A moment in Sevenoaks School's history

Words:
Hugh Pearman

Tim Ronalds Architects’ latest addition to the steadily evolving campus of Sevenoaks School imprints its historical stamp with deft discretion

Learning factory with jazz touches: the new buildings at Sevenoaks School define a car-free square known as ‘The Flat’.
Learning factory with jazz touches: the new buildings at Sevenoaks School define a car-free square known as ‘The Flat’. Credit: Helene Binet

The architect’s hand is clear although I was delighted to find another near-invisible theatre upgrade in the work

It’s one thing to contribute a building to an academic campus. It’s another to be its steward over a number of years, masterplanning and updating the masterplan so that new buildings and landscape become part of a coherent and – one hopes – seemingly inevitable pattern. In the case of Tim Ronalds Architects’ work at Sevenoaks School in Kent, the latest building – a sizeable L-shaped block incorporating a science and technology centre and sixth form centre – joins his earlier performing arts centre to form a new boundary to a collection of buildings that has evolved since the school was founded in 1432. 

Not that Ronalds or his team are strangers to the long-term project. Their acclaimed work in ‘arrested decay’ at Wilton’s Music Hall in Wapping took nine years from first to last, and after it all there was no architectural signature to show for it nor much evidence that anything had happened at all, though of course it had. It was just no longer falling down and was invisibly upgraded for today’s requirements. 

Sevenoaks School is a loyal client – Ronalds’ work here has continued via various competitions since he won the masterplanning commission in 2005. Unlike at Wilton’s, the architect’s hand is clear here in the new buildings and spaces – although I was delighted to find another near-invisible theatre upgrade as part of the overall work. Ronalds treated Roderick Ham’s octagonal 1981 Sackville Theatre very respectfully when tweaking and linking it to his barnlike Performing Arts Centre of 2010, which can accommodate a full concert orchestra. Now the latest buildings continue the line along and turn a corner to start defining a large landscaped open space known as ‘The Flat’ that was previously just a car park: cars will now be parked around the periphery of the school rather than at its centre. 

Sevenoaks – with Knole Park and its Jacobean mansion that was the ancestral home of the Sackvilles – was always a cut above your ordinary market town, but today it is a very upmarket M25 corridor town of the kind that boasts a Lamborghini dealership. Similarly the school was founded to provide free education for the poor and is now pretty much a school for the rich: annual fees range from £23,355 for a lower school day pupil to £40,464 for a boarder arriving in the sixth form. The rich do however effectively subsidise the poorer pupils through a bursary scheme which will double in numbers by 2020. You get the picture: this historic school is a world away from your bog-standard comprehensive. A large number of pupils go on to Oxbridge, Ivy League universities, leading medical schools and so on. So it has a level of facilities available to pupils quite as high as you would expect and it is the constant improvement of these, especially reorganising the site and replacing older modern buildings with new better-equipped ones, which is what concerns the Ronalds team. On the day I visited, this team consisted of Ronalds himself, his co-director Anna Bardos, and architect Amelia Mashhoudy. It was half-term: they were sorting out the snags, with a contractor’s team in to put things right after the latest building’s first term in use. This is, please note, a traditional contract for a £23 million BREEAM ‘Excellent’ building and the relationship with the London and Belfast-based contractor Gilbert-Ash has been excellent, says Ronalds.

There is nothing architecturally fancy about the science and tech centre other than a generosity of space and natural light, some brightly-coloured details on the main elevations such as the air inlet grilles and external canopies to relieve what could otherwise have been externally a rather dour building. Very Cambridge-rationalist, it reminds you of certain new university buildings while being distantly related to a traditional factory, with sawtooth north lights. Honesty of expression continues in the way that rain­water downpipes and soil stacks are paired as facade-organising devices, celebrated rather than hidden away. The building is clad in brick, but handmade Coleford brick, deliberately in a slightly different tone to the earlier Performing Arts Centre.

  • Largely self-finished materials throughout.
    Largely self-finished materials throughout. Credit: Helene Binet
  • As seen from the rural southern edge of the campus: 2010 Performing Arts Centre (foreground) with Science and Technology Centre beyond.
    As seen from the rural southern edge of the campus: 2010 Performing Arts Centre (foreground) with Science and Technology Centre beyond. Credit: Helene Binet
  • Precast concrete modules are exposed in the roofs. Laboratories for biology, chemistry and physics are fully visible from the circulation areas.
    Precast concrete modules are exposed in the roofs. Laboratories for biology, chemistry and physics are fully visible from the circulation areas. Credit: Helene Binet
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Inside the colour is knocked back to pale earthy tones and a mix of in-situ and precast concrete, left exposed. Little is painted. And the layout is thoroughly logical, the labs (biology, physics, chemistry) and tech spaces all on display behind glass walls, arranged around a rectangular atrium that expands into a large events space at the lowest level running the length of the building and divisible into three when needed. Circulation space is big enough to provide informal ‘writing up’ tables once students emerge from the labs. Servicing is by basement plant, something made simpler by the way the building drops down the valley side at this point.

The return wing of the building, set slightly higher, is a simpler affair. Rather grandly called the Global Study Centre, it is basically a large sixth form common room and café along with study rooms and careers advice offices: the sort of  mix not dissimilar to many a new university ‘hub’ only without the bars. 

The overall environment of the 100-acre school campus is important and includes buildings by architects ranging in time from Lord Burlington through Roderick Ham and Sevenoaks-based Richard Reid to Ronalds, plus some rather lacklustre 1980s buildings by others which one suspects are not long for this world. Equally important is the sequence of gardens and open spaces, much of which lies between the High Street and the exceptional landscape of the National Trust’s Knole Park which is of course Green Belt. The school is regarded as important by the planners but a deft touch is needed in this context, as a glance at the splendid views out the windows makes clear.

  • Laboratory near the hinge point of the building showing the high level northlight.
    Laboratory near the hinge point of the building showing the high level northlight. Credit: Helene Binet
  • Circulation spaces around the atrium are broad enough to house informal working areas.
    Circulation spaces around the atrium are broad enough to house informal working areas. Credit: Helene Binet
  • Café in the sixth form Global Study Centre.
    Café in the sixth form Global Study Centre. Credit: Helene Binet
  • North-south section through Science and Technology Centre.
    North-south section through Science and Technology Centre. Credit: Tim Ronalds Architects
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The reorganisation and densification of facilities for the school is epitomised by this latest Ronalds building, which is much bulkier than the two it replaced but enhances the spaces around it. Like the Performing Arts Centre alongside, it has a pleasing plainness. The luxury lies in quality, durability, good materials and space: no fripperies. There is great clarity of design purpose here. 


IN NUMBERS

7,200mgross internal area

£23m construction value

£30m project value after fit-out

£3,080 building cost per m²

1,080 number of pupils 

Credits

Client Sevenoaks School Foundation
Architect Tim Ronalds Architects
Structure Eckersley O’Callaghan
Services, environmental design, BREEAM Max Fordham
Acoustics Ramboll
Cost consultant Bristow Johnson
Project manager Synergy Construction & Property Consultants
Main contractor Gilbert‐Ash

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