Practice makes perfect

Walters & Cohen recently secured their sixth RIBA award for work on Lady Eleanor Holles School – a good way to mark their 20th anniversary

Walters & Cohen Architects was founded in 1994 and received its first commission for an education project in 1996. Since then, the practice has progressed from nursery schools to primary schools, secondary schools and UTCs, and has completed work for clients including King Alfred School, Bedales School and Marlborough College.

In 2003 Walters & Cohen was chosen as one of five practices to design an exemplar primary school for the Department for Education. This was a three-month period of intensive research and design, resulting in a set of design principles that could be adapted to suit any particular site and client criteria. The first school to be built based on the exemplar design – Redbrook Hayes School in Staffordshire – won the practice a RIBA Award in 2007. Awards have also been received for buildings at Bedales School, Ryde School and Colston’s Girls’ School in Bristol, among others.

The exemplar design principles have been adapted and improved over time so that the quality of the architecture keeps pace with the demands of clients. The practice is particularly skilled at carrying out meaningful consultation and uses its findings to inform the design. Progress is communicated very clearly so that schools can see how their ideas, desires and opinions have impacted on the design development. Mark Taylor, ex-bursar at Bedales (now at the King’s School, Canterbury) said that “[Walters & Cohen] had a terrific knack of needling out a clear client brief and wanted to ensure that they fully understood the Bedales School ethos before starting the design.”

As well as stand-alone buildings, the practice has completed complicated remodelling, refurbishment and extension projects, and has worked with a number of independent school clients in sensitive and historic sites and within listed buildings. The practice has also completed high-quality specialist facilities, such as the new arts centre at the Lady Eleanor Holles School, which includes a theatre, recital room and recording studio as well as teaching accommodation. This project won the practice another accolade when it picked up a RIBA London Award earlier this year.

“Our vision for Walters & Cohen when we started out was to make it through our first year,” says Cindy Walters. “That aside, we wanted to run a very good design-led practice. Our dream scenario was to get to a size where we could mange nice-sized complex projects without the practice getting too big, because we always wanted to make sure we would know all the people working at the practice. We always said we would like to be able to sit around a table and eat together, and we are just about still able to do that.

“I am very pleased with the way the practice’s education portfolio has developed: when we won our first nursery school in 1996 it felt like a real feather in our caps, and we have gone on to become well-respected as primary school and secondary school designers. The practice learned so much through BSF and I am very proud of the work we have done on large, complex school sites. I’m thinking in particular of Cotham School and Colston’s Girls’ School, both in Bristol, and Regent High School in London. I think we’ve become very good at providing genuinely flexible spaces, making wayfinding and improving indoor-outdoor relationships; these are all things that our school clients say make a big difference to the way teaching and learning can happen in their schools.

“We’re now starting to get school work abroad, and are also actively pursuing a move into higher education. We have a lot of skills and experience that I think will transfer well to higher education, not only from our schools but also our residential, cultural and health and leisure projects.”

Walters & Cohen’s key design principles for schools include sustainability, flexibility and adaptability, accessibility and ease of use, value for money and safety. Current clients include St Paul’s School, the Godolphin and Latymer, Reigate Grammar School, St Swithun’s School and the American School in London.

“I think the special thing about Walters & Cohen is the people: we are very lucky to be surrounded by a wonderful office,” add Michál Cohen. “Over the years we have developed a core skill of listening, and of course this is about listening to our clients and the consultants we work with, but it’s also about listening within the office. We have so much we can learn from each other, and I think this respect and willingness to listen is what makes the office a nurturing environment to be in. I hope Walters & Cohen are seen as people who are good to work with, very responsive and always wanting to find out more about our clients, making sure that we are creating something very specific and bespoke for each and every project.

“I am fascinated with how children learn, and seeing how my daughter learns, so I love being involved in making better education buildings. I do love seeing our completed projects, seeing how the teachers and pupils make the school their own, but my favourite part of the process is setting the brief. Those early stages are very exciting: we put so much effort into understanding the client, analysing the way their school runs and making sure that we have responded absolutely fully to their requirements. This means seeing what they need now, and trying to look forward for them. We ask questions about things they might not have considered, so we can be sure that what we’re giving them is something that won’t just last for five years or ten years, but will last an lot longer than that.”

More information on the practice can be found on its website.

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