Taken alone, the challenge of re-imagining a new secondary school’s design to address issues with scale and budget on a sensitive greenfield site would be a tough enough assignment.
But architects Austin-Smith:Lord (ASL) and the wider project team also had to contend with local opposition to the merging of two existing schools so that Ysgol Bro Dinefwr could go ahead.
The £30m school, near Llandeilo in Carmarthenshire, is now complete, providing education for 1,200 pupils. Included on site are sports and vocational catering facilities plus a special education needs unit for autistic pupils.
However, during the design stage, elements of the community in this part of Wales made their opposition to the project very clear. The chosen site was particularly unpopular in the market town of Llandovery, 12 miles away, which was the location of one of the schools to be closed in the merger.
Andrew Lewis, lead architect for ASL on this project, says:
“There was a lot of vocal opposition to the closure of that school. That made development of the new school quite difficult.” He adds: “We’ve a track record designing a broad range of schools and we always like to consult with future users and stakeholders, such as the senior management team, the governors, the pupils. So when there’s a lack of trust, but also active opposition, that makes it tricky to engage people in the architecture.”
Things improved once construction finally got under way.
“Once it was developed enough for people to walk around, they could really get an idea of the quality they were going to get.”
Adapting the design
“This is a beautiful greenfield site right next to a river that is overlooked by National Trust land and close to the western edge of the Brecon Beacons National Park. There were aspects of the original scheme that were three storeys high and the way it was arranged made it appear bigger on the site that it needed to be.”
To help the school fit into the landscape and get planning permission, the design would need the backing of the Design Commission for Wales, so ASL got to work making adjustments.
The collegiate-style arrangement of four pavilions – containing classrooms, learning resource centre, assembly hall and kitchens – around a central courtyard was retained. However, the structures were reduced to two-storey height and the sports hall and autistic unit were set a little distance away from the pavilions to further reduce the overall scale of the school.
And to help it blend in against a background of woodland and hills, light colours and white render were replaced with earthy tones – mid-brown brick and dark grey aluminium standing seam roofs.
Let there be light
One of the other factors that informed the school’s design was the Eisteddfod, the Welsh language festival of literature, music and performance. Lewis explains:
“The school’s senior management team and board of governors were very keen to have a large school hall that could accommodate as many people as possible for Eisteddfod- related theatrical productions or musical performances and a proper stage with proper lighting.”
“We were also instructed to ensure the approach to the school had ‘wow factor’ without being too ‘loud’ visually when seen from the road.” The answer to these conflicting goals is a main entrance facade that makes extensive contemporary use of glass.
The transparency of the glazing means visitors are indeed wowed by a light and welcoming ground-floor reception and the double-height first-floor learning resource
“It’s confident and bold, yet inviting, and immediately says this is a place of learning,” says Lewis.
Another change ASL made to the concept designs was in circulation. “The original scheme had a lot of the classrooms spilling out onto external decks, but we brought the circulation back in inside,” explained Lewis. “Rather than having a standard central corridor, we have this double-height space which runs through the centre of every pavilion. That brings in light from high up and illuminates the ground floor level of the circulation space, making the space more pleasant to walk through.”
The light Lewis refers to permeates through windows that are part of the distinctive roof design of the pavilions. Rather than a classic apex-pitch roof, the pavilions boast an angled step shape and the glazing is positioned in the vertical aspect of the step.
Closed and opened by electrical motors, the windows are also an intrinsic feature of the natural and passive ventilation strategy for the school. Lewis explains:
“Within classrooms, teachers and pupils simply open windows to allow fresh air in. Hot air is drawn out of the classroom through grills in the corridor walls, up through the double-height corridor space and out through the glazing in the roof.”
“It’s a very simple but proven approach without having to force air through air handling units. The all-the- bells-and-whistles systems have often been shown to be too complicated for users. Simple and intuitive is more effective.”
The passive ventilation system is just one way in which Ysgol Bro Dinefwr is designed to achieve BREEAM Excellent and be awarded an Energy Performance Certificate A rating – standards that any new school in Wales must now attain.
Environmental sustainability has been a key driver in the design of the school. Lewis says:
“Passive measures like the right orientation of the building, the right specification and amount of glazing, overhangs and louvre panels to offer solar protection, good insulation and thermal values for external materials may be less ‘sexy’ but will make major sustainability gains.”
Moreover, an extensive array of photovoltaic panels have been positioned on south-facing roofs pitches to help supply not only lighting but the high electricity demand for IT devices that any school now has.
Sports for all
The school’s sports hall is not only separated from the central pavilions to reduce the scale of the development – its separation underlines the potential for community use out of hours when the school is locked up. Lewis says:
“Badminton, basketball and football facilities are provided to Sport England standard but come the end of the school day, these facilities aren’t used as much. Of course, making them available to the community also provides an income for the school. The 3G football pitches like those provided here often prove popular, although they are not floodlit because of the sensitivity of the location.”
Besides the kitchen, which any school of this size would have to provide food for its students, Ysgol Bro Dinefwr also offers vocational catering facilities, which it will share with other partnering Carmarthenshire schools. This entails a commercial kitchen layout which can offer learning opportunities to those considering a career in catering, and even provide an area that can be set up as a “simulated” restaurant.
Also set back from the pavilions is the autistic special education needs unit. Here, aspects of the design differs from other parts of the school. The double-height corridor approach has been abandoned because of safety considerations. In addition, construction is more robust; for example, walls are blockwork instead of the impact-resistant plaster board used in the rest of the school.
Autistic pupils can be noise intolerant so the range of special therapy spaces makes use of acoustic measures like finishes selected to provide more absorption of sound. Classrooms have direct contact with the external landscape area because going outside can sometimes be part of a strategy to diffuse stressful situations. Finally, the outside play area features a soft, rubberised play surface.
Lewis admits Ysgol Bro Dinefwr had plenty of challenges.
“Number one challenge was knowing not everyone was fully on board with the project. Number two was the budget: what had been initially presented to the school was just not affordable.”
In the first few months of construction there was the added complication of what a geophysical survey (ground radar) discovered about the archaeological significance of the site. A Roman road believed to pass through the south-east corner of the site was confirmed. The survey also showed a number of circular shadows, believed to
be Bronze-age ring ditches, in the
proposed playing field area and under the northern part of the building footprint. This assumption was confirmed through excavation.
A phased relocation of students was completed last year and the new school is now fully occupied. Lewis concludes:
“I’ve been back since completion and it’s really nice to see the students learning and having fun in play spaces – it’s good to see that
Main contractor: Bouygues UK Architecture,
Architecture,Landscape & Interior Design: Austin-Smith:Lord
Cost Consultant: Faithful & Gould
Civil & Structural Engineers: CB3 Consult
MEP Engineers: SABA Consult
Planning Consultant: Asbri
Acoustic Consultant: Hunter Acoustics
BREEAM Assessor: Melin Energy
Fire Engineer: Trenton Fire
Catering Designer and Subcontractor: Shine
MEP Subcontractor: Whitehead Specialist
Sports Pitches: South Wales Sports Ground
Roofing: Central Cladding
Windows, doors and curtain walling: Denval
Fixed furniture: T S Booker