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Shireland CBSO Academy office-to-school scheme raises the tempo

Words:
Andrew Pearson

When ADP Architecture reconfigured an office building as a specialist music school, it found the atrium surprisingly well-suited to conversion into an acoustically tuned and flexible performance space

Shireland CBSO Academy.
Shireland CBSO Academy. Credit: Paul Karalius

ADP Architecture has converted a five-storey, former BT office building in West Bromwich into the Shireland CBSO Academy, the first school in Britain established in collaboration with an orchestra.

The school, a collaboration between Shireland Collegiate Academy Trust and City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (CBSO), is designed to support music education and performance skills for its 870 students.

At its heart is what was the office’s atrium, which is now a triple-height, 300-capacity space for orchestral performances. Claire Mantle, schools sector director at ADP Architecture, explains.

How did ADP Architecture first become involved in this project?

The Department for Education had worked with a team to assess the feasibility of reusing the office and had developed a design, which subsequently became the control option for the scheme. We were in the winning bid team with contractor Galliford Try.

Shireland CBSO Academy.
Shireland CBSO Academy. Credit: Paul Karalius

In the control scheme the performance space was in a different area. Why was the atrium chosen instead?

The office building was only 10 years old and  had open plan floor plates around the atrium. We decided that because it had formerly been the heart of the office, we’d make it the heart of the academy, housing the main performance space. The atrium gave us a three-storey space without having to cut through concrete floor slabs.

Originally, the atrium was a five-storey open space, so we inserted a new acoustic floor at level 3 to create the volume we needed for the performance space, which also allowed balconies to be created at level two.

The DfE control option never had the performance space in the atrium because it was not quite big enough, but by introducing the raked seating, balconies and side seating on the ground floor we’ve made it work. We’ve also added stage lighting bars and a control room so the trust can rent the space out to the community.

Beneath the raked seating is additional storage for tables so that the adjacent dining space can be turned into a drinks area when the performance space is in use. Similarly, the drama studio at the back of the performance space can double up as a green room.

We’ve put the learning resources space in the newly created double height space above, which has the benefit of the atrium’s glazed roof. All furniture in this space is moveable. When we visited, we found the school using this area as additional performance space.

  • Shireland CBSO Academy.
    Shireland CBSO Academy. Credit: Paul Karalius
  • Shireland CBSO Academy.
    Shireland CBSO Academy. Credit: Paul Karalius
  • Shireland CBSO Academy.
    Shireland CBSO Academy. Credit: Paul Karalius
  • Shireland CBSO Academy.
    Shireland CBSO Academy. Credit: Paul Karalius
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How did you design a classical music auditorium on a DfE budget?

The DfE is the project funder. It has a schedule of parameters that the design has to meet, including provision of a school hall. The school, however, wanted an orchestral performance space. In the acoustics world these two spaces have very different requirements: a hall is designed with sound absorption for clarity of speech but for classical music performances you want sound to bounce around to increase reverberation time.

Through engagement with the school, the team managed to get the DfE to add a small amount of money for acoustic treatment inside the performance space. To keep within budget we had to be really clever in how we meet the user’s needs, so we developed a design using timber battens attached to the walls. The surface of each batten is chamfered at a different angle to help scatter the sound. We also put acoustic tiles under the balconies and curtains on the wall behind the stage, which can be drawn to help meet the DfE’s acoustic environment for speech.

The academy focuses on music tuition; what other music spaces does it have?

The ground floor has most of the music classrooms. All are designed to the higher standard for reverberation with slanting walls to help sound bounce around. On each floor there are also two or three music practice rooms and there’s a recording studio. On the top floor we have a suite of intensive music spaces along with another suite of music practice rooms, so its music accommodation is probably four times more than is normal for a school.

  • Shireland CBSO Academy.
    Shireland CBSO Academy. Credit: Paul Karalius
  • Shireland CBSO Academy.
    Shireland CBSO Academy. Credit: Paul Karalius
  • Shireland CBSO Academy.
    Shireland CBSO Academy. Credit: Paul Karalius
  • Shireland CBSO Academy.
    Shireland CBSO Academy. Credit: Paul Karalius
  • Shireland CBSO Academy.
    Shireland CBSO Academy. Credit: Paul Karalius
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What are the challenges of turning a former office into a school?

This office building’s open worked really well as a school; classrooms are easily positioned around the edges of the floor plates while the stair cores and infrastructure for the toilets were already in place. However, a new sports building had to be built on an adjacent road.

Beside acoustics, maintaining fire integrity is the biggest challenge. This facade has quite a lot of glazing, divided by thin lines of structural steel columns. We had to align classroom walls to the column lines to maintain fire integrity between classrooms and facade.

That aligning dictated the size of the classrooms, and because the existing building was oversized in terms of what was required for teaching spaces we were left with very wide corridors, which will be used to house lockers and for additional storage as the school grows.

Another challenge was dealing with the castellated steel beams supporting the reinforced concrete floor slabs. The building’s change of use meant that additional fire protection was required to maintain integrity of the steel structure in the event of a fire. Intumescent paint was applied to the columns and beams which were then encased in plasterboard for acoustic purposes. It was hard work – normally you’d do one or the other.

  • Credit: ADP Architecture
  • Credit: ADP Architecture
  • Credit: ADP Architecture
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Was any of the original office retained?

We didn’t change the facade because the walls were compliant and we only did minimal work to the roof. The office had high-spec finishes but, because we needed to provide warranties, we had to replace everything including raised access floors, M&E and even the toilets.

Will we be seeing more projects like this?

This is not our first repurposed school: we’ve converted a former Blackberry office in Slough into a girls’ school; turned a police station in London into a vocational sixth form centre; and are making a former Debenhams store into a university building. We’re starting to see a lot more education projects introduced to the heart of towns and cities as part of the social repurposing of high streets

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