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Out of the box design

A reduced budget prompted a Liverpool school to rethink its redevelopment plans, but the result has more than lived up to expectations

Posted by Dave Higgitt | March 26, 2015 | Bricks & mortar

St John Bosco Arts College is an all-girl Catholic comprehensive school catering for over 900 pupils in the Croxteth area of Liverpool. In 2010, the school was one of 26 Liverpool schools chosen to be rebuilt under the building schools for the future (BSF) programme, a £350m scheme that’s part of the government’s plans to provide 21st-century education for all.

Only four months later, the BSF scheme was scrapped, on the same day the school finalised its new building proposals. The school’s transformation, which had been years in the making, was now over, and both students and teachers felt disappointed by the outcome.

In 2012, however, the school finally received good news, as Liverpool City Council and mayor Joe Anderson announced a new £169m Liverpool schools investment plan to transform 12 schools across the city.

During the midst of the building setbacks, the secondary school continued to receive recognition from Ofsted, receiving the highest rating in 2010 and 2013. In 2013, it also became the first school in Liverpool to achieve teaching school status, again in recognition of the quality of its teaching and in order to lead the development and training of teachers, headteachers and support staff.

The school has a particular specialism in visual and performing arts, so the ambition for the new building was to create a cultural hub which would bring dance, drama, pottery, painting and high-tech facilities to not only the school, but also to the wider local community.

The scrapping of BSF meant St John Bosco was now covered by a scaled-down Liverpool council-led project, and the team were faced with a dilemma of whether to maintain their original vision for the site with less than half the budget or try to retain more of the existing buildings.

Working with project architects BDP, the team resolved to stick to its original plan to build a completely new school. Faced with funding problems, they had to think creatively about the new build and came up with a solution which exceeded their initial hopes, as chairman of BDP, David Cash, explains: “The team’s resolve to stick to their original dream of a new building was a brave one which could have seriously misfired. However in a sense, it seems almost as if the funding problem created a need for both architect and client to fundamentally rethink school design, as they undoubtedly ended up doing.”

The brief given to the BDP was to deliver a flexible building with 15 percent more area but at a reduced cost. The solution, completed in September 2014, was a three-storey, single-span column-free environment, designed as a ‘big box’ scheme.

With a budget of £1,043 per square metre, the response uses a simple efficient building form with colour, graphics and clever internal planning used to minimise circulation space and allow for multiple functions of the building.

The response is unlike many traditional school buildings. In fact, the architects studied shopping centre models when designing the open-0plan space and deployed many features used in commercial architecture – such as the Metsec rafter roof structure. The budget was invested in the lower levels of the school, areas which are walked on and touched, and low-cost solutions were applied to areas high up and out of tactile range.

Project director Mark Braund says: “The building feels like a new breed of school, unique, contemporary and an excellent example of how small budgets don’t necessarily have to deliver standard products.”

The school is designed with the classrooms around three sides of the rectangular central space. Part of this space is an area named The Hill, a central device which creates a series of spaces and scales of environment to suit different functions. With the school’s specialism in arts in mind, specific attention was applied to the development of this new performance area, as well as state to the art drama and dance studios.

Circulation routes wrap around the central space, which include the learning resource centre, chapel, IT sound studio and café. The different pathways leading to and from this area make it very much the ‘heart’ of the building, a space which can be approached from different levels and bridges.

A key feature of the building is the bold way colour is used throughout, especially for the interior. Green, pink, yellow and grey are used with confidence, not only for dramatic effect, but to distinguish the different areas within the school. The colour scheme links with a creative use of graphics, which are not only legible and important for wayfinding, but form an intrinsic part of the overall design.

In the school entrance, there is a wall of seemingly random dots. It’s only when you view the dots from a different vantage point, further away, perhaps on a different level, that you see the pointillism-inspired image of the school’s namesake, St John Bosco – perspective has been an important element in the overall design.

The new school has been built on its existing site in Croxteth and its sports hall is the only building which has been retained during the project. The final phase of the build, due to be completed in July, will complete the landscaping and will include a full-size 3G all-weather, floodlit pitch.

Thanks to its innovative design features, the St John Bosco has now been shortlisted for this year’s RIBA north west awards. Judges praised its mix of learning environments and social spaces and the use of colour and graphics to highlight its unique space and functionality. The school has also received the BDP George Grenfell Baines award, which is given to projects of “outstanding design quality” and to spaces which are “inspiring for people”.

Headteacher Anne Pontifex says: “We are delighted with our new building. Even though we’ve only been in the new school since September, everyone, including the pupils, teachers and the wider community, has embraced the new space and settled in to the new surroundings brilliantly.
“Although we’ve had our setbacks, the final product has far surpassed our expectations; the high-quality space is functional, efficient yet vibrant and beautiful, and expresses our school identity entirely.” 

Project data 

Contract value: £18.4m
Architect and landscape architect: BDP
Location: Croxteth, Liverpool
Area: 11,000 sqm
Main contractor: Vinci Construction
Structural engineer: Alan Johnson Partnership
Mechanical and electrical engineer: A&B Engineering
Transport: SCP Transport
Fire: Hoare Lea
Ffe contractor: FBS
Cost: £1,043/sqm

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