St Mary’s Calne and Woods Bagot both have something extra in their pockets with the new library in the school orchard
At St Mary’s Calne in Wiltshire, the new school library looks out on the gnarled fruit trees of its orchard, evoking the interweaving of books and trees as places of knowledge and imagination. Woods Bagot’s design for the private girls’ boarding school takes the idea a stage further, with tall trunks of steel branching into the roof’s faceted soffit.
The building is embedded in a soft buff water-struck brick which echoes the colours of the limestone that much of the town of Calne is built with. This wraps in a U-shape round the north, south and west facades, whose slim windows peer out between the bricks, turning the view away from the school service road and through the glazed eastern facade to the orchard, which is flanked by teaching buildings and one of the boarding houses. A notional moat runs around the edge of the building to deal with level changes, bridged delicately at the entrances.
An element of interest and (almost) rustication is added to the facade by the laying of projecting bricks alternately in certain areas. Then it sharpens up again as it is cut through with lines of bronze vents for fresh air intake at the base of bookshelves, and windows slicing down the facade where the free space of the book-lined library shifts into the hardworking bookends of escape stairs and cellular spaces.
The library is conceived as both an academic and a cosy place at the centre of the school. With 80 per cent of the girls boarding, it proved a popular meeting place when schools were open in the autumn. It is designed to work for all sorts of collaborations and conversations, from clubs and talks to reading the newspaper; as close as this school gets to a café. There are clusters of seats, a den sunk into the concrete foundations under the staircase, individual reading pods and places just to rest a book while browsing.
The soffit treatments give a sense of the difference between the ground and first floor. At ground level are neat baffles and strip lights and service trays. The first floor – with a clerestory of frameless glazing around the edge – looks up and out from beneath its canopy of timber triangles reaching off the steel trunks. The lining of books is gently put into perspective by the presence of the sky and the orchard. This library may be signalled as an academic building but the first floor will inspire dreams and imagination as much as it will diligent research.
The library has a modest place in this typically ad hoc school site of 10ha. It is part of the jumble and overseen by larger buildings. Yet it manages to bring together and complete a quadrangle around the orchard. So it becomes one of a small number of set pieces at the school, the other notable one being the recent development of a knot garden on the edge of the playing fields and the grand sixth form boarding house that overlooks the fields in a mottled, weathering timber.
The experience of timber on the sixth form boarding house perhaps holds the answer to why the ‘trees’ of the library are not designed in wood, with a likely reduction in the embodied energy. Project director Debby Ray was one of the authors of the LETI’s Climate Emergency Design Guide and reflects a little on how the building might have worked harder to reduce energy use, now there is greater awareness of these issues some years on from initial design. Perhaps less glazing to the east and the orchard would have been one move (though she admits it would ‘challenge the parti’), timber trees as structure of course and a tight rein on air tightness, contractor-depending. But there were moves to reduce the embodied carbon with precast concrete beams for the first floor, rather than in situ. And at least all that glazing to the east is shaded by the fruit trees.
Woods Bagot is better known for commercial fit outs in the UK. But education feels like a natural fit for Ray, who has worked in the sector with Will Alsop and at AHMM. And the practice’s team in Australia has a strong portfolio of education work. The library came to the practice through a contact in that world who had a daughter at the school – and it has spawned another project as Woods Bagot is working with the school on a science, technology, engineering and maths building, currently in development. Could this be a jumping off point for the UK firm in this sector? That remains to be seen and depends a lot on the UK’s new procurement systems and the education economy post Covid. But the library at St Mary’s Calne is a good marker in the ground for beautiful, social, almost civic, building.
JCT form of contract
Client St Mary’s Calne School
Project manager Equals Consulting
Main contractor Beard Construction
Structural engineer Waterman Group
MEP consultant Vector Design
Quantity surveyor Equals Consulting
Lighting consultant Atrium
Fire safety consultant Ramboll
Facade consultant Eckersley O’Callaghan
Acoustic consultant Sandy Brown
Landscape consultant Camlins
CDM co-ordinator Shore Engineering
(We Make Shore)
Approved building inspector MLM Group
Furniture The Furniture Practice
Bathroom appliances Geberit, Parklex Facade F, Parklex
Water-struck brick Janinhoff
Engineered wood plank Havwoods Bolon by Missoni Zig Zag, Bolon
DM entrance matting INTRAsystems
Bush Hammered and Etched Tile Imola
B-Line display and book lighting Aktiva
PVD bronze ironmongery Allgood
Mistrale natural ventilation system Gilberts