Instead of another dreary collection of boxy classroom blocks, the new Blyth Community College announces itself boldly with a triple-decker rotunda sheathed in silvery cedar boarding. Right next to it, a stretch of clear-glazed curtain wall beneath a steep monopitch roof marks the main entrance. Walk inside and you find yourself in an airy, sunlit mall that curves sharply off to the right, bends again to the right a little further on, and then ends in a sharp twist to the left.
The school's unconventional forms are even more arresting for sitting in a suburban architectural desert of two-storey spec housing. Beyond the housing estate, the secondary school for 1400 13- to 18-year-olds serves the Northumberland town of Blyth, which Smith describes as "very battered" by the collapse of its coal mining and shipping industries over the past decade.
The architectural design by Newcastle practice Waring & Netts is not the only thing that's refreshingly different about Blyth Community College. No less innovative are the educational concepts that lie behind the design brief and the lifelong learning facilities it offers to the local community, including a computerised library, a cybercafe, and a large performing arts auditorium. With these attributes, Blyth has been promoted by the Department for Education and Skills as a precursor to the design exemplars in its "Schools for the Future" initiative, to be unveiled in November.
The new school replaces the town's two secondary schools, which were merged despite being two and half miles away from each other. Smith had been appointed to bring the schools together, and there was talk about building an extension to one. "I began to think that we really needed a new building," he recalls. "And suddenly we were helped by the DfES, which questioned whether extending a 40-year-old building would provide value for money. It wasn't something I expected to hear from a government department." The department came up with a budget of £14.3m and a site was found on the playing fields of one of the schools.
When it came to vetting the brief and design, the DfES was no less open-minded. "At the time, the department was rewriting the brief for school buildings, so we were not tied down by design guidelines," says Smith. "Mukund Patel [head of the DfES school building and design unit] took one look at the architect's design and said 'wonderful – get on with it'."
Smith was adamant that the school should serve the community. He also wanted it to concentrate on the performing arts, which would mean including a large auditorium. "There's no better subject than arts to build up the self-esteem of a community," he argues. "It gives a lift to students and their families too." Not least, he wanted circulation spaces and department layouts to encourage interaction between students and staff.
Northumberland council required the school to be procured through a design-and-build partnering contract, with the contractor putting together the design team. The shortlist of teams was whittled down to two, Gleeson with Waring & Netts, and Birse with another Newcastle practice, Napper Architects. The two teams were then invited to compete on design proposals.
Smith was captivated by the unusual forms of Waring & Netts' design. "They were a relatively young team with no track record in school design. They knew their concept was novel, and they wanted us to help them in achieving it. This appealed to us."
The winding internal mall is nothing if not unconventional. Although 70 m long, its bends give it an intimate, informal character. Sunlight sweeps in through the glazed roof, casting patterned shadows on the white-painted walls. As Waring & Netts partner Rob Charlton sees it, this is the heart of the school: between classes it suddenly fills up and buzzes with life as pupils and staff move between classrooms, up and down wide flights of stairs and across three footbridges. Fixed seating and work counters encourage students to socialise and catch up on homework.
As explained by Charlton, the bends in the street were partly generated by the shape of the departmental blocks that line it on either side. The noisy areas – including the auditorium and the department of craft, design and technology – have been segregated along the western side of the mall, where they form a string of three more-or-less wedge-shaped blocks. More conventional classrooms, including science labs, line the eastern side of the mall on three floors, each with their own spine corridors mirroring the undulating line of the central mall.
The mall is not the only area that brings pupils and staff together. Whereas a traditional school might have one central staff room, each department at Blyth has a staff base at its centre. A typical base is part study, part sitting room, with a large internal window to the corridor inviting students to look and walk in. "It allows staff to talk to students conveniently and in comfortable surroundings," says Smith.
So-called pastoral areas serve as the home bases for different year groups. These are sitting areas where the internal corridors widen out, and are overlooked by staff offices.
One of the key innovations at Blyth Community College is entirely invisible. This is a wireless system of communications and IT that allows students to research on the internet on laptops anywhere in a classroom. A more conventional network of ITC cable tracks is also fitted in all classrooms.
Community facilities are located along the first section of the mall, where local residents can reach them during school hours without being overwhelmed by throngs of school children. As well as a cybercafe, which takes pride of place at the foot of the timber drum, they include a large sports hall, a crèche and the library, now renamed the open learning centre and generously equipped with laptop computers.
An amalgamation of school and neighbourhood branch libraries, the open learning centre is quite literally shared between school and community.
It has separate entrances for students and local residents and is serviced by both school and district council staff. "Local people are still a bit apprehensive about coming in," says librarian Alexis Brown. "But public usage as increasing, as kids bring in their families, some of whom have never been in a library before."
After school hours, the entire building opens up to the community for lifelong learning classes. Some 900 students are enrolled for lifelong learning programmes, and Smith says attendance has increased by 30% since the college opened last September.
Security is an increasingly serious issue in any school, and with its collection of 200 laptop computers, its long opening hours and its sight lines limited by the bends in the mall, Blyth could arguably be more at risk than most. But the college's secret weapon is a comprehensive network of 23 inconspicuous CCTV cameras.
"We haven't lost a laptop yet," says Smith. "Someone did walk off with a video recorder one evening. But he was picked up by the police, who showed him the CCTV photographs of him in the act."
There's no disputing that Blyth's new school building has the wow factor in abundance. But what do the people who use it everyday think? "The students are much more settled, so we're delighted," says Smith. "We close early on Wednesday afternoons for staff training. Traditionally, all the students would rush off straightaway, but now we're finding it quite difficult to get them to go home."
In praise of partnering – but what about profit?Blyth Community College was procured through a novel partnering contract in which the design-and-build contractor was responsible for the full design. MJ Gleeson was awarded the contract after a limited design competition.
The partnering agreement included a system for sharing risks and rewards. Half were allocated to the client, Northumberland council, 25% to the contractor and the rest shared among the four project consultants. Six key trade contractors were allowed to pocket half of any savings they made on their packages. M&E contractor Haden Young saved more than £100,000 through value engineering solutions, such as reducing the tonnage of steel in the frame, according to Bill Law, Gleeson’s regional director.
The school was also adopted as a Movement for Innovation demonstration project. As is shown in the M4I’s assessment in the spider chart below, the project scored nearly 100% for productivity, safety, construction cost and client satisfaction with service, but dropped to only 38% on contractor’s profitability.
Gleeson’s contracts manager, Andrew McLeod, puts on a brave face on that. “The project has benefited us immeasurably, as we have won contracts for two other schools in the North-east on the strength of it. We’ve also forged a relationship with the council, which will shortly be inviting bids for a five-year framework agreement. A five-year workload for our 75 staff in Newcastle is more important to us than making a profit.”
The project was converted into a guaranteed maximum price design-and-build contract using the PPC2000 partnering form. It was operated on the open-book principle, with a fixed 6% profit margin, which Law says made it easy and quick to settle the final account.
The building was completed within the 74-week contract period at a cost below the set budget of £14.3m, or £1003/m2.
client Northumberland council architect Waring & Netts structural engineer White Young Green landscape architect Anthony Walker and Partners quantity surveyor Todd Milburn Partnership design-and-build contractor MJ Gleeson