On a single 7,000m2 site in Deptford, architect Pollard Thomas Edwards has managed to fit a community centre, artists’ studios, flats, a school and two playgrounds. Building finds out how

When a cash-strapped south London council does up part of its manor, it wants top value for money. Lewisham council is regenerating down-at-heel Deptford and wanted a new primary school, a community centre complete with library, artists’ studios, some flats and public toilets. But space is tight in Deptford and the council only had a 7,000m2 plot to play with.

Architect Pollard Thomas Edwards has come up with an innovative solution. The school playground sits in the centre of the plot and is bordered by the other elements of the scheme. The single-storey school buildings flank the south and east sides of the playground, with the artists’ studios and flats occupying a block to the north. The really neat bit is that the community facilities have been cleverly integrated with the school on the south side of the site. “The main driver behind this is that the council wanted a building used to the maximum by the community,” says David Graham, the Pollard Thomas Edwards associate running the job. “They didn’t want an expensive school lying empty out of school hours.”

How are these disparate functions successfully integrated? Visually, the school has been given a distinct identity by cladding it with European oak, while the flats are finished in white render. The community centre, or “Lounge”, and areas shared by the school and community are housed in a four-storey block clad in gold. “The idea behind the gold is to unify the whole thing,” says Graham. “It also helps to lift the centre of Deptford, which should encourage people into the building.”

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The ground floor of the Lounge houses the library, which is solely for community use. There are more community facilities, including computer rooms and offices on the first, second and third floors. The first floor also houses the school hall, a dining room, a dance studio and music rooms, which are used by the community outside school hours.

Access by the different groups is managed by having two staircases and by locking and unlocking doors. Community access to the shared areas is via the stairs on the east side, with the doors to these areas locked during school hours. A stair on the west side is used exclusively by the school during the day and the community out of school hours.

The gold cladding hints at the multifaceted nature of the building’s function. Some areas are clad in solid panels but perforated ones have been used elsewhere. The degree of permeability ranges from 16% to 32% and 50%, which breaks up the building visually and provides solar shading to south-facing rooms. It also provides some privacy as the south-facing rooms are overlooked by a block of flats on the other side of the street.

The tight site meant that every last inch of space had to be used, so a multipurpose games pitch has been put on the roof of the Lounge. The school or community can use this depending on the time of day. But stray footballs posed a potential problem. “We were concerned about balls landing on people’s cars, which could mean a lot of insurance claims,” says Graham (see box).

The project team are putting the finishing touches to the building, which should be occupied by the school after the October half-term. One major disappointment for the council is that the school has voted for academy status despite council and community opposition. Hopefully this schism won’t affect the success of the building, which could be a blueprint for others.

How the schools is divided up

(Yellow = school use, Orange = community use)

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During school hours

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Out of school hours

Keeping the balls in

Working out how to keep the balls on the roof of the Lounge was down to contractor Galliford Try. According to project director David Wright, the specification called for a stainless-steel mesh. “When I started I was searching high and low for the material to do the job,” explains Wright. “Like many specifications they tell you what they want, but don’t tell you where you can get it from.”

Wright says the only examples he could find were a pitch in New York’s Harlem and a project in Hong Kong. But closer investigation revealed the Hong Kong project only had perimeter netting and the Harlem pitch didn’t have netting at all. An unusual solution was called for. “The closest match I could find in stainless steel was a product used predominantly for animal cages,” he says.

The product was made by a German specialist called Carl Stahl. But there was another challenge in store for Wright. The netting needed to be 45m long and 25m wide to cover the pitch. Potentially, this could pull the structure of the building inwards under the weight. “We couldn’t apply any lateral loads to the structure,” he says.

The solution is to support the net on a series of columns fringing the pitch. These are up to 5m high to avoid interfering with ball games. Cables run from the steel structure at the base of the pitch and are hooked over the top of the column, across the pitch, over the column at the other side and down to the structure again. This prevents any lateral loading on the steel structure. Five large steel tubes supplement the cables and stop the net sagging in the middle. “We tried to do away with these but once the cables were tensioned they pulled the structure in,” says Wright.

Fifty cables span the pitch in both directions. The £200,000 contract was completed in three weeks. The net was put up in sections and secured temporarily to the cables using cable ties then permanently “sewed” into place.