Any project that involves repurposing existing space in an occupied high school involves a creative approach to designing the interior to meet the operational needs of the space and complement the existing building design.
When the budget is just £500,000 and the scheme involves converting a former gymnasium into a space that incorporates a multi-functional learning hub, library, careers department, break out and social spaces with a kitchenette and a separate dedicated arts room, those challenges are multiplied!
That was exactly the brief for Cassidy + Ashton at St George’s Academy in Blackpool, a Church of England Academy and part of the Cidari Multi Academy Trust. The £500,000 funding had no wriggle room and was supported by the Diocese, so optimum use of the available budget had to be completely transparent.
Cassidy + Ashton brought the practice’s experience of major educational new build, extension and refurbishment schemes to the project to complement the existing spatial layout while transforming the former gym to create distinct areas within a large, open plan layout.
With such an ambitious remit to fulfil, it was essential that the design team interrogated the brief rigorously and worked with the existing space to maximise the available square footage. The team also needed to create the varying spaces required in a way that would give them distinct individual identities, while working effectively together.
Early engagement with both the client and the interior designers, Whitespace, was a critical part of this process. It not only gave the design team an in depth understanding of the facilities required in terms of book storage, audio visual and IT equipment, seating and catering but also provided a clear basis for a spatial layout and circulation strategy.
These initial discussions also defined a colour palette for the new facility, which is critical to the success of the project by defining separate areas within a cohesive whole with furniture, carpeting and wall finishes. Close collaboration between the client, the architect and the interior designers also led to the development of a clear strategy for fabrics and materials which, in turn, informed key design principles, such as light and space planning, while aiding cohesion and demarcation of different functions.
The gym conversion needed to work on a number of levels as different types of teaching, learning, break out and activity spaces and it also had to function as a circulation area and thoroughfare.
Previously, the gym had been a space that divided two sections of the school, with staff and students having to walk around this area of the building to reach the other side of the school campus.
The refurbishment aimed to repurpose the space, enhance the flexibility of the square footage and create connectivity between two teaching blocks. As a result, the space had to be designed in such a way that the learning and break out areas could be used without impeding the free movement of staff and students though the former gym. Equally, use of the area as an access route could not be allowed to impede quiet study in the library, which was to be one of the key functions of the refurbishment.
The solution to this, operationally, spatially and visually, was to create a mezzanine on which to accommodate the library. This not only made the most of the additional height of the traditional gym structure but also separated the quiet library space from the access thoroughfare, without compromising on natural light or the open plan feel of the scheme.
The undulating design of the mezzanine, which arches out in a semi-circle above the break out areas below, also provides one of the prominent visual reference points for the design. For the architectural design, this feature was used to dictate the access route between the teaching blocks either side, which follows the curve of the mezzanine. Meanwhile, for the interior design, curved and circular seating in the core colour palette of purple, green and navy blue also takes its cue from the curve of the mezzanine, as does the feature shelving in the library, which incorporates seating to maximise space management and flexibility.
Heat and light
Alongside the height of the building to accommodate the mezzanine, one of the greatest advantages of the existing space was the original full height windows that allow natural light to flood into the building.
These windows enhanced the open plan layout of the project by creating a visual connection with the outside space.
Tall, vertical radiators have been positioned between the full height windows, making the most of available wall space and increasing spatial efficiency, while creating visual impact and echoing the vertical lines of the pillars opposite, supporting the mezzanine. They also draw the eyes upwards to the white painted original steel beams and new industrial-style LED light fittings that have been suspended from the black painted ceiling.
To supplement the natural light from the windows and the LED lights, additional lighting has been added with continuous LED strips in the ceiling below the mezzanine in the darker area towards the back of the open plan space. LED lighting has also been incorporated into the ceiling panels above the mezzanine library area to ensure sufficient lux levels for study.
The clear safety glass balustrades used to create the stairway up to the mezzanine and the balcony also help to disseminate natural light and create clear visual continuity between the various areas within the open plan space.
Big design ambitions
With lecture-style seating and A/V equipment in one area, a careers library below the mezzanine and social spaces by the windows and adjacent to the kitchenette and art room, the refurbishment fulfils its brief of a multi-functional, flexible space that combines various purposes with an overall feeling of cohesion.
It also proves that it is possible to achieve big design ambitions on a modest budget.