St. Albans Academy

Our brief was to help a secondary school threatened with closure double student numbers to 800 and make the transition to a non-selective Academy with a new sponsor, ARK (Absolute Return for Kids). Initial challenges included severe budgetary constraints brought about by the end of the Building Schools for the Future programme, a very mixed site (including a building containing deleterious materials that required demolition) and a complex stakeholder arrangement (balancing ARK’s traditional values with Birmingham Council’s strong transformational education agenda).

Fortunately, the condensed design programme encouraged all parties to engage in an intense collaborative workshop and options period. The result is a compact, geometric and highly legible building minimising cost that serves ARK’s pedagogical model while still facilitating Birmingham City Council’s transformational agenda. The building comprises two interconnected buildings defined by two perpendicular axes. The primary axis provides a new circulation route and links the entrance with the external grounds. The two schools-within-a-school are in the eastern half, demarcated by shared resources, while the specialist, sports and dining spaces are in the western half. The resultant interstitial link provides the central organisational device, with aerial circulation providing a sense of choreography and movement around the school. A second axis maintains visual connections to St Alban’s Church and the city centre skyline, and in all the design maximises playspace and saves existing trees. A colourful fibre-cement ‘curtain’ envelopes the Academy and provides a foil to the mature trees on this restricted site, and the form of construction reflects the school’s engineering specialism.

Overall, this flagship project demonstrates the importance of client consultation and creative design in producing a building that is both economical and environmentally sensitive. As an example of urban design and commitment to consultation it has been case-studied as best practice by the city planners. To achieve the affordability criteria for BSF funding, a gross internal area savings of 7% was made with no reduction in areas of learning spaces. Natural materials including spruce plywood and wood wool acoustic panels contribute to achieving the targeted BREEAM ‘very good’. The project was delivered ahead of time and on budget, and is widely considered by the contractor Lend Lease as the most commercially successful in the LEP. The Sponsor Ark is also looking closely at the school as a template for future Academies.

Photography © Alex de Rijke, Tamsin Pearce