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9 Jan 2008

The brief for Ahrends Burton and Koralek's new John Wheatley College buildings at Haghill focused on learning and sustainability

The brief for Ahrends Burton and Koralek's new John Wheatley College buildings at Haghill focused on learning and sustainability

A seminal name from the 1960s and 70s, the office of Peter Ahrends, Richard Burton and Paul Koralek – ABK as otherwise known – has a long and distinguished track record in the design of education buildings, most notably at Dublin’s Trinity College and more recently in the same city’s new Institute of Technology campus at Blanchardstown. It’s fair to say the practice is considerably less well established in Scotland than it is in Ireland and indeed, until the completion this year of the new campus for John Wheatley College in Glasgow’s East End, its sole completed project north of the border was the now-listed Cummins Engine Factory in Shotts dating from 1980. ABK has hardly been idle in the intervening period, however, since its pioneering 1991 design for St Mary’s Hospital on the Isle of Wight, has built a significant reputation in the field of low energy, sustainable design.

The practice’s return to work in Scotland combines these two areas of experience – education and sustainability – in a new £14.6m facility intended to replace John Wheatley College’s no-longer-fit-for-purpose Shettleston campus. Sited on brownfield land in the city’s Haghill district, at the junction of Carntyne Road and Duke Street, and part of the new ‘East End Regeneration Route’, the 6,000m? complex is designed to accommodate 800 full-time students, the majority of whom are expected to come from the East End and Greater Easterhouse. It is also intended as a community resource – indeed, the college’s ethos is to meet the needs of a dispersed and ‘territorial’ community – and enable local residents to take advantage of new employment opportunities in an area that is still trying to recover from the collapse of heavy industry, and the environmental blight that resulted from it.

As a consequence, the brief for the new facility (which, interestingly, was developed a full two years before the design of the building began) went well beyond a mere schedule of accommodation, with social inclusion and sustainability as key drivers in the way the project has been tailored to fit the site. The teaching rooms, workshops and administration spaces are thus discretely housed in three main building blocks grouped around a central concourse. The introduction of this latter element provides the building not only with a distinctive orientation space and separate entrances to each of the three accommodation zones, but also with a shared social ‘heart’ that can be used for exhibitions, events and sample teaching activities open to the local community. High above, the space is roofed with a large isosceles triangle of air-filled ETFE foil cushions designed to control heat loss and which have a printed pattern on them to give solar protection.

This determination to explore the potential benefits of passive energy and building control is evident throughout the complex. The northwest side of the project is occupied by a two-storey teaching block in which the window sizes and shapes have been designed to optimise daylight and minimise heat gain. Roof lights and ventilation shafts at the back of the rooms stimulate the natural flow of air into the classrooms, IT spaces and art studios via openable windows and out at roof level. Solar panels on the northlights over the art studios service the hot water system, with the thermal mass required by the building’s passive energy strategy provided by exposed concrete soffits in the ground-level teaching rooms.

The northeast side of the site is occupied by a single-storey block, housing workshops, storage areas, toilets and showers, while the administration block fills the south side of the concourse. This latter part of the building actually hosts a multiplicity of functions including a training kitchen/restaurant, as well as a childcare facility, and the resulting variation in both height and plan depth has produced a combination of one and two-storey elements separated from each other by glazed walls, and which give views out onto the concourse.

Utilising the orientation of the various elements of the complex to provide simple environmental benefits – laminated photovoltaic cells in the south and west-facing roof sections provide a carbon-free contribution to the building’s energy requirements for example – is simply intelligent design and should in time pay for itself, but other measures intended to increase the project’s sustainable credentials are still too often seen as being outwith conventional budget planning; water run-off here is controlled by a SUDS system and all rainwater collected is recycled. The building uses carbon-neutral biomass boilers, and air source heat pumps transfer latent warmth from the external environment into the project’s public areas. The problem is that wholesale adoption of sustainable technologies, whether passive or otherwise, still sits on an economic fine line, evidenced in this instance by approximately 10 per cent of the project budget being allocated to this aspect of the design. When costed over the longer term against alternative, more traditional technologies, considerable financial savings are of course possible, and in this respect the building has two valuable roles to play: one is to act as an exemplar to other developments still to take place in the area, the other is as a working model for the college’s students to better understand the individual contributions they can make to improving the environment. In these respects, ABK has provided an exemplary vehicle: it is up to the college now to deliver the long-term results. In the end though, there is a real paradox in the college's architecture – as an institution it sees itself as a 'college without walls' yet the prevailing impression from the outside is of a defensible structure with a single, controllable entrance (there is a separate entrance for the childcare facility, but this is outwith the enclosed area of the concourse). Perhaps this is a response to the still-exposed landscape it sits within, but with a predicted 60-year lifespan perhaps a little more optimism about its future surroundings could usefully have been in order.

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