Building Design Partnership’s Marlowe Academy in Ramsgate is like no other school – it has a campus feel, there are no corridors and the students don’t even bunk off.

For my meeting with the principal of the new Marlowe Academy in Ramsgate, Kent, he leads me to the heart of his large new building. There’s no trudging down long corridors beneath suspended ceilings and between rows of classroom doors. Instead, the main entrance opens out into a grand theatrical volume that would do a concert hall or art gallery proud. It is a four-storey crescent, 20m wide and totally free of columns. A timber roof made up of triangular grids arches gently overhead. And daylight streams in through glazing in the centre of the roof, full-height window walls at either end and clerestory windows along one side.

As we sit down at a round table close to the canteen counter, pupils and staff pass by all around us and along two open galleries above. A group has congregated on a curvilinear open platform that juts into the hall on the second floor, and are crouched around an array of personal computers.

“The whole thrust of an academy is to do things differently, with new ways of teaching,” says the principal, Ian Johnson.

“In most schools, the bell goes and everyone rushes around to get to their next class. Here we have a more businesslike, work-based approach.

“We have an elongated day, running from 8.30am to 5 o’clock. Why send kids home to do their homework when they can do it here? The whole idea is do a day’s work and then go home. And lessons are two hours long, with a 15-minute break in the middle. This sets up a natural rhythm.”

Johnson was appointed principal in September 2005, nine months after construction had started on the project. The brief had been drawn up by Kent council and the Department for Education and Skills, and Roger de Haan, the former chairman of the Saga Corporation in Folkestone. The academy’s extraordinary and refreshing shape is the creation of an interdisciplinary team of architects and engineers at Building Design Partnership (BDP).

Although the timing of Johnson’s appointment gave him little scope to influence the design, he is happy to acknowledge that his unusual school timetable “has arisen out of the architecture”. “You could run this building as a traditional school,” he says, “but, in my opinion, it would have been a waste.”

At this point, teenagers Chrissie Grindle and Maxine Penn walk past and josh the school principal as though he was one of their classmates. Spontaneously, they sit down and join in the conversation. “It’s just like a college here,” says Chrissie. “It’s all contained in one building and it’s all open inside the building. So the teachers and the students get on well with each other. And people can’t get bullied. It’s a lot safer than our old school building.”

As for the long school day and two-hour classes, she says: “I’m not a swot, but you get absorbed in the classes. You can use the computers or laptops in class.”

Maxine agrees: “People used to bunk off in the old school. They don’t do that here. And staying on till 5 o’clock helps parents who work.” Chrissie even has a good word to say about the ubiquitous, if inconspicuous, CCTV cameras. “That means there’s no graffiti on the walls, like there was on the old school. You don’t want to come in and see some new graffiti every day.”

The old school, which was built close by in the 1960s, is now being demolished to make way for its successor’s sports pitches. Its persistently poor record in educational achievement is what led to creation of the new academy.

Under the government’s academy concept, a civic-minded individual or organisation must act as sponsor, providing £2m and an inspirational vision for the new school. At Marlowe, Roger de Haan, is joint sponsor with the county council.

In most schools, the bell goes and everyone rushes around to get to their next class. Here we have a more businesslike, work-based approach

The academy retains the old school’s vocational syllabus based on BTec qualifications, with A levels to be introduced next year. But it focuses on the new specialisms of performing arts, sports, and art and design, selected with the help of de Haan. “Performing arts builds confidence and this part of Ramsgate has lots of people lacking in confidence,” says Johnson.

Modelling the school on an adult-education college is precisely what Benedict Zucchi, BDP’s architectural director, had in mind for the design. “It has more of a campus feel, but made as compact as possible,” he says. “This was our response to the sponsors’ vision of bringing all 1,100 students and 100 staff together as a community of learners.

The other main driver in Zucchi’s design was the school’s three teaching faculties of performing arts, sports and technology. These have been physically interpreted as three curving petals that fold together around a central void. This void is that crescent hall where I sat with the principal and two pupils. It is self-evidently the social heart of the school, just as de Haan and Zucchi had intended.

The central hall also serves as the circulation core of the building. It does so with the help of two full-height but slightly narrower extensions at either end and the access decks to the classrooms on the two upper floors. The lack of corridors means no congestion chaos between classes and fewer opportunities for bullying.

In an ingenious twist to the configuration, the performing arts wing has been symmetrically shaped around a large auditorium and set on the central axis of the arena. When the partition at the back of the stage is rolled out of the way to either side, the stage flows into the arena, and is overlooked by the auditorium seating at the back. In this way, the arena can be effortlessly doubled in capacity for use in assemblies of the whole school, as well as musical and theatrical performances.

The two elongated extensions to the arena function as open-plan study areas, where students working on PCs are quite deliberately on show. One of these study areas on the ground floor serves art and design and the other on the first floor forms the heart of the sixth-form wing. Another large space on ground floor is the school library, which doubles as a public branch library and has its own entrance.

Turning to the building’s external design, Zucchi says: “We wanted to make the school a civic destination in the town, as it is a centre for adult learning with public library and community sports facilities.”

The main challenge here lay in the site, which is remorselessly flat and devoid of features, other than a dejected scattering of ageing council semis in the distance.

Within this dismal setting, the compact, curvilinear academy stands out as a colourful, sculptural landmark. The performing arts and public library wings are parted by a wedge-shaped civic piazza that leads the visitor to the glazed main entrance. The performing arts wing on the left is a soft, curvilinear two-storey block with a mustard-yellow facade and large ground-floor windows displaying the pirouetting dancers within. The public library wing on the right, by contrast, is a hard-edged, rectilinear, three-storey block clad in horizontal timber ribbing stained terracotta in colour.

The library wing also provides the vital bulk and height that the new building needs as an antidote to its flat and featureless setting. In another inspired design twist, the wing’s bulk and height have resulted from piggy-backing the school’s full-size sports hall directly on top of the library. Zucchi adds: “Leaving the sports hall at ground level would have killed off the social activity around the arena.” It also backs on to the four-storey sixth-form wing of similar height.

As is evident from Chrissie and Maxine, the Marlowe Academy and its marvellous new building have already boosted the self-confidence of its pupils. The next step will be to improve their educational performance – and the building is superbly qualified to play its part in achieving that.

Higher mathematics: How the roof was designed

The most spectacular structure at the Marlowe Academy is the timber gridshell that vaults a full 20m across the central arena. The shell not only curves gently in section but also in plan, to fit over the crescent-shaped arena.

Designed by architect and structural engineer Building Design Partnership and built by ECC Timber Engineering, it consists of a triangular grid of downstand ribs that support the roof deck directly above, all in exposed timber.

Though splendidly graceful in form, the shell looks pretty basic structurally. To keep costs down, the ribs are solid in section,300m deep, 75mm wide and no more than 3m long between nodes. In addition, the vault is so shallow that it rises to a height just one-tenth of its span, which Oliver Plunkett, BDP’s structural engineering director, says is the minimum for a structural arch. The whole shell does not look strong enough to span the 20m width of the arena without intermediate columns or struts. So how is it done?

A number of ingredients contribute to the strength of the shell. For a start, the ribs and the sheathing above them are made of Kerto, Finnforest Merck’s jumbo-thickness, high-strength variation on plywood. Second, the unobtrusive connections at the nodes where the ribs meet comprise special steel rings with angled spurs that are bolted into the ends of the ribs. They were designed and patented by Gordon Cowley and used last year by BDP on the Egg Lecture Theatre at Napier University in Edinburgh. Third, the shell gains extra strength from its double curvature in plan and in section. Finally, hidden beyond the shell on either side, lateral restraint is provided by perpendicular concrete walls within the classroom wing, and raking steel struts in the auditorium wing.

The other question is how the shell’s complex curvilinear geometry was devised. The most straightforward curving elements are the longitudinal ribs, which follow a series of concentric circular arcs that match the crescent-shaped plan of the arena. The sectional profile of the vault is made up of two different curves. A relatively sharp curve rises up from the classroom wing and then converts into a gentle arc that flows down to the lower auditorium wing and matches the shape of its roof.

To add to the complexity, the ribs that span diagonally across the vault are also curved in plan. According to Plunkett, if these diagonal ribs were straight, they would intersect closer together at the shorter side of the arena and wider apart at the long side. The diagonal ribs that curve in plan, by contrast, maintain an even spacing between the longitudinal ribs, resulting in a regular grid of triangles across the whole roof.

Environmental implications

Located in a wide expanse of playing fields on the outskirts of Ramsgate, the Marlowe Academy lends itself to zero-energy natural ventilation. Except it has Kent airport as a neighbour, so the roar of aircraft landing and taking off has to be suppressed under the Department for Education and Skills’ Building Bulletin 93, which ratchets up the acoustic requirements of schools.

So, Building Design Partnership’s environmental services team came up with an elaborate but low-tech system of mechanically assisted fresh-air ventilation, incorporating acoustic dampers and heat exchangers. Fresh air is drawn into the classrooms through low-level vents, where it passes through a narrow cavity between acoustic dampers and then up through wall-mounted heating panels. The warmed fresh air then passes across the classroom and out at a high-level into the school’s arena or atrium. From there, the air is discharged to the outside through the clerestory windows. The whole interlinked ventilation sequence is powered by air-handling units on the roofs of the classroom wings.

A clever, energy-saving aspect of the system is that when the arena and the adjoining auditorium are fully occupied, the ventilation system through the classrooms is switched off. Air collects at the top of the arena and is passively heated by the extensive glazing; in winter this air is pumped down through ducts to percolate up through floor level vents to ventilate the arena and auditorium. In summer external fresh air is circulated in the same manner, but the air is cooled by air-to-air heat exchangers – a lower-energy alternative to mechanical chillers.

Passive environmental controls include exposed concrete frames and floor slab soffits that act as a heat sink. The windows are shaded from the sun by a combination of fixed louvres and retractable external blinds.

What were the costs?

Construction cost is the one aspect of the building that the whole project team, including cost consultant Davis Langdon, is coy about. The official line is that costs cannot be released until the completion of the final phase, which includes demolishing the old school building and laying out sports grounds. But it is difficult to see how the demolition and landscaping costs could impinge on the construction costs of the new school. The clear implication is that the new-build academy has exceeded its budget.

Following highly publicised cost overruns on the first batch of city academies, the Department for Education and Skills has demanded that new academies conform to standard cost guidelines for school-building based on the projected number of pupils. In theory, the only additional spending is the £2m donated by the sponsors. For the Marlowe Academy, Roger de Haan ear-marked his £1m half share of the sponsorship for playing fields and sports facilities.

The big challenge at the Marlowe Academy was its elaborate, inspired design centred on a large central arena and auditorium. As Benedict Zucchi, the architectural director of Building Design Partnership, admits: “The costs were a battle right to the end. For instance, the auditorium was not a standard school facility, and we had to balance it against cost-savings elsewhere, such as the building envelope, which is 60% insulated render. The only expensive items in the building fabric are the curtain wall and the metal cladding panels to the auditorium.”

The spectacular timber gridshell roof, which spans 20m over the arena, was more expensive than a roof with intermediate supports, admits Oliver Plunkett, BDP’s structural director. “But it’s an inspiring space, of value to the client and the school,” he says.

In environmental terms, the building is designed on passive, low-tech principles, though with the added problem of dampening external aircraft noise. “This required mechanical ventilation, which brought a capital cost penalty,” says Andrew Swain-Smith, BDP’s engineering director. “But in terms of operating costs, running the mechanical plant is compensated by the heat recovery system.”

Project team

client and sponsors The Department for Education and Skills, Kent council, Roger de Haan 
architect, structural and environmental engineer and landscape architect Building Design Partnership 
project manager and cost consultant Davis Langdon 
main contractor Wates Construction 
precast concrete Bison Concrete Products 
curtain walling BSF 
timber gridshell roof ECC Timber Engineering 
brises-soleils LBJ Fabrications, Levolux 
metal framing and rendering Baris