Green architecture, integrated community services, lifelong learning and lots of big drums are all showcased in Edward Cullinan Architects' Greenwich Millennium Village primary school.
The "rippling walls of English larch" – IN the words of Edward Cullinan Architects – tell you straight away that this is no ordinary school. For one thing, it is the last word in sustainable design. As well as the cladding of durable home-grown larch boarding, the building features a south-facing window wall to soak up sunshine, superinsulated walls and roof, and Termodeck hollow concrete floors to retain warmth in winter and coolness in summer.

More than that, the primary school forms a key part of the government's flagship Greenwich Millennium Village, and has already been visited by three government ministers, along with deputy prime minister John Prescott and even Tony Blair himself.

The agenda is far more wide-reaching and ambitious than green architecture. The school is trumpeted as "a showcase of joined-up government and local thinking", with three government departments, English Partnerships and Greenwich council all involved in its development. It has been planned as a model of New Labour policies on what investment can do for education – electronic whiteboards replace traditional blackboards – and what sustainable urban design can do for communities – the school sports hall doubles as a community hall, and a health centre has been built alongside the school.

The new educational and social policies spell an end to the 9am to 3pm school day. Facilities in the three buildings are to be shared and made available to the whole community, with the aim of providing "fully integrated services" and "wraparound care". The primary school integrates children with special educational needs into conventional classrooms, and also incorporates a nursery school (or "early years centre" in current jargon) and a creche for parents visiting the health centre or taking further education courses. Many school facilities are open to children and adults out of school hours and beyond term time, including the sports hall, three seminar rooms, the early years centre, the creche, playground and five-a-side pitch.

The integrated services demand more intensive staffing than a self-contained school or health centre. They also have quite an impact on architectural design. The same goes for the green agenda, as the school is one of the first to comply with strenuous new codes for energy conservation, natural ventilation and daylighting in school buildings, as spelled out in the Department for Education and Employment's building bulletins 87 and 90. The school will save 56% of the energy required by current building standards, so the design team claims.

In Cullinan's design, the integration of community and education services, new curriculum demands and upgraded energy conservation standards have not resulted in a disconcertingly complex building. In fact, the external appearance is downright basic. Except for the south-facing window walls, the facades coalesce into a high fence of vertical larch boarding that snakes around the three buildings. The windows appear as simple rectangular glass holes in the fence, as the boarding overlaps and masks the window frames.

The timber fence is visually tied to the ground by an elaborate plinth in black and white bricks and rises to a continuous horizontal rail high above the roofline. And above the parapet four prominent northlights project up from the community hall.

"A public building should have a bigger-than-domestic scale," says project architect John Romer.

With their extra height, the three buildings stand as a gateway to one of the Millennium Village's neighbourhoods of low-rise housing. Instead of floating aimlessly in a sea of grass, the three buildings front onto a paved neighbourhood "piazza". The arrangement gives more room to the landscaped playground and gardens at the rear, which are screened from the adjoining E E access roads by 8 m high earth banks. Car parking is restricted to staff, as children and patients are encouraged to walk or cycle.

The new buildings fit into Ralph Erskine's competition-winning masterplan for the village. Erskine's initial concept was that the three buildings should be detached, but Cullinan argued that, as the community hall serves as the school sports and dining hall during the day, it should be attached to the school. As built, the community hall has its own identity as a drum-shaped building, but is linked to the school by a narrow reception area that serves both facilities.

The early learning centre (including creche), infants school (for five-to-eight year olds) and junior school (for nine-to-11 year olds) are all combined into the elongated school building, which runs from east to west. Within the building, however, the three different age groups are subtly segregated so that the smaller children do not get trampled underfoot by the larger, more boisterous ones. The early learning centre is housed in a single-storey drum at one end, with its own entrance. The infants occupy a row of self-contained classrooms on the ground floor, each of which has its own entrance, leading directly off a sheltered inner playground and incorporating coat racks and toilets.

For their part, the juniors occupying the first floor reach their classrooms conventionally by the main school entrance and staircases. During break, they rush out over the roof of the early learning centre, across a narrow footbridge and down the landscaped banks to their own playground and kickabout pitch.

No educational building designed by Edward Cullinan Architects comes without the practice's trademark drums, a whimsical touch no doubt conceived with children in mind. Quite aside from the larger drum-shaped forms of the community hall and the early learning centre, the Greenwich school contains an assortment of drums, all with the same 4 m diameter, though serving six distinct functions.

As well as the entrance lobbies to the ground-floor classrooms, different drums function as stair towers, store rooms, lightwells to the classrooms and study areas attached to the classrooms. A couple more drums in the playground house play equipment. Only the external drums are made of Cullinan's favourite components – precast concrete manhole rings. All the others are conventionally built in concrete blockwork, and some are painted in child-friendly Dayglo colours.

Of the various types of drums, those attached to the classrooms are the most ingenious. Located at the corners, they are shared by pairs of classrooms. The drums lining the central corridor alternate as quiet study areas and lightwells. Each lightwell directs daylight into the rear corner of four classrooms. The lightwell is split by a spine wall and opens out into the upper floor and ground floor classrooms on either side.

John Romer admits that the DFEE's new daylight factors – up from 2% to 4% of full daylight across the entire 57 m2 classroom – were particularly hard to achieve in a two-storey building. Services engineer Fulcrum carried out extensive testing of models within an artificial sky. As well as through the lightwells at the rear, daylight is supplied to all the classrooms by the fully glazed window wall, which is oriented precisely due south. Sun shading is provided by automatic fabric awnings.

Staff offices, teaching areas for cooking and crafts, library and toilets all line the north wall of the building. The cooking and crafts areas and library are open to the wide central corridor, which E E head teacher David Edwards appreciates for the "wonderful feeling of space and light" that is shared between them.

Even the Termodeck system of heating and ventilation through hollow concrete floor slabs contributes to the feeling of spaciousness inside the building. As well as having a reputation for stable environments, fresh air, low energy use and low maintenance, the Termodeck system comes free from radiators or exposed pipework that could snag or get kicked by schoolchildren.

The health centre likewise basks in generous daylight, and is literally patient-centred, as it revolves around a spacious central waiting room beneath a large skylight. As well as four consulting rooms, a radiology centre that can be electronically linked to hospitals and a small surgery, the health centre contains a "one-stop shop" to direct local residents to other council and community services. In addition, staff at the health centre are encouraged to make use of meeting rooms in the neighbouring community hall to spread the word on healthy living.

Unlike the neighbouring Millennium Village, the school and health centre are entirely developed by public authorities, and have been free of any fallings-out between participants. The entire £9m scheme was developed in only two years and four months, including the development of the innovative brief.

As a "showcase of joined-up thinking" on education, urban renaissance and sustainable building, the Greenwich Millennium School, community hall and health centre are an exercise in the integrated management of public services. They also rely on innovative and integrated building design, which has succeeded in meeting a complicated brief while incorporating a lightness of touch to appeal to toddlers and primary-school children.