREEAM target Very Good 

Credits

Client London Borough of Southwark Regeneration Division
Architect Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios
Project manager, BREEAM
Advisor and principal designer Faithful & Gould 
Landscape architect Fabrik
Structural, civil and services engineer Waterman
Acoustic engineer Ramboll Acoustics
Fire engineer The Fire Surgery
Planning consultant and building control London Borough of Southwark

 

Suppliers

Brick Weinerberger 
Timber acoustic linings BCL Timber
Windows Ideal Combi
Glazed doors Schueco
Entrance floor tiles Domus
Marmoleum floors Forbo

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