It’s gold stars and smiley faces all round for Willmott Dixon and White Design, who have shot to the top of the government’s class with their super-sustainable Cheshire primary school. We deliver a glowing report.

One glance at the boarded walls, external columns and outward jutting roofbeams - all in natural timber – and you might think that this was a lumberjack’s depot in northern Canada. Except that, instead of gloomy coniferous forests, it is surrounded by executive homes set in genteel suburban gardens. And for the fact that, above the main entrance, large lettering clearly states “Kingsmead Primary School”.

Even so, the clear message of the wooden building is “back to nature”, and that is pretty much what the Kingsmead school philosophy is about. Or to be more precise, it’s about the wider and deeper ecological issues of conserving the planet’s natural resources and guarding life against global warming – all of which is summed up by the current vogue word, sustainability.

Sustainability permeates all aspects of the school building. Sustainable features start with its shape and orientation to make the best use of daylight and adapt to change. They progress through the widespread use of renewable and recyclable timber, and they include an automated natural ventilation system, high thermal insulation in walls and roof, and solar collectors. In combination, these have been planned to reduce energy consumption by 40-60% below that of conventional new school buildings.

So it is little wonder that the £2.2m building project by contractor Willmott Dixon and architect White Design was used as a Constructing Excellence demonstration project. And although the project was commissioned by Cheshire council, it has now been adopted as an exemplar school by the Department for Education and Skills. “At Kingsmead, there is a vision of the school of the future, which is just what we want,” says Mukund Patel, head of the DfES school building design unit.

So where does that leave education? Well, the school is itself a teaching tool, as its fabric, services and structure have been designed so that the children can see and understand what’s what. As Catriona Stewart, the head teacher, puts it: “Our first teaching project when the school opens in September will be about the building. And then we’ll look at global warming.”

The single-storey building’s extraordinary form derives from its structural system: it consists of simple portal frames in glulam timber imported from Denmark. These are unusual in Britain yet commonplace in their home country, where they are used to support utilitarian roadside salt barns. What makes the portal frames even more unconventional is that they have been split into two equal halves at the apex and erected back to back.

The result is a sequence of M-shapes that cantilever upwards and outwards towards the front and back of the building, with columns supporting them at their two highest end points. As well as being eye-catchingly dynamic, the arrangement produces 4.5 m high front and back external walls, which provide plenty of daylight and fresh air to the classrooms they enclose.

The school’s seven classrooms for 150 pupils are arranged along the north side of the building, where they receive constant, glare-free daylight. The main entrance, assembly hall, library and staff rooms are all arranged along the south side. And the central strip between the two rows of columns, where the roof is at its lowest, is given over to a corridor.

The M-shaped structures have been erected at regular 5 m intervals with every second arch coinciding with a partition between classrooms. In addition, each arch is cranked very slightly in angle, by 4° at each classroom partition and 2° in between. One outcome is an appealingly crescent-shaped building rather than a plain rectangular block. Another attractive effect is internal, with an alluring curve added to what would otherwise be a long institutional corridor.

The hallway’s character is further ameliorated, first by projecting polygonal cloakroom niches of each classroom into it, and then by painting them in a progression of bright rainbow colours chosen by the headteacher’s 13-year-old daughter.

As for the classrooms themselves, they are designed for flexibility and a fresh, bright learning environment. All classrooms are square in plan and have loose desks and chairs, which can be arranged for any class size or mode of teaching – even IT classes, since all the laptops and PC tablets supplied to pupils can connect wirelessly to the internet through the school’s sophisticated IT network.

Plan of Kingsmead school
Plan of Kingsmead school
Classrooms face north to gain even daylight; all other spaces face south
1 classroom
2 rooflights
3 wintergarden
4 cloakroom
5 library
6 quiet room
7 corridor
8 reception
9 multifunctional hall
10 servery
11 kitchen

At the corridor side of each classroom is a small niche for coats and equipment. Four of the classrooms are paired on either side of a demountable partition, which offers high sound insulation when locked into position yet can be easily folded away on an overhead track to encourage classes to mix. And small conservatories – sort of halfway houses between classroom and playground – are shared between pairs of classrooms.

Creating a stimulating learning environment had a big impact on the classroom design. David Noble, project leader at White Design, says: “When we visited other schools at design stage, what struck us was the oppressive heat and stuffiness of the classrooms. Children are hot, sweaty things and you could just see them just nodding off in class. So it was basic requirements to keep people awake.”

Each classroom ceiling rises to a height of 4.5 m, as high as a Victorian one, and this gives a sense of space, light and air.

Glare-free daylight streams through lower and upper bands of windows, and the occasional ray of sun is admitted by skylights.

What is not visible is the building management system, which is fitted with internal and external sensors to detect temperature, humidity, sunshine, rain and air movement. Known as Windowmaster and developed by Danish manufacturer VKR, which produces Velux rooflights and Velfac windows, the system automatically opens and shuts the windows, skylights and blinds, allowing fresh air to flow through the building and shading pupils where necessary. Most of the time, it admits no more than a refreshing trickle of air.

Other sustainable features in the building include a boiler fuelled by local tree trimmings. Concealed in the roof valley over the central corridor are a rainwater cistern to flush the toilets, a solar collector to preheat hot water and an array of photovoltaic cells to generate electricity.

Given Kingsmead’s flexible teaching spaces, abundance of fresh air and daylight, and mould-breaking natural good looks, it’s hard to imagine a school building that is more able to stimulate the minds of teachers and pupils. Indeed, headteacher Stewart was so excited by the building at design stage that she came out of semi-retirement to take the job. And since it is as non-institutional as a building can get, it’s likely to have even more appeal to the children who will attend it from September onwards. They won’t even need to travel to Canadian forests to learn about sustainable resources – suburban Cheshire will do just fine.

School assembly: Creating Kingsmead's design-and-build team

Kingsmead Primary School has such clean, coherent good looks that it comes as quite a jolt to learn that it was delivered as a design-and-build package. And it was not a case of the develop-and-construct approach, in which the client commissions a concept design and then passes it on to the contractor. Nor did the client invite several financial and design bids and pick the best. No, this is design-and-build red in tooth and claw, in which Cheshire council went to one contractor, Willmott Dixon, which then brought in architect White Design to start work on a clean sheet of paper in February 2003.

Admittedly there were a few mitigating factors. For a start, the contractor was not required to tender a competitive bid, as a budget for the building had already been laid down by the council. Second, Willmott Dixon had already established a track record with the council by pioneering a PPP with it on two secondary schools, designed by architectural consultant Unicorn. However, Ken White, the council's schools development officer, says: "We felt Unicorn's designs were becoming a bit samey, and we were looking for something more radical and innovative, so we asked Willmott Dixon to come up with a suitable architect."The unusual arrangement is not lost on David Noble, project leader of White Design. "From our side it was unique," he says. "We were asked to do the architectural bit for a mainstream client but in partnership with a housebuilder. We joined in because Willmott Dixon was primed by the client to produce a sustainable school with wow factor, and we were confident they were trying to achieve that too - plus we had worked with them before."

To achieve a design that fulfilled the client's requirements, the project team had to work closely together and get everybody on board at the earliest possible stages. "We held weekly meetings with as many as 24 people round the table," says White. "Everyone knew the budget, and everyone was trying to get the best out of it without any conflict."

Although there is no guarantee of design quality in public-private procurement, Mukund Patel, head of the Department for Education and Skills' school building design unit, is encouraged. "The message is slowly getting through to some of the contractors that well-designed buildings can help them as well," he says.