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Between town and country

A well-developed educational brief and a sensitive response to landscape are the secrets of success at a rebuilt church school in Epping

Posted by Dave Higgitt | October 30, 2014 | Bricks & mortar

St Johns Church of England School in Epping was at one time an under performing 11-16 age comprehensive school housed in unloved buildings. The decision to re-build and reboot the school was made more than 10 years ago, but a difficult planning journey towards outline approval meant the new school took a long time coming to fruition. Part of the problem was the existing school’s edge-of-town and therefore edge-of-greenbelt location, and Epping’s proximity to the forest that bears its name. The new school and its associated master plan to redevelop the existing site with new housing, a small park and entirely renewed school campus was finally approved by the planning inspectorate. A plethora of planning conditions was intended to ensure that local concerns and environmental sensitivities were addressed by the new school design.

The outline planning proposal demonstrated that there was sufficient available area to accommodate a 900-place new school and required site within the existing playing field area whilst the old school buildings could be demolished to make way for the housing development that would fund the new school. The design, chosen after a competitive bid, successfully re-configured the site so that the new school access would alleviate a historical problem of local traffic congestion.

The design of the new school was principally driven by an educational brief developed by the design team, but it also needed to successfully respond to landscaping and environmental concerns, such as the school’s new prominence and whether the re-positioning of the school would satisfy local detractors. The clarity of the appropriate educational model remains in the developed plan. An educational ‘street’ with projecting teaching wings evolved into a suite of specialist rooms along one side of a street and shared between two learning clusters of general teaching classrooms. The clusters are self-contained house groups with staff offices and their own studio space and central resource areas for larger groupings. The ‘street’ broadens at one end into the larger shared spaces of hall, dining and sports facilities and in this way the school neatly divides into the quieter academic part of the school and the noisier communal areas. This model is also very appropriate for enhanced community use, which was again a planning requirement. The school can securely operate in two halves and yet easily work as a single unit.

Having established the right educational model for the school, the concept for the building in the landscape emerged. The ‘street’ was arced along the contours of the sloping site and, by opening to the rural views, maximised on its aspect to the benefit of the pupils. Effective space planning was key to providing an ‘academy’ feel but restricted to BB98 space standards. The creation of social hubs in the learning clusters and the street give the school an inclusive feel and result in virtually no corridors. The generous feel to the circulation spaces and just three strategically placed internal staircase promote easy movement of pupils. The learning clusters are contained spaces that can flexibly be used for quarter- or half-day learning which also potentially reduces the time pupils spend moving around the school.

The street is a brick-clad spine with sloping sedum roof, which acts as a green screen and reduces the impact of the school on local housing at the higher end of the site. The learning clusters project from the north-facing curtain wall as timber-clad boxes complimented by the vertical timber brise soleil, which control both sunlight and views from the classrooms. The school achieves a BREEAM ‘very good’ rating, with mostly natural ventilation on both levels via roof-mounted wind catchers and daylight flooding all areas.

Client and user are delighted with their new school with headteacher George Yerosimou saying: “Our inspirational learning environment serves as a platform for the school to focus on a newly developed learning and teaching framework, which makes the best use of all the new technologies and the wide range of learning spaces.” Essex County Council said at the school’s opening that “this is our highest specification school to date”.

Epping St Johns demonstrates how a well-developed educational brief and a sensitive response to landscape can translate into a highly successful learning environment. It is the town that has benefited whilst nothing is lost in the surrounding countryside.

Project facts

Type of project: Church of England voluntary controlled secondary school for 11-16 years
Location: Epping, Essex
Client: Essex County Council
Contractor: Higgins Construction Limited
Architect: Hunters South Architects
Quantity surveyor: Higgins Construction Limited
Contract value: approx. £22m
Gross internal area: 8,000 sqm

Written by Peter Stephens, project architect, Hunters South Architects W:

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