LONDON – Over the years, Urban Projects Bureau (UPB) has developed a close relationship with the Graveney School in London following various successful projects. Having an understanding of the school’s identity and core values helped the architects to complete the new Sixth Form Block, where students in their final years of secondary education prepare for university. Here, Alex Warnock-Smith, director of UPB, explains his studio’s approach relating to how such factors as budget, time and the urban environment influenced the design of the building, from the robust wooden structure to the playful façade.

This project had to be delivered to a tight schedule and budget. Was it more extreme here than in other cases? Did it change the process of the way you usually design?
The budget and schedule were particularly tight because of the terms of the funding allowance that the school was granted for the building. The terms of the grant meant that the money had to be spent within a 12-month timeframe, which was a challenging schedule from concept design to completion, including planning applications, building control, tendering and construction, etc.

The cost and programme constraints led us to consider a range of prefabricated and modular building techniques at the feasibility and concept stages, which informed our decision to work with cross-laminated timber (CLT). Working with CLT allowed us to streamline the design process by working with the timber manufacturers and engineers early on in the design process, developing the concept, configuration, structure and form of the building in collaboration with them, as well as saving time on-site by reducing the construction programme. The CLT frame was manufactured off-site while the groundworks and foundations were being constructed.

The low budget and short programme provoked us to be determined to create the maximum architecture with the minimum means, and not to accept generic solutions or short-cuts. It also meant we had to make design and technical decisions quickly, which we feel the building expresses somehow, in the identity and immediacy of its spaces. In this, we were supported by our client team, who were decisive, trusting and willing to experiment.

Polycarbonate covers the front façade. Can you explain the idea behind the use of this specific material?
We had little budget for expensive cladding and were initially drawn to working with polycarbonate, rather than other opaque cladding systems, because of its ability to provide a range of daylight levels, transparencies and reflectiveness, which we felt would animate the building both internally and externally, and also express its occupation and use.

Another feature we wanted to play with was flatness and depth, which polycarbonate enabled. The large full-height, rain-screen panels have a different scale and size to the rest of the building, and make the façade feel sheer and flat, while simultaneously allowing light to penetrate behind the screen, adding depth through transparencies and shadows. 

We wanted the front façades to feel like a big drawing, as a play on the nature of façades as representational planes, which is why we used charcoal-coloured, powder-coated aluminium surrounds for the windows and openings and as a continuous frame around the polycarbonate – elevating it off the ground and making it feel like a screen, or a large piece of paper. The ability of polycarbonate to give ambiguous and multiple visual effects was one of the main reasons why we decided to work with it.

A striking feature of the building is the way you handled the ceilings. How did you come to this particular solution?
We knew that mechanical, electrical and services elements are very prevalent in school buildings and can have a big impact upon their spatial performance and quality, and were determined to make something special of them rather than treating them as an afterthought. Early on in the project we decided we wanted high, sloping ceilings with exposed CLT and roof lights, to make the classrooms inspiring and uplifting spaces, and also to echo the scale and drama of some of the high-ceilinged spaces in other Victorian and turn-of-the-century buildings on the campus. Because of this, we wanted to avoid suspended ceilings at all costs, so the decision was made to have all the services exposed and hanging.We also liked the potential of this to give a contemporary identity to the building, which we and the client team felt was important, to be appealing for the students and staff.

The new block is situated behind the Grade 2 listed Furzedown House. Was it something to consider in your design? If yes, how did you respond?
This was an important consideration along with the Red House, a fine turn-of-the-century building, and the low-rise early twentieth century residential neighbourhood, children’s playground and park.

Although materially different to the neighbouring buildings, the Sixth Form Block responds to the proportions and configuration of Furzedown House and Red House, picking up their horizons and datums expressed in cornices and material changes in their façades, and translating them into horizontal and vertical lines in the timber frame and fenestration levels of the new building. 

Photo courtesy of Kilian O’Sullivan