Essential information this week for all those specifying a school, college or university, including up-to-the-minute accessories and fittings, tips on whole-life costing, and how much those head-flushing, girls-weeping toilet cubicles are going to cost you. But first we have the coolest college atrium on the planet …

South-East Essex College has just completed the biggest relocation project ever undertaken by a further education institution. It has moved from two sites to one in the heart of Southend. And in so doing it has created a landmark building for the town and a shop window for its courses.

The bulk of the 26,100 m2 facility is housed in a conventional building with open-plan teaching spaces, a library and a canteen. Attached to the southern end of this £52m building is the landmark: a striking ETFE-clad atrium, said to be the first example of a vertically clad ETFE building. The atrium has a stepped facade that visually bridges between low-rise residential area to the west and the taller buildings in the high street to the east.

The interior of the atrium is equally striking.

It has flat-topped, oval, mushroom-like clusters measuring 7.5 × 9.3 m, called “dining decks”. These have a dual purpose: to provide a dining space for students and a teaching area. “If they were just used for dining they would only be used for an hour and a half a day and be redundant for the rest of the time,” says project architect David Rollason of KSS Design Group, which was the architect for the whole building. “The college wanted the flexibility to use these for teaching spaces. We had to justify these as educational spaces rather than just a whim on our part.” The second key feature of the atrium is a large red pod that houses a 250-seat performance space.

The main building is separated from the atrium by a glass partition, so students can enjoy the visual delights in the atrium. They also pass through it when circulating around the main building via balconies that traverse the atrium. “It gets you away from traditional long dark corridors and oppressive cellular classrooms,” says Rollason. “We wanted students to interact with the atrium at every possible opportunity.”

As with most education projects, the budget was tight. “The ETFE is purely to limit the cost of the building,” says Rollason. “A structure holding up glass would have cost a fortune.”

The roof is supported by slender 320 mm diameter hollow steel columns that sit on the ground-floor slab.

Because the pod-shaped auditorium is a one-off and not regularly shaped it needed a bespoke construction method. “We wanted a single organic form without any joints,” says Rollason. “We went with a sprayed concrete solution with Laing O’Rourke, which they had used for the facade at Selfridges in Birmingham.” The pod has steel mesh attached to its steel frame. Concrete was sprayed onto this to create the shell.

Because the dining decks have a repetitive shape it was worth investing in moulds to make their shells. These were used to make glass reinforced gypsum panels that were brought to site and clipped onto the steel frame. The joints were then filled with plaster.

Money was also saved by not having any heating or cooling in the atrium as it is conceived as an indoor–outdoor space rather than a fully serviced interior. The ETFE has a frit to help cut solar gain, and motorised louvres on the southern elevation and the vertical stepped sections open when it gets too hot inside the atrium. There is local underfloor heating around the dining decks making these comfortable during the winter. “I was there last week when it was about 4ºC outside,” says Greg Byrne, project manager for services engineer Fulcrum Consulting. “We were sitting at the dining decks drinking coffee. It was quite comfortable and warm enough to take our overcoats off.”

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