Learning through Lightness: White Design’s Kingsmead school

All photo’s either Torben Eskerod (i), White Design (ii) or Andy Beard (iii) Above (i)

Side on view from the playing field with the children
sized glass patio’s (ii)

Cheshire County Council’s exemplar Kingsmead primary school was at the cutting edge of the new sustainable school design when it opened in 2004. The all-wood glulam building included many environmental features, both as building and as learning instrument, putting its architects, Bristol’s White Design right at heart of the educational architecture map.

When East Cheshire County Council placed their advertisement for a new head teacher to run their new, £2.4 million sustainably designed school showcase they were taken aback by the level of interest in the post – over four hundred applications – remarks the woman who was appointed to the post, Catriona Stewart. That interest, however, was only the beginning for Kingsmead primary school. Ever since opening in autumn 2004 Stewart and her colleagues have been showing architects and planners, educationalists and teachers, as well as politicians and journalists round Kingsmead primary schools friendly, warm spaces on a regular basis. The school – in north west England – has won a string of awards in the UK, and set new standards for sustainable school design, to the extent that Sunand Prasad,RIBA’s (the Royal Institute of British Architects) new president, stated at the time that the building led the field in current UK sustainable primary-school design.

All this would have been praise enough at any time, but coming as it did early in the present British Government’s programme massive £45 billion Building Schools for the Future (BSF) programme, such attention has propelled, Kingsmead, although preceding the programme’s launch, the schools architects,  White-Design, the whole project process into a small group of exemplars for many aspects of the programme.

It’s also been remarkably prescient for all involved, as mainstream British culture has been rapidly, if belatedly, waking up to the challenges of Global Warming and environmental issues in general over the past two years. Inevitably, this is influencing the BSF programme, with a new groundswell realisation across the sector that there is a ‘once in a generation’ opportunity to green the entire schools’ estate, given the programmes ongoing 10 to 15 year commitment to the school building stock being either replaced or rebuilt to twenty-first century standards.

Kingsmead was an early result of a Cheshire council policy review document, which in 2002/3 committed the council to a further greening its building stock. The review document underlined a new set of sustainability standards, enabling the Council to demonstrate it was leading by example, and show the potential to reduce energy levels and carbon footprints. Kingsmead is the resulting first showcase demonstrating these new standards, which has also provided confirmation of the Council’s belief that a school with high sustainability values would attract both motivated teachers and a committed parent body. Cheshire Council worked within a partnership, which also included developers Willmott Dixon Construction and White-Design, who applied a joined-up sustainable systems approach to the design and construction process. Titled Re-thinking Education the approach draws into the mainstream many well-known sustainable ideas – including using local contractors; an emphasis on natural materials; and minimising waste through recycling; along with high value design, while highlighting the overlapping social, environmental as well as economic benefits. The long, north facing concave crescent shaped building comprising seven classrooms for 210 children, is in the middle of a new mid-range private housing estate, and the chosen site was given to the County Council by the developer, in exchange for allowing the Estates development. While many children walk to school from these local homes, it would be interesting to know how sustainable the estate design and construction process were.

The building itself sits on a piece of open land amid a new residential development, curving in a concave semi-bow shape away from the entrance, protecting the large playing field on the schools far side. Single storey, the entire building is clad in Western Red Cedar, and held up by a Moelven glulam timber frame column and beam system, sourced from the company’s Danish factories. Although the initial brief was to use locally sourced timber this proved impossible to realise. The school furniture is also principally timber based, while bamboo is used on some of the flooring, and some of the carpeting is comprised of recycled materials.


Left: Curved glulams create a sheltering classroom corners, and right, letting in natural  light (iii)

Glulam’s going up (ii)

The heightened central entrance projects out to the arriving visitors, while inside the reception foyer area opens into a circulation corridor, following the curve of the buildings bow. To the foyer side, a sports hall space joins the two wings of the buildings. Each of the wings contain the staff, admin and other office rooms to the front of the building, and classrooms on the far side opening onto the playing field through five facade buffer winter garden spaces: in effect potential greenhouse learning rooms, as well as fire exits. Flexibility has been designed into the classrooms, with partitioned walls enabling class sizes to be increased or shrunk depending on need. The class and admin rooms are bathed in well-provisioned natural light, and the classrooms, sited so they face north, benefit from more constant light levels and lack of sun-glare.

The building employs natural ventilation techniques to keep it at optimum levels of heat and coolth, entering through controlled opening and closing of facade and roof windows by a Building Management System. Even if this is supported by biomass boiler for differing seasonal heating levels, for White-Design natural lighting and ventilation are an important article of faith, committed to delivering naturally lit and ventilated buildings where humans matter, rather than, as they put it, machines for living in.

For Stewart and her staff, the natural lighting is one-half of the two best elements to the schools design, the other being the super-insulation. Each of the classrooms are bathed in two sizeable roof windows, while much of the rest of the school, from corridors, through to library and hall all also benefit from the access to daylight. Stewart talks of how even on dull, overcast days the school doesn’t require any artificial lighting to be switched on. As Stewart observes; ˜the natural daylight is more human to work under and reduces light fatigue and the ‘institutional’ feel to school, as well as cutting our carbon emissions.” She mentions another head teacher she met at a recent schools’ conference, who had taken over another brand-new school, and found her budget being eaten away by needing to light not only much of the school but also, and this in daytime, much of the playground. That school’s electricity bill was equivalent to a part time teaching post, she says, further demonstrating to Stewart the pragmatic, economic benefits of designing in natural lighting and ventilation.

Kingsmead school’s appreciation of these natural features is underlined by the amply visible timber, giving the school the feeling of warmth. The sustainability dimension is also immediately evident in many other instances throughout the building. This is because White-Design’s approach to school buildings seeks to draw out the sustainability elements as learning and teaching instrument instruments, supporting children becoming aware of how different aspects of a sustainable building work. So while the inverted roof holds a £28,000 photovoltaic solar energy array, as well as four Solartwin water panels (heating an anticipated 30% of the schools water needs) and a Sustainable Urban Drainage System (SUDS) rainwater run-off system, far more interesting for the children is a vertical perspex pipe in the foyer reception area, through which the rainwater runs through before being re-used in other parts of the building in the toilets, vividly demonstrating to the children exactly how much run-off there is and how it is being re-used.

Similarly, along the corridor is an electronic measuring device showing how much water is being collected, while in the adjacent library a Solartwin panel has been donated by the manufacturers providing tactile firsthand experience of how this piece of kit works.

The vertical perspex pipe, measuring
rainwater, plus colour coded electrics
showing the energy supply (iii)

Left- Staff room and admin space (iii) Right – The corridor area used for cooking and home economics (iii


Stewart has also made the most of the specially designed corridor area, which includes a cooking and home economics area. The cooking area is used to introduce elements of the maths and science curriculum agenda, through counting and measuring processes. The school also uses the area so the children can prepare and cook their school meals from fresh food themselves, which, while not particularly new to some parts of European educational thinking, has not been much incorporated into recent English educational practice. With an extensive expanse of open land the school has been growing some organic foods which when ripe and ready are then eaten by the children, the ultimate learning by doing. Apple trees, and a small organic garden is used by the children in a hands on approach.

In terms of its reception across the British educational and school design scene Kingsmead school has been a success. It’s used as a template for the Cheshire County Council both for further, successive new schools, and in other building types across its public sector stock. While post occupancy evaluation research has shown that many of the sustainability aspects are not working to the anticipated levels of efficiencies, these are being addressed. Since Kingsmead’s completion White-Design have been refining this building model on their next schoola projecta in different parts of the country. Today, approaching three years since its opening, the architects have moved on to what they call Kingsmead 2, or a second iteration, with a new primary school building in South Wales about to open. With the BSF programme well and truly kicking into gear “the third and fourth of its fifteen waves are now at different stages of completion – it is schools like Kingsmead which continue to set the agenda of what is expected in the UK school building design culture.

A version of this piece was originally appeared in Daylight & Architecture Issue 6, autumn 2007