Making the grade

Eleanor Sharman discusses the challenge of integrating a new arts centre into a landscape of listed buildings

Designing a new building for a school always raises questions and issues, but Rendcomb College faced more than usual when plans were submitted for a state of the art Performing Arts Centre back in 2014.

The new building was designed to meet the educational needs of the school community it will serve, but its location in the centre of a small picturesque Cotswold village, close to listed buildings and within a designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and a defined conservation area, meant that it had to be designed sensitively and with due regard to the many heritage assets surrounding it. The concerns of our neighbours regarding traffic and noise also played a major role in how the plans were formulated. Considerable work was undertaken over an 18-month period by our architects, Robotham’s, who worked closely with Cotswold District Council and English Heritage to develop the scheme. According to the architects, the building is conceived as a hill embracing the auditorium with a foyer cut into the side as an escarpment, reflecting in microcosm the landscape character assessment for the area. 

An artist’s impression of the new Performing Arts Centre

Within close proximity of the building site is a Grade 1 listed parish church, a Grade 2* listed mansion house which is now the main school building, a Grade 2 listed Stable Block which houses many of our classrooms, and several other Grade 2 listed buildings belonging to the school. Add a couple of scheduled ancient monuments to the mix and there’s quite a lot to think about! The sight lines relevant to each of these buildings had to be given due consideration during the planning process and as result of advice from English Heritage the building has been sunk further into the ground to reduce the overall height by an additional 1.5metres: a large and expensive hole to dig through the unforgiving Cotswold rock. The 19 pre-commencement conditions attached to the approval are an indication of how much time and effort is going into the detailing of the building.

The Cotswold Design Guide encourages high quality modern design as opposed to poor pastiche and the approved design represents “a high quality insertion as appropriate for the typology and nature of the site.” A palette of muted natural materials is being used, reflecting those found locally within the conservation area. Grass, stone, timber and glass have been blended in a modern architecture that is neutral within the heritage assets setting and reflects the tones of the wider setting. Overall, the project will have its own identity as a modern building that respects and highlights the existing architecture.

Although this will be a modern building, many of the school’s existing buildings are listed in their own right. Maintaining and improving these buildings is always challenging, especially when the needs and regulations of a modern educational environment are taken into consideration, and frequently clash with listed building requirements. Older buildings certainly weren’t designed with BS6465 in mind! Sweeping staircases, lead roofs, flagstones, stained glass and ornate plasterwork: all are beautiful, but all come with their own problems. Skilled craftsmen are of course harder to find than ever before – sourcing a traditional lime plasterer to repair a ceiling damaged during a lightning strike was a challenge in its own right – and often come with a lengthy lead time and significant bill. We take a pragmatic view of it though, and enjoy the beauty and quirkiness that these buildings provide.

Overall, would I swap the complexities of lath and plaster for the simplicity of kiln dried studwork and plasterboard? Probably not! 

Eleanor Sharman is Bursar at Rendcomb College.    

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