The school in a class of its own

This is Notley Green Primary, where form and function combine to the benefit of both children and the environment. Top marks, says Jay Merrick
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The Independent Online

There is, just outside Braintree in Essex, a rather striking example of "architect-designed" housing. To wit, 3,000 homes for downtown folks determined to live in a newly uptown world. The lavish, no-expense-spared billboard at the gateway to the estate says it all: "Panners Bridge. Enchanting Village Homes." And as the car's tyres flub over speed-bumps, the visitor enters an eerie domain, no two houses quite the same, building styles familiar but not quite recognisable, shiny new cars in driveways, and a faint shimmer to the whole stage set, as if coated with Tinkerbell's magic dust.

There is, just outside Braintree in Essex, a rather striking example of "architect-designed" housing. To wit, 3,000 homes for downtown folks determined to live in a newly uptown world. The lavish, no-expense-spared billboard at the gateway to the estate says it all: "Panners Bridge. Enchanting Village Homes." And as the car's tyres flub over speed-bumps, the visitor enters an eerie domain, no two houses quite the same, building styles familiar but not quite recognisable, shiny new cars in driveways, and a faint shimmer to the whole stage set, as if coated with Tinkerbell's magic dust.

The three- to five-bed housing is undoubtedly very des res. But there is something else on the estate that puts all this domiciliary hauteur in the shade. Less than 200m from the entrance to these enchanted hectares, and hunkered down among overlapping duvets of landscaped grass, is a shot of modernist double-espresso, whose contrast to the smash-and-grab vernacular around it could not be greater.

Notley Green Primary School, designed by Allford Hall Monaghan Morris, is a notable achievement in a beleaguered sector. The practice, encouraged by Essex County Council, has produced an award-winning building whose pared-down design appears to have maximised good educational vibrations within its unusual triangular plan.

This kind of building doesn't come easy, or cheap. Essex County Council took a calculated chance at Great Notley. But, then, this particular authority is known for its brinkmanship in terms of pushing through innovation in school design and, like Hampshire County Council, they have regularly set a lead in this field. Hampshire, under its now-retired chief architect Colin Stansfield-Smith, set new trends in terms of school design; Essex tended to lead the way in terms of improving their environmental performance. And now, at Great Notley, the county's learning services directorate seems to have crystallised both ingredients.

This crystallisation began three years ago when the county council launched an open design competition that attracted 92 entries. Six practices, including the high-fliers Future Systems, were shortlisted and invited to submit only their ideas about school design. And not a shred of baseline specification was offered to them at that stage, not even basic details about the site or size of the school. Why not? To rule out the back-of-fag-packet syndrome - hastily submitted schemes seamed with flaws that invariably lead to design and cost compromises. At Great Notley, this ground-zero approach, tracked by the Design Council, sought proposals that integrated all facets of the design and building from the outset.

Allford Hall Monaghan Morris was picked because, in addition to its design philosophy, it came in with respected landscape and interior design teams. "To us, this wasn't a unique working method," says practice principal Simon Allford. "But to the county council, it was. There was also a keenness to demonstrate to the Government the problems with some public-building funding systems - funding and cost assessments are often inappropriate."

The costing question was particularly acute at Great Notley, for this was to be a building of low environmental impact. But how could certain potential costs, linked to design innovations, be justified in the short term? "Sustainable? We resist that term," admits Alford. "We look for low-energy, environmentally considered buildings. School buildings are very simple buildings that, typically, aren't well maintained. So we looked for simple environmental devices."

Enter passive ventilation, recycled plastic for worktops, a roof alive with spongy succulent sedum, natural lighting and timber frame wall panels insulated with recycled newsprint. High-tech environmental gizmos were never in the running. External photovoltaic cells, for all their energy efficiency once installed, have an estimated capital cost payback period of two centuries; and wind-powered generators only pay their way after 70 years. They might, in any case, have looked odd on what Allford was trying to produce - a structure that had a clear affinity with "tough, rural, low-lying, dark-stained buildings".

The practice, whose delightful Walsall bus station signals a distinctive brand of creativity, duly succeeded in this respect. But why - and it's a tiresomely common complaint - must British designers hawk around for the bits and bobs? The school's hard-wearing bamboo hall flooring came from China; the bio-roof was from Germany; aluminium-profiled timber windows were made in Sweden. These components may well be cheaper and, environmentally, lower impact in terms of raw material and manufacture, but how much refined petroleum does it take to ship them overseas? The window manufacturer Crittalls is just down the road from Great Notley yet was never in the running, on cost grounds, according to the county council's property care officer, Gordon Powell.

Despite these niggles, he insists that "a lot of the success of the school is in the design. We were very happy with it. We wanted to promote good architecture, and we've ended up with a school that seems to work, and is architecturally interesting." Children in Essex, and Hampshire, are notable beneficiaries of this attitude. But it's one that's not quite universal among county and metropolitan authorities.

"Sadly," says Mr Powell, "a lot of local authorities are driven by cost. Here in Essex, we spend over the average on schools." In fact, that's not quite the case: the county's primary school costing models are generally similar to most comparable counties. But where Essex does stick its neck out is in innovation and experiment; Notley Green Primary School cost about £1.3m to build and, at about £130 per square metre, that makes it 10 per cent more expensive than more standard offerings. And even if its design is not repeated in its entirety, the best points will be fed into design guidelines; it's a logical, and suitably organic, way forward.

One wonders what the millennial Pooters of Panners Bridge make of their school. Some no doubt regard the building as odd, certainly compared to nearby homes; others may sense that it is a bonus to their pristine neighbourhood - something darkly mysterious that adds to the general aura of exclusive living.

But last Monday, it was the faces of the 180 pupils of Notley Green Primary School that seemed to hold the key. If innovative school design and matching building budgets matter a damn, those grey-faced shards just off the A130 will, in a year or two, begin to turn out children who are more than usually happy to learn.

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