The Building Schools for the Future programme has seen the delivery of some extremely ambitious and complex school build programmes across the UK. Few, however, are as ambitious as the £22.8m, multi-phase project at St Mary’s Catholic College in Blackpool.
The existing school estate was constructed in the 1850s and had undergone a number of ad hoc extensions over the years, adding to the size of the school accommodation on offer but failing to adapt to changing educational requirements. As a result, the buildings were no longer fit for purpose as a 21st Century school.
A collaboration between Eric Wright Construction, a division of the Eric Wright Group, and IBI Group, a global architecture, planning, engineering and technology firm, the 46-month project to redevelop the school site has transformed the school estate, amalgamating both primary and secondary facilities within a single footprint.
Vision for the future
The scheme included the demolition and refurbishment of existing facilities and extensive new build extensions to establish a 1220 place secondary school along with a 210 place primary school, an integral sixth form college and place of worship for use by students and staff.
Explains John Wilson, Managing Director of Eric Wright Construction: “As the contractor, Eric Wright Construction’s main aim was to develop an innovative, forward-thinking solution that would answer the key objective of helping to raise standards of educational provision across Blackpool and Fylde laid out in the original brief.
“That meant creating an environment that would boost the area’s long term economic prosperity and create opportunities for young people by transforming the existing built environment on the site, while protecting the rich heritage of the existing structure and providing a school environment that can grow and adapt to changing needs in the future.”
Although the existing school layout and facilities were no longer fit for purpose, there was never any question of demolishing the school and creating a new build project from scratch, despite the fact that this would have been a much more straightforward process.
“From a planning perspective, the existing school wasn’t in a good state,” explains Adrian Swain, Studio Director at IBI Group.
“However, historic interest in parts of the school building meant that around 30% of the estate needed to be refurbished in order to retain the iconic Victorian facade. The remaining 70% required demolition and an extensive re-build project.
“This created an opportunity to design a layout that worked better for the school and incorporated state-of-the-art contemporary facilities, but it also meant that the construction programme was complicated by the necessity to underpin parts of the existing structure and incorporate new service and drainages trenches.”
Not only was the construction programme extremely complex, it also had to take place within a live campus, so careful logistical planning and phasing of the project was required, with project-critical sectional completion dates. Eric Wright Construction also had to carry out temporary works to overcome the many challenges of working on an occupied, constrained site, including the erection of pre-fabricated temporary units during the demolition and remodelling stages of the project.
John continues: “We had to balance the need to deliver the programme with the project’s budgetary constraints while maintaining high standards of site safety for staff and students throughout. We were able to minimise accommodation costs by designing the programme so that two-thirds of pupils could remain in the existing premises but, because we were converting some of the existing building for alternative use, it wasn’t as simple as decanting part of the student population for the duration.”
For example, the former staff room was converted into a new drama hall, following underpinning of the relevant area of the structure. Work on distinct areas of the building meant that services had to be disconnected in parallel with the programme, however, the Eric Wright team ensured that services were diverted to enable the school to remain fully operational and prevent works from interfering with core activities.
The complexities of the project also necessitated a collaborative approach between the school and all the delivery partners. “An open forum of communication was developed between all parties,” John continues, “including key school figures and local education authority representatives, to ensure that everyone remained well versed throughout the project. This also helped to convey any specific requirements, such as halting work during critical exam periods and reorganising operations outside of school hours.”
Health and safety remained paramount throughout the project with a hoarding and segregation system put in place to ensure staff, pupils and visitors remained completely isolated from the live works.
Phase one of the redevelopment included the construction of new sixth form facilities, cutting-edge science and computer laboratories, 40 contemporary classrooms and a fitness gym.
The Sixth Form learning centre offers ultra-modern facilities with the introduction of a communal area with quiet spaces for study alongside a separate learning resource centre.
Secondary school teaching accommodation is organised as five faculty-based learning houses; each designed to be flexible and interactive, with three double sized classrooms located around a central double height presentation area. These general learning areas are supported by specialist teaching nodes, including large open plan science laboratories.
At the heart of the school runs a central concourse, formed by utilising the existing 1950s building. This runs the length of the premises, visually and physically linking all the elements of the scheme together.
The second phase included the construction of a new school hall, dining hall and staff facilities, with the final phase seeing Christ the King Primary School and Christ the King Parish Church move on site.
The schools were created with innovation and technology in mind, with new buildings featuring light and spacious classrooms, each decorated with fun vibrant colours to provide a creative and inspirational learning environment.
John adds: “For me, the most pioneering aspect of the build was during phase two, where we introduced an 11m wide, two-storey extension to the existing 1850s building which formed part of the rear of the drama hall.
This required extensive underpinning of the aged property to support this additional structure. “In addition, we also provided a section of the church with a large glazed screen which overlooks the existing alter to create a striking centrepiece.”
The new school building has achieved a BREEAM ‘Very Good’ rating through the specification of materials with low embodied energy and the use of natural ventilation. The fabric of the existing buildings will be utilised to increase thermal mass, with photovoltaics used to create renewable energy.
The scheme was also highly commended in the Best Educational Building category at the 2014 LABC awards.
The new school will now act as an enabler to improve attendance, academic achievement, health, wellbeing, behaviour and a sense of worth for the young people of Blackpool aged from five through to 19.
Stephen Tierney, Executive Head Teacher of St Mary’s Catholic College and Christ the King Catholic Primary School, added: “This outstanding partnership of the schools, Blackpool Council and Eric Wright has helped establish a beacon of excellence on the top of Layton Hill.
“All students are now benefitting from the new buildings and the future looks bright for both schools.”
Carl Baker, Assistant Director of children’s services at Blackpool Council, added: “The school together with the local authority are extremely pleased and fortunate to have been granted approval of this new building by the Department for Education under the Building Schools for the Future Programme back in 2010.
“It has been a long journey, but one which will provide the young people and staff with an exceptional environment for their future learning and work.
“The project team, from the architects to the constructors, have worked incredibly hard over the last four years to deliver this outstanding school campus. It has been a very successful project and one which could only be delivered through a collaborative approach and a positive team ethos; it is a credit all those involved.”
John concludes: “We are very proud to have been involved in this multi-phase project which will change the face of primary, secondary and further education in the area.
“This scheme also provided us with a platform to provide employment opportunities for budding builders thanks to the Apprenticeship Training Association which saw us, our supply chain and subcontractors recruit apprentices to work on the project.
“St Mary’s Catholic College is a great example of what can be achieved with many parties working closely together and we’re delighted to have finished the programme of works by the estimated deadline.”