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Reclaiming space

Withington Girls' School's new junior school and communal hub makes the most of underused space

Posted by Stephanie Broad | December 08, 2015 | Facilities & buildings

Founded in 1890, Withington Girls’ School in Manchester was keen to develop a long-term strategy for the overall enhancement of its accommodation, to include rationalising and improving the existing facilities and expanding the junior school. Levitt Bernstein developed a masterplan together with proposals for a new junior school as an initial development project. The commission also included a new hub building, which forms a pivotal role in providing space to bring the whole school together. 

The new junior school is located to the rear of the site, overlooking the playing fields and forming the fourth side to a formerly underused external courtyard. By roofing over this space, it connects to the remainder of the school through the new central hub. This provides a multifunctional space for the whole school – linking all the surrounding facilities in the existing buildings, unifying the school’s accommodation and providing a clearly legible central orientation point. 

The new junior school has been realised to both provide a department with its own strong identity and increase provision. Its central location means it can be embraced by the whole estate, which is particularly important to the school’s pastoral ethos. Eight new classrooms, alongside a hall, IT suite, library, staff office, storage rooms and changing areas offer generous facilities for the school at its current size, with sufficient space for it to grow further in future. 

The communal hub offers space for teaching and play

A large space for all teachers and pupils of the junior school is provided in the new hall, which can be used for formal gatherings or more practical lessons. A concertina wall also affords extra flexibility, by enclosing this space for added privacy or opening it up to connect with the double height entrance atrium and new hub beyond. 

The hub has transformed what was a series of underused, awkward external areas, to create a new pivotal space for the whole school. The octagonal arts centre sits centrally and the new roof spans at first floor level between this, the existing buildings and new junior school, which surround it. The arts centre has been knocked through at the ground floor level to become a unified part of the large open plan area. The hub’s internal layout takes advantage of the varying topographical levels to create a range of spaces for informal learning and socialising. 

Importantly, extensive glazing throughout maximises natural light to create a comfortable learning, teaching, socialising and exhibiting environment. The hub unifies the school’s accommodation, creating sight lines across the site, connecting primary facilities and greatly improving day to day operation. 

Efficiency in construction was incorporated as a design principle from the outset, with the junior school conceived as a precast concrete frame with regularly spaced cross walls providing geometric repetition to facilitate faster on-site construction. The flank walls are precast insulated concrete sandwich panels finished externally in brick. The building materials and process have been honestly expressed in its final appearance, with the exposed basic structural material, concrete, complemented and contrasted by a simple palette of brick, glass, plaster and timber elements. 

The building makes use of brick, glass, plaster and timber

As a Green Flag school, sustainability was a key concern for the school. As well as creating a new landscaped space backing onto the playing fields and increasing the visibility of these areas within the new buildings, a wildflower green roof on the junior school supports local biodiversity and improves the thermal performance of the building. The precast concrete structure creates thermal mass and stores heat, warming the building in winter and cooling it in summer. The majority of the building is naturally ventilated, with fresh air brought in at the perimeter, warmed if necessary, and exhausted at roof level via chimneys located at the rear of each classroom or via a roof light in the double height entrance. 

Kathryn Burrows, Head of the Junior School, remarked: “It is an ‘edgy’, modern design yet has such a tranquil, peaceful atmosphere, creating a wonderful environment in which the girls will be able to learn and thrive. It’s just the beginning for us as we now have so much space to develop. We are very much looking forward to our new chapter.”

Headmistress, Mrs Sue Marks, commented: “It is wonderful that these important new buildings and refurbishment works have been completed in 2015, the 125th anniversary of the School’s foundation. It seems very fitting that we are not only celebrating the Founders’ vision back in 1890, but also anticipating the needs of future generations of Withington pupils. The new facilities will transform the learning of our girls in a number of subjects, providing for practical, hands-on activities and giving huge amounts of extra space for girls’ independent learning and social interaction alike”.    

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