Oak floors make a home from home at King’s International College

Words:
Pamela Buxton

Choosing the right materials was critical to Walters & Cohen at King’s School, Canterbury. Oak flooring holds the interiors together with a warmth that’s cool

Beyond the 19th century Malthouse, Walters & Cohen’s new International College helps frame a new courtyard space.
Beyond the 19th century Malthouse, Walters & Cohen’s new International College helps frame a new courtyard space. Credit: Dennis Gilbert/VIEW

‘We really, really, didn’t want carpet,’ says Walters & Cohen’s Cindy Walters of the practice’s King’s School Canterbury International College. 

With feelings running high on the subject, the architect had to work hard to persuade the client to go for a hard flooring solution. They can quite rightly feel vindicated. The result, 3000m2 of oak flowing extensively throughout the boarding school, turns out to be one of the most popular elements of the interior.

‘Now they love it. It’s what makes the school feel special,’ she says.

And this is quite a special place. It is both home and school to 80 international students, and as such helps students aged 11-16 years adapt to boarding school life as well as to the English education system.

The International College is an extension to the long-established independent King’s School, which is based within and around Canterbury’s historic cathedral precinct. Five years ago Walters & Cohen was commissioned to carry out a masterplan for the whole school estate at a time when the school was keen to add an international college. This was earmarked for a former industrial site, wedged between the school’s sports centre and its sports field slightly further away from the precinct. 

The 1.25ha space had lately been used for car repairs but had, says Walters, ‘amazing potential’ with ample scope for new development. Its key building was an impressive 19th century former Malthouse and the site also included a row of small cottages. Walters & Cohen’s feasibility study resulted in plans to renovate and convert the Malthouse into a drama centre and theatre, retain the cottages for staff housing, and add a new build 3,000m2 international school.

A new civic square connects the school to The Malthouse, which was converted by Tim Ronalds Architects. A sports court was added to the north and the whole site is unified by a landscape created by Bradley-Hole Schoenaich. An existing garage was retained and converted by Walters & Cohen into a fencing centre.

  • The ‘inner garden’ of the new building, which is overlooked by ground floor teaching facilities. Above these are student bedrooms.
    The ‘inner garden’ of the new building, which is overlooked by ground floor teaching facilities. Above these are student bedrooms. Credit: Dennis Gilbert/VIEW
  • The ground ‘teaching’ floor is run through with engineered oak flooring, pairing domesticity with robustness.
    The ground ‘teaching’ floor is run through with engineered oak flooring, pairing domesticity with robustness. Credit: Dennis Gilbert/VIEW
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The new school building is a strong presence that works well with the red brick of the nearby Malthouse. The practice chose a compact courtyard typology, with the building rising three storeys around an inner garden. Teaching facilities are on the ground floor with two upper levels for boys’ and girls’ bedrooms respectively. 

‘The courtyard typology is quite protective and is an efficient way of getting the right accommodation on the site,’ says Walters, adding that the practice had to demonstrate to the client that the building could be repurposed for hotel/conference use if necessary in the future. A certain flexibility will certainly be useful given the effect of the coronavirus on international travel and the coming recession.

On the ground floor, the building has a concrete structure with CLT for the two upper floors. This gives the benefit of thermal mass and the large spans necessary for the teaching spaces. Offsite manufacture was used where possible. The materiality responds to the industrial nature of the site. Ground floor cladding of robust precast concrete panels from Cornish Concrete Products give the appearance of in-situ, board-marked concrete. But the most striking element is the cladding on the upper two levels. Here, the architect chose Benchmark CorTen.

A weathered steel hook-on cassette panels from Kingspan, which have folded edges and are patinated to a pleasing ruddy appearance that sits comfortably alongside the Malthouse. These 450mm deep box cassettes conceal the downpipes, with rainwater channelled into a horizontal gutter above the precast concrete. Unlike the school’s other properties in the heart of medieval Canterbury, this project was, says the architect, the ideal place to use some sort of industrial material. And just as the oak flooring is the key material of the interior, externally, the building is most notable for this distinctive cladding. Combined with the concrete, and glass, these strong materials define the exterior.

‘Tonality was important. The Malthouse is a very big red building and we wanted something that would work well with the colour, and was a contemporary interpretation,’ says Walters.

  • Twin bedrooms are of generous proportions, each with a shared ensuite bathroom. The timber floor theme runs throughout.
    Twin bedrooms are of generous proportions, each with a shared ensuite bathroom. The timber floor theme runs throughout. Credit: Dennis Gilbert/VIEW
  • In classrooms where acoustics are more important, timber flooring makes way for more acoustically absorbent carpet.
    In classrooms where acoustics are more important, timber flooring makes way for more acoustically absorbent carpet. Credit: Dennis Gilbert/VIEW
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Inside, the key was to ensure that it felt like a home-from-home, rather than an institution.

The aforementioned oak is a big part of this. The architect specified the Havwoods’ HW European Oak engineered flooring throughout most of the building. 

We wanted a natural material that we could use everywhere that would work with the concrete and steel and be easy to maintain,’ says associate director Rob Hill. The hope is that this will look better and better as it wears with use.

This warm-looking flooring is combined with an emphasis on transparency on the ground floor, with the courtyard elevation fully glazed onto the garden.

Around the edges are student break-out areas with armchairs, oak room dividers, and other elements such as a piano and a fish-tank to further reinforce the domestic theme. These areas can be screened off from the main internal circulation corridor by sliding partitions, which have write-on, wipe-off surfaces.

‘When you are inside, you feel as if you’ll always know where you are. It’s like you’re in a big, big house,’ says Walters & Cohen director Giovanni Bonfanti, adding that this means it’s easy for students to orientate themselves within the building.

The only exception to the use of oak is in some of the specialist teaching areas, where Tretford’s Charcoal 620 carpet was used for acoustic reasons. The ribbed carpet is made in Ireland using 80% goat hair.

In the upstairs residential accommodation, the oak flows through the twin bedrooms and study and social areas – again the architect was keen to avoid carpet, which although popular for bedrooms in the UK, is considered much less desirable in many countries. 

Fortunately, she says, the school is now ‘over the moon’ with the oak solution, which ‘is what links it all together.’  Certainly the student bedrooms look extremely pleasant with their views over the courtyard. 

This is just one of several projects undertaken by Walters & Cohen for the King’s School. The practice recently completed the King’s School Shenzhen International for the same client in China, and is now on site with a new science building for the college at the Cathedral precinct in Canterbury.

Credits

Client The King’s School, Canterbury
Architect Walters & Cohen                                                       
Structural engineer Price & Myers
Building services engineer Skelly & Couch
Landscape Bradley-Hole Schoenaich
QS Fanshawe
Planning consultant Hobbs Parker
Project manager Fanshawe
Contractor R Durtnell & Sons

Suppliers

Precast concrete panels Cornish Concrete Products  
Oak flooring Havwoods 
Classroom carpet Tretford
Barrier matting Heckmondwike
Weathered steel panels Kingspan
CLT floor, walls and roof structure KLH
Safety floor Polyflor

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