New classroom for St. John’s School

Project Lacey Green : written by Clem 

At the start of the summer I began developing my final thesis project at the RCA, which I’ll be doing for the next nine months under the WORKSHOP umbrella, in collaboration with Grymsdyke Farm – a rural fabrication studio run by one of my tutors, Guan Lee. The farm is a collection of old out-houses, once attached to a working livestock farm and manor house; over the past decade Guan has been redeveloping them as a site for material and structural experimentation. Located in Lacey Green, a small village in the ‘home county’ of Buckinghamshire within the Green Belt, it’s a short 40-minute train ride from central London.

Back in July we approached St. John’s, a primary school just across the road from the farm, and proposed a collaboration which would result in an additional classroom space for the school. The head teacher, Mrs Gill Grimsey, had already started developing under-used exterior spaces on the school’s grounds as an outdoor learning area and was very enthusiastic about our involvement. She walked us around the school and showed us a number of possible sites – including a green space adjacent to a cluster of classrooms, which backs onto the gardens of the neighbouring houses. Raised above the surrounding pathway by just under a meter, and containing a number of mature and recently planted trees, it’s a beautiful site and the one we decided would best suit the project. In terms of the program for the new classroom, Gill was particularly keen to expand the school’s musical curriculum and facilities. This is not only a great design brief, which poses exciting challenges in terms of acoustics and materials, but also ties into recent campaigns to improve access to music within British state education.

In September, after a really inspiring trip to China and Japan to visit a number of buildings like Li Xiaodong’s Bridge School and Wang Shu’s History Museum, I returned to the UK to finish writing my dissertation. The essay explored forms of practice which are rooted in the specificities of place, and accommodate spontaneity within the design and construction processes; testing this approach in a British context will be a key concern of the project this year. At the start of this month it was finally time to get back to Lacey Green to survey the site, get hold of the plans for the existing buildings and start the project full-time. One of the first steps is to find out more about cross-laminated timber (CLT), a carbon-negative composite material made from wood and adhesives. I’ll be using CLT for the main structural system, alongside locally sourced and salvaged materials that will be integrated into the design in a more intuitive way.

Alongside this research I’ve begun to establish partnerships with a broader set of collaborators and mentors. Through Eleanor Morgan, an artist and Curator of the farm, I was introduced to Cate Care, the Senior Design Lead at the London office of IDEO. She gave me some useful advice about how to carry out design research based on observation and immersive experiences with the end-user, an approach rooted in the social sciences. I’m keen to explore this as an alternative to the types of participatory design workshops we held in India, and will be working closely with the school’s music teacher Fiona Insley to better understand the ways in which music is taught, practiced and performed within the school. In order to develop the design, I’ll need to understand what is already working well, and what type of space might improve the curriculum.

I’m also keen to forge relationships with students on other courses at the RCA, in particular from the Visual Communication department. The books that we produced with Ryan LeCluyse for the projects in India proved to be incredibly useful tools to document and communicate the process; and there are numerous other parts of the project that would benefit from a collaboration with a visual designer. Together, we’ll be partnering with Sustain RCA, a resource which can help with design advice and funding opportunities. I’m also in the process setting up the logistical framework for the project, in terms of schedule, funding, planning, insurance – seeking advice from other practices who have done similar small-scale design/build projects here in the UK. Some of the people I’ve spoken to so far are Yeoryia Manolopoulou from AY Architects, who initiated and fundraised for their award-winning Montpellier Community Nursery in Kentish Town, and Hana Loftus from HAT who recently designed and built a small exterior classroom at her children’s school in Essex. Looking forward to hearing about more experiences and perspectives as the project continues!