Reinventing the school space – dRMM’s Kingsdale school sports hall

London’s dRMM architects have given Kingsdale secondary school an A grade makeover,  first with the  largest ETFE roof in the country, and now making waves with the first UK public application of massive timber panelling systems to its latest stage of building.

all photo’s courtesy of dRMM

Travelling by train to Kingsdale – a South London secondary school which is the site of one of the earliest and more adventurous exemplar Building Schools for the Future projects – you exit from the local train station, up some steps and into an oddly continental looking estate of four and five storey housing, then head past a primary school and onto the road which runs along Kingsdale’s back perimeter.

Here, next to the playground area has been given over to the second in three stages of an ongoing school build revolution. This second stage consists of two – £3.4 million worth of – new buildings, which were recently handed over by dRMM Architects, the young, in demand London practice: A long, grey steel panelled sports hall, and, next to it, a smaller music building, this time decked out in what looks, to me, like desert brown steel cladding. The roofs of both buildings slope down to the south facing joint foyer entrance. The halls also look unusually European, the kind of building design that might be found in Holland. An isolated instance of SuperDutch far from home in South London’s Dulwich.

Such continental connections amid the unlikely surroundings of leafy Dulwich suburbia might, you think, stop there. But actually it becomes more complex. Kingsdale’s second stage is in part an ongoing experiment in the use of materials: the sports and music halls are the first British non-residential buildings to use KLH, a cross laminated timber panelling system already popular in many parts of Europe. And as experiments continue on from stage I, where the schools original open courtyard has been covered with another new material, ETFE (the rather easier acronym for its chemical description – ethyl tetra fluoro ethylene). Although not European in origin, this is, after the Eden Project, one of ETFE’s more significant applications. The teflon coated plastic has been draped across a 3200 sq metre half inside/half outside courtyard, the largest open school space to be covered in Britain.

DRMM’s – founded by Alex de Rijke, Philip Marsh and Sadie Morgan – materials experimentation and the continental connections are the result of the practices long involvement with the school, which has been ongoing since 1999. Kingsdale stage I, with the ETFE courtyard – plus a squat deformed timber geodesic placed in the courtyards midst – is the latest in dRMM’s experiments, introducing what they describe as their Industrial Ecology manifesto, into the schools context. From this explicit, though highly contemporary sustainability agenda, dRMM are attempting to put this Industrial Ecology theory into practice within their buildings. They see the materials they are picking up on and using, as deriving from the early stages of the sustainable industrial revolution emerging from across Northern Europe, which, they believe, is in its first stages of completely changing architecture and the building industry. In a recent essay for the exhibition, Industry!, hosted by Oslo’s 0047, partner Alex de Rijke states how the practice consider developments such as structural timber systems, recycling, renewable energy and low energy as not, ˜the site of duty but the site of dynamic design.” (my italics)

Prefabrication plays big in this take on Industrial Ecology. In part the interest is about speeding the build process up, but also buildings as dismantle-able kits, both completely or partially reusable and re-cyclable. A kind of green hued mass production, integrating industry into the ecological equation, and can feel like a distant echo of Modernism’s machines for living, albeit this time round, green machines. DRMM also talk up using materials for reasons other than their formal qualities, a contemporary translation of recent ˜Dutch architectural preferences for subversive approach(es) to architectural design camouflaged as pragmatism”1. So materials may be applied out of their usual, accepted contexts: highlighting the surprising and, at times even surreal, through displacing a material from generally recognisable or accepted contexts. They do this within sustainable principles and inside ecological footprints. Materials and products, which fit ecological feedback loops are chosen in place of those that don’t. It’s an approach which contrasts with how many architects, both sustainable or not, focus solely on materials formal qualities. For dRMM the performance of materials blurs both accepted uses and preconceptions of how materials are usually used.

For dRMM ‘high performance’ isn’t connected with the steel and metal materials of yesteryear that have often been associated with the term. De Rijke has been talking up engineered wood generally, and the KLH panelling systems used at Kingsdale in particular, as the concrete of the twenty first century, for a while now. “I’m fairly convinced that it is the future of architecture – its obvious, there are no wet trades, it’s not toxic, or hazardous.” He reels off further advantages. “Speed, lightness compared to concrete, similar characteristics of continuous structures, joints, transport and storage efficient, and not so reliant on transport. I became convinced when I saw what could be achieved with CNC cutting and CAD-CAM modelling, and anyway, although people don’t say it, wood is much sexier than steel.”

A turning point in dRMM’s committing to wood, was designing the space frame for the ETFE courtyard cover in 2001/2; the realisation that this structure could be realised significantly more sustainably and economically by replacing as much designed-out steel as possible with wood. Working with their long term engineers, Michael Hadi, by the time of stage II’s halls, the practice had fully researched the engineered wood sector, investigating the various paneling systems. After various others, Finnforest and Merk get mentioned, “they settled on KLH, despite and partially because they were outsiders and smaller operation. KLH, prefabricated the panelling system in their Austrian factory, before they are flat-packed onto an articulated lorry and trucked over from the continent. As with many in the architectural world, de Rijke doesn’t directly comment on the product miles, although he acknowledges it would better if the panelling system were produced in Britain. Stage 2 began in August 2005, with groundworks continuing until early in 2006. It was complete shortly before Christmas, a quick build schedule.

The first and larger of the two buildings, the sports hall, is 80 metres long by 20 metres wide. The simpler of the two buildings, the hall provides an airy interior, with changing rooms and a second floor viewing area at the lobby end, the simplicity of its design reducing the cost per sq metre to around £900. The roof is held up by twelve slightly irregular glulam beams, and applies a geometry angled to gradually reverse the direction of the roof plane, so that the larger end is on the north side at the east end of the building, and on the south side at the other west end. This makes for a slightly uncanny feeling about the ceiling, the geometrical emphasis of the beams shifting as the ceiling space progresses from one end to the other. The smaller and more complicated music department building is distinguished on the outside by its chunky bite windows. Something of a warren of small rehearsal and other ancillary rooms, as well as a main performance suite, it’s a more complicated build, and came in at £1300 sq m.

Joined at the hip, as it were, by the foyer entrance that sits between both the buildings, opening to both sports hall, and the music rooms, the timber staircase up to the second floor is evidence of careful detailing. The music rooms include studio and rehearsal facilities, as well as the chunky windows, which have been cut straight out of the KLH, into a series of customised blobby semi-circles. De Rijke hung onto the off-cuts from these and turned them into the music rooms very own charmingly irregular table tops. I’m a real minimalist” he says, not in the sense of minimalist design, but in that I don’t like waste.”

Every part of the two structures was exactingly thought through, and designed up – dRMM still use models – before the parts of the KLH system are ordered. “You have to visit every detail, everything has to be visited in your head. It’s tricky,” says a mutual friend of de Rijke and myself, in whose company I am being shown round the buildings. Once on site the 16 and a half m by 3 m KLH panels are craned into position, horizontally in the sports hall, vertical in the music department. It is a quick process, done by a team sent over from Austria, and supplemented by further local riggers. Screwed into a series of timber columns set between the panels and an external steel cladding system, inside this wooden box it feels decidedly different to a timber frame. In the sports hall the absence of any interruptions by frame based posts, to the spare straight surfaces of the walls is calming, and thanks to windows adjoining the roof edge, provides natural ventilation. The panels are load-bearing, completely so in the music lab, and screwed into the columns in the sports hall. So there is a resemblance to a steel system, but with the warmth of wood, albeit engineered timber. The contrast to a frame based timber structure is interesting; the absence of either columns or beams giving a feeling of both completeness and density which doesn’t occur in a post and beam. It’s reminiscent of the totalising effect of concrete but with the added warmth of wood. For de Rijke, the way the architectural context for KLH has been developed in Austria is of a “received Modernism, but in wood. The contractors,” he smiles, “call this hall the church.”

Outside, as mentioned, the received Modernism is more SuperDutch than Middle Europe. De Rijke hails from Holland, a country with strong Modernist credentials and the striking angularity feel closely reminiscent to buildings in the Low Countries. This may also be to do with the steel cladding system, which covers the sides of the buildings. Although dRMM were committed to their decision to build as much as is possible in timber, the school’s Zurich Insurers, took exception to an exposed and unprotected wooden building in an area of London with an apparent propensity to arson. A Dutch panel system, Prinz, was also shipped in from the continent as a default response to the Insurers demands. The Prinz cladding system acts as the weatherboarding on the two elements of the building, comprising 1m long, by 3.65m 0.7 mil deep folded steel. Ordered in the different colours befitting each of the halls, the sports hall is silver, (despite, my colour sense seeing it as slate grey), while the music room’s desert brown is bronze. From the playground face, the buildings are decked in gold, the colour scheme apparently reflecting the schools aspirations. From the road at the back of the school, each of the building’s roof-lines slope down to the lowest point at the foyer entrance; although the sports hall beam system, with its reversing deck means that it is higher on one face than the other. De Rijke says they chose the particular paneling systems carefully so the steel could form the concrete shuttering, at each of the buildings bases; an example of an other than formal application of materials. The consistency of profile to the hall’s external face continues at the buildings top edge with polycarbonate glazing, which was similarly used as the mould for the concrete.

Stage II emerged out of a mixture of the experience of stage I’s ETFE roof and also an additional structure, a geodesic auditorium dome. DRMM’s involvement with the school began when the practice won a competition to completely rethink the old early sixties secondary school. The original school was a four square quad, which surrounded an open square courtyard, by Lesley Martin, the post war London City Council school’s architect specialist. Not one of Martin’s best, the school also, hadn’t worn so well and dRMM’s brief included demonstrating that exciting, new and funky things could be done with this original building. “What we were always trying to do was dismantle the institutional character of the building and the regularity of the grid.” Initially, however, they actually won a competition based around an imaginative scheme to get the whole school involved, participating in the design, by running a mock TV station and interviewing both pupils and staff about what they’d like to replace the existing school with. Supported by workshops, the dRMM team, many of whose backgrounds were in education, were able to get a much more nuanced sense of what the school really wanted.

Originally both teachers and the DfES had suggested to de Rijke that demolishing the Lesley Martin quad as the best path forward. But dRMM, excited by the challenge of refurbishment, pushed the case for renovation. They also believed that they could complete a smart refurbishment and use money saved by this strategy on a further set of buildings, to re-house the dilapidated music and sports sections. Also, if the refurbishment was played the right way, an adventurous and attention grabbing renovation would bring further money and investment in once it was complete.

With the overhaul of the quad building, and the transformation of the courtyard the result has indeed been radical. The wispy, transparent ETFE – originally brought to dRMM by Vector, the Eden Projects Biomes engineers, “was thrown over the open courtyard, creating the new inside/outside space, and, after the courtyard had been cleared of existing buildings, a new, much more open and less threatening school environment. The interiors of the classrooms were emptied and re-designed as much more flexible and adaptive spaces, with sliding walls, and multiple functions. Corridors, sites of bullying, were widened and opened up. And at first floor level, walkways running over the new courtyard from one side to the other were dropped into place to loosen up circulation. Finally, to add another element to the courtyard mix, a squat egg of a lightweight timber shell, was dropped onto the courtyard, adding another piece of atrium drama in the guise of a timber clad, geodesic auditorium space.

The first idea was for a pure geodesic, but, de Rijke says, the pure form didn’t really connect with the courtyard space, so they played around on CAD, squashing the shape into the space and out came a deformed version, neatly fitting between the first floor gallery and the walkway links. And the rainwater or windload disappeared from the design equation. Gordon Cowley, the specialist structural timber fabricators, scaled up the initial designs, developing special joints to allow for the irregularities of the deformed geodesic. Larch joints, and Cowley customised nodes were used, with regular elements and different non-symmetrical panels made from oak.

DRMM’s hunch was proved right. The success of the stage I’s refurbishment, including a string of awards, opened the coffers for the fresh funding for the two new music and sports buildings. This continues with stage III, remodelling the old quad buildings external facades, on site later in the year. In all, Kingsdale can be viewed as demonstrating what can be done to transform a sixties school without necessarily tearing it down. As an exemplar of rebuild, it may well provide- as BSF gets its head of steam, particularly given its having become freshly sustainably-conscious in the last year – food for useful thought, about the potential for rebuild rather than immediately going for entirely newbuild projects.

As for dRMM, the set of materials experiments Kingsdale represents, provide provocative examples of their Industrial Ecology paradigm. They’ve also taken much of what Kingsdale represents, various steps further in one of the DfES Exemplar Designs templates, entitled ‘Dura.’  From this, a live version is in the offing in the West Country. Such materials may not be the last words in the ˜purity of eco-materials’ sense. But in terms of what the mainstream is currently prepared to explore, materials from ETFE through to developments in engineered timber that the second Kingsdale stage embodies, while delivering significant energy and carbon footprint reductions, are on the right side of credibility. What is needed is to ensure the sustainable materials revolution that dRMM have accurately identified, can genuinely provide the very steep reductions in energy and carbon footprints that week on week, consume media headlines. If this is demonstrated, dRMM can add Kingsdale – delivering both ecologically and on architectural adventurousness as another feather in their practices quiver.

This piece originally appeared in Green Buildings volume 17. no 2 in 2007

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