Poplars Primary School, Lowestoft

The Overview

For and on behalf of Suffolk County Council, the original client brief called for a new replacement school to combine both Poplar and Northfield St Nicholas primary schools under one roof, independent but with some shared facilities and spaces.

Both schools were originally designed and built in 1950’s post-war Britain. Unlike Nineteenth century School architects, who adorned their buildings with decorated facades, post war designers emphasised function, as they understood it, and embraced elements of modernist language to express the external envelope of the schools. Form follows function. This school is therefore typical of this period in architectural history, and it is the predominant style for many schools in Lowestoft.

The decision to demolish and re-build was not well received by everyone, and required a high degree of diplomacy and promotion through public consultation events to sell the scheme to the schools leadership team, governors and the wider community. The scheme we produced was effectively two courtyard schools built either side of administration offices, combined catering kitchen and assembly halls. It would have become one of the largest schools in the country and quite unique. See separate school study.

In terms of construction, we have been at the forefront of incorporating sustainable materials and techniques in school buildings. With this new school, we designed the structure around a cross laminated timber frame infilled with prefabricated straw bale wall panels and faced with lime render – with the idea that the children and community could get involved in the construction of their new school. We proposed to incorporate a passive ‘hybrid’ natural mixing ventilation system to improve air quality and thermal comfort, important elements in the success of teaching environments.

Following exhaustive cost analysis, the project could not be delivered within our very tight budget which led to a complete rethink of how we could extend, update and upgrade the original buildings to provide accommodation for an increased school population that would rise to 420 pupils.

Having two schools co-habiting the same site brings about new challenges and opportunities. A new landscape design was therefore seen as critical to create a strong identity for each school, a suitable setting for learning, and to enhance a sense of place.

The Challenge

Complex / invasive programme of extensions and refurbishment works on a two ‘live’ primary schools that sit side by side on the same site.

The Solution

As architects, we always look back to go forward. Having designed many new schools and studied the way they performed, the good and the bad, we have used this combined knowledge to inform our design approach to breathe new life into this tired 1950's building - transforming movement throughout school and creating a sequence of new dynamic spaces / learning environments both internally and externally.

We evaluated the whole building and began to strip away poorly designed extensions and spaces to reveal the original architecture. From there, we sought to look at circulation routes, with an ambition to redefine movement around the school.

A new large single storey extension was then added to the rear to create additional classroom and activity areas, which was planned around a wide cloister overlooking a landscaped internal courtyard.

The original school is flat roofed. A feature of the design is the introduction of various roof lines to animate the sky line – towers, zig zags and mono pitches, which also provide visual interest from first floor classrooms. Flat sections of roof covering the cloister are dressed with sedum blankets.

At the centre of the school we demolished internal walls forming small cellular spaces to create a central library and social heart, carefully linked to the new circulation routes. We also cut in new large full height windows to overlook the courtyard.

In addition to extension works, we refurbished most rooms around the school, including a complete kitchen refurbishment, new boiler / heating and replaced all windows and doors.