This clever design for a secondary school is a worthy companion to the adjoining special-needs school by the same architects, which won an RIBA Award in 2009. But whereas that was single storey as befits the needs of young people with many and real learning and physical difficulties, this one achieves a great deal on three compact levels, yet has a gratifying generosity of circulation and inner courtyard spaces.
The five faculties within the school are boldly identified with bright coloured doors in a predominantly grey/black/concrete series of internal finishes, which are subtle, grown–up and calming.
The central atrium space has to perform many flexible functions. It is lined, walls and ceilings, in a cheap pine boards, yet there is nothing sauna-like about it because of the quality of the design. Although an internal space, it is top-lit by big roof-lights which flood the space with an even light.
Flexibility means the tables at one edge of the space accommodate computers for informal teaching; other dining tables can be swept away to allow trampolining or other games – though there is a splendid robust and day lit gym elsewhere. But primarily this atrium is a meeting place, the true heart of a fine building where the architects seem to have thought of everything. It is a mature piece which will help its pupils mature into rounded adults.
The building embodies an innovative natural ventilation system, which works well on the hottest of summer days and is subtly manifested on the deep brown brickwork of external walls as occasional patterns of gaps in the pointing. The fenestration is equally handsomely arranged in each façade, has deep reveals, and in places accentuates key views across Guildford.
One tall window illuminates a stair well and uses one of the biggest single pieces of glass available in the UK. Although built at under £2000 per square metre, such details demonstrate that nowhere have corners noticeably been cut. The classrooms are robust, functional and adaptable spaces. Staff and students are clearly delighted with their building which will stand the test of time.
DSDHA have been inspired by their Swiss teaching experience and by their understanding of the needs of British school children who were so woefully served by politicians and by many architects in the later part of the 20th century. It will be tragic if these efforts are stymied by the current economic climate and our response to it.