A pioneering secondary school built in 1993 and designed around the National Curriculum has been praised for its positive learning environment, but it loses marks in other areas
Swanlea School at a glance

Swanlea School in Whitechapel, east London, opened in 1993 as a comprehensive for 1050 pupils. It was one of the first schools to be purpose-designed to cater for the National Curriculum. At its heart is a three-storey mall, 127 m long, with a stylish glazed roof that curves down on the south side to catch the sun. The unit construction cost was only £745/m2, 12% below the then-Department for Education's yardstick.

The building was designed for the London Borough of Tower Hamlets by Britain's most famous school architect, Sir Colin Stansfield Smith, in association with Percy Thomas Partnership. Anthony Hunt Associates was structural engineer, Whitby Bird & Partners was services engineer, Northcroft was QS and Trafalgar House Construction (now Kvaerner) was main contractor.

Fitness for purpose

Mall promotes learning culture

"I think the mall offers a wonderful opportunity to create a sense of achievement in the learning environment that other schools don't have," enthuses head teacher Linda Austin.

A draft Ofsted report for the chief inspector of schools also comments on the school's "very positive environment for learning".

As the main thoroughfare for the whole school, the mall encourages social interaction and is used to display pupils' work, although the display boards are an awkward afterthought.

The mall also doubles as an attractive classroom in summer – it cannot be designated a permanent teaching fixture because it is too cold in winter.

One design weakness of the mall noted by staff is that the location of the reception desk 20 m from the main entrance limits its effectiveness in controlling security.

Versatile classrooms

"The classrooms are very heavily used, and most of them are versatile," says Austin.

One of the science labs has been changed to an IT room. And many classrooms are equipped with trunking for cabling around the walls, enabling more computer terminals to be installed and a network to be set up across the school.

Space shortages The school suffers from a shortage of space for circulation, examinations and storage. The Ofsted report noted crowding between classes in the narrow corridors leading off the main mall and cramped changing rooms for the sports hall and gymnasium.

In addition, the National Curriculum dictates that the sports hall be requisitioned for mock and actual examinations for one-quarter of the academic session, and this takes the adjoining gymnasium out of use. Finding alternative sports venues off-site costs up to £4000 a year. Finally, there is inadequate storage for the 200 examination desks required; these are now stored below the stairs and in a converted bin store in the service yard.

Layout designed to allow expansion

Expansion is made easy by the building's simple layout, in which rooms form spurs off the central mall. The dining hall, for instance, had to be extended three years after completion to cater for the abnormally high take-up of school lunches. Two bays of the building were extended outwards into the garden in a manner indistinguishable from the original building. Likewise, a small parents' interview room has been created within the mall close to the reception desk.


Style for optimism

The stylish S-curved glass roof supported on an esplanade of steel trees, the generous internal daylighting and meticulous detailing all lift the building high above the norm for local-authority schools.

"The general reaction is very positive," confirms Austin. "The fact that it's a new and exciting building and there's lots of daylight help to create a sense of optimism." The Ofsted report comments on the "bright, airy and well-maintained building".

Although limited in external playground space, the school is graced along its south side by richly planted gardens, including a small amphitheatre, that serve as a welcome oasis in the densely built-up area. On the north side, even tarmac playgrounds are interleaved with well-tended shrubberies.


Heating is a headache

Although the mall is unheated, its south-facing glazing and angled louvres were designed to admit solar gain in winter and repel it in summer. In practice, the completed building falls short of the design intention.

"In summer it doesn't overheat, but in winter it's extremely cold," says Weaver. "And it would be much too expensive to install heating." The double-height sports hall and gymnasium, which are heated by radiant panels fixed high up beneath the ceiling, and other north-facing classrooms also suffer from cold in winter.

Daylighting is remarkably generous, as the sports hall, gymnasium, assembly hall and all top-floor rooms have large clerestory windows.

Cross ventilation works well.


Poor vandal-proofing

Like many other schools, Swanlea has suffered from vandalism and graffiti, and their elimination is a top priority for the school's three premises staff. Many extra defences against vandalism have had to be retro-fitted at considerable cost. These include a £40 000 security fence on top of the perimeter brick wall to double its height to 5.5 m, and another fence inside the mall to segregate evening community events from the rest of the school.

The toilets have taken a particular battering. Precautions have included removing the suspended ceilings, refitting the proprietary toilet cubicles to a more robust specification and even adding hefty steel braces to the wash-hand basins to stop taps being left running.

Light switches in corridors also attract vandalism, requiring the installation of override master switches.

Building defects

Many defects appeared after practical completion and have needed remedial work. Cracks appeared in internal and external walls where expansion joints are missing. The seals in a dozen double-glazing panels have failed, causing their internal metal louvres to corrode and creating large unsightly blotches in the roof.

Claims and counter-claims between client and contractor took four years to reach settlement. Gerhard Hattingh, director of architect Percy Thomas Partnership, maintains that all defects have been settled under the terms of the contract, but several corroded double-glazing panels are still evident. Replacing the panels costs £4000 apiece.

Hyperactive electronic controls

The building management system and other electronic controls have a tendency to overreact to school conditions.

"The system of combining the public address system and the fire alarm was a ridiculous cost-cutting exercise and results in lots of false alarms," says Weaver. "And if the fire alarm goes off overnight, the rooflights over the mall open automatically, but there's no manual override. So rain gets in and ruins the carpet." In addition, the mechanical ventilation system often switches off, causing problems in the lavatories. "If I were designing a school, I would start by locating the toilets along the external walls," says the frustrated bursar.

On the other hand, alarm systems and CCTV cameras have been effective in cutting down vandalism and thefts.

Carpets worn out

Frayed, stained and spotted with discarded chewing gum, the carpets are a disgrace to the smart-looking building, as well as being a safety hazard where they are coming apart on the stairs. Carpets have been replaced with non-slip vinyl at a cost of £50 000 to date, and more awaits replacement.

High energy costs

Despite high levels of thermal insulation and solar gain through the glazed roof, gas bills for the 10 680 m2 building for hot water and radiators are £10 000 a year. Electricity, covering lighting, cooking and IT equipment, is more expensive, at £35 000 a year.

Nigel Burch, of quantity surveyor Davis Langdon & Everest, who has studied comparable schools, comments that £35 000 would be at the high end of the average range for energy costs.

Maintenance access problems

Although the building is well maintained and the glass roof and metal cladding panels were specified to be self-cleansing, cleaning and maintenance are made difficult by lack of access. Cleaning the elaborate steel trees in the mall requires a specialist contractor to be brought in at a cost of £4000. To replace the fractured panels over the mall a large mobile crane had to be used. And self-seeding bushes are threatening the roof membranes on the flat roofs, but without proper safety barriers, premises staff are unable to deal with them. Basic building maintenance costs £40 000 a year, with £80 000 going on cleaning (exclusive of staff salaries). Landscape maintenance at £2880 (excluding plants) a year is money well spent.

Star rating (***** = perfect)

Fitness for purpose **** The glazed mall and classrooms create a positive environment for learning. The building is able to adapt to changing requirements, but the unheated mall cannot be used in winter and there is a lack of space for circulation, examinations and storage. Comfort *** The unheated mall, as well as the sports hall, gymnasium and north-facing classrooms suffer from cold in winter. Daylighting is superb and ventilation is adequate. Delight **** The bright and airy mall and classrooms, the exciting S-curved roof with its steel trees, and the richly planted gardens all lift the spirits of pupils and teachers. Maintainability * Although the building is well-maintained, there have been problems, ranging from vandalism in lavatories and hyperactive electronic controls, to lack of expansion joints and access equipment. Poor-wearing carpets are being replaced by durable vinyl throughout.