Birkenhead High School Academy
Birkenhead High School Academy sponsored by the Girls’ Day School Trust is an over-prescribed and high achieving all-girls school in the Wirral which maintains the shared goal of excellence in girls’ education. It is in the top 20% of non-selective schools and academies nationally. They offer girls from the age of 3 to 19 years the opportunity to develop into confident, articulate, aspiring and responsible young women equipped to tackle cheerfully whatever life throws at them and to forge an exciting and fulfilling future for themselves. Even after their conversion to Academy status, they have maintained their class sizes and have strong student-teacher relationships to ensure that each student is valued and nurtured.
The school was started in an old manor house built in 1836 that stands to this date as the main focus of the site. Over the years as the school grew, with a number of buildings added to the existing site, and a junior school building located on an acquired site across the road. The two sites are connected via a bridge spanning the road. The buildings on the senior school site vary in terms of their age and their appearance as well as their construction technique. Some of the older buildings had aged better than the new ones in some cases. The open space in the school was fragmented and not very user-friendly and there were some heavily contoured and grassy areas which had the potential to be converted into spaces for social interaction.
The junior school consisted of two old houses converted into classrooms. Although these buildings were much loved by the students, there was a severe lack of larger spaces for performance, dining and group teaching sessions. Some of rooms were very cold due to some damp issues as well as single glazed timber windows.
Aedas along with Wilmott Dixon were chosen as one of two-bidders in a 4-month competitive engagement process with the school. During these four months, we spoke to the students, the staff to get a thorough understanding of what works and what needed improvement. We then sat down with the team and discussed our priorities and approach to this complicated project.
We decided early on that it was important that the priority was to make the school more efficient in terms of energy consumption. We identified all the major repairs and upgrades that would be required to the fabric of the existing building to ensure better performance. The boilers were also upgraded in the school with a much more efficient system and user-friendly controls. We worked closely with the landscape consultant to make the outside spaces more attractive to the students and to give every small bit of outside space identity and purpose.
In the senior school the main new build element was the entrance building which houses the new reception, performance hall with stage and dining space as well as a number of classrooms.
There were several requirements from the school in terms of functionality:
1. A space to accommodate all students and staff for whole school assemblies.
2. A hall equipped to host a variety of music concerts, plays and performances.
3. A large stage and back stage area that can be accessed away from the view of the audience
4. A large space for examinations.
5. A dining hall and kitchen that can serve the entire senior school.
Keeping in mind all of these requirements we came up with an extremely flexible layout where all the spaces worked hard to maximise usage in different scenarios. The stage was placed at the heart of the school with two movable walls in either side which can either be opened to face the central atrium of the school or to face the acoustically treated main performance hall or even both to have more avant-garde ‘theatre in the round’ type of scenario. The performance hall can also be closed off during examination times while the school still retain the stage for assemblies and smaller performances. The front façade of the building was opened with a full-height glass curtain-wall with bronze fins for shading. The simple and elegant glass and bronze façade was also sympathetic to the surrounding brick buildings.
The site for this new building was sandwiched between two existing buildings and less than a few metres away from a third. We wanted the new building to connect the three buildings greatly improving the circulation around the school. The students previously had to go outside in between lessons to attend classes in a different block. We also added a covered link bridge to a fourth building making almost all buildings on site accessible through internal spaces alone.
The junior school also had a new entrance building with a reception, new infant and reception classrooms and a new performance and dining hall. This building was placed in between the two existing buildings and lightly touched them to provide an internal connection. The silhouette of the new building was designed as a typical ‘home’ outline drawn by a child to make the building feel familiar, safe and inviting for young children as well as to tie in with the architecture of the adjacent buildings.
The delivery team went through detailed discussions regarding phasing with the school before we progressed into construction stage as the school had to function normally through the entire period. As part of the proposal every building on site had essential repairs carried out, as well as newly painted walls and flooring to give them a fresh feel and to re-brand the entire school.
The team met with several challenges when work commenced on the existing buildings. There were a number of unexpected findings of asbestos, completely corroded timbers etc. due to lack of up-to-date surveys and drawings. The other main challenge was the many different types of junctions with existing buildings of different ages that had to be dealt with on site.
The internal spaces of the school were designed around a black and white theme as black was the official school colour. We developed a colour palette of pinks for the junior school, reds for the senior school and purple for the sixth form to show development through the years. The shades of colours were also chosen to be sympathetic to the age of the building.
The new build elements were completed for the start of the new school year in September 2012 with the remaining landscape and external works completed by the end of the year. The school had its grand opening where all the parents and board members visited the site and were thoroughly pleased with the outcome and improvement to the functioning of the school.
Project Architect: Arthi Balasubramanian.
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