Abi Hopper: Headteacher, Nightingale School
Rebecca Watts: Architect and project associate, Hawkins\Brown
RW: We were approached by Hackney council to develop a new building for Nightingale Primary School and a residential development on a shared existing site – one occupied by a singlestorey building used by several local schools for additional classroom space.
AH: I was appointed as headteacher when the project was still on paper. Our old site at the time was fairly close by, allowing us to remain within the same catchment area and community that the school has always been a very big part of. It was important for everybody that we wouldn’t be moving far away.
RW: Our brief was to maximize the site in terms of residential provision, while simultaneously providing a high quality school. The project took five years, from the securing of the bid to final completion in June 2019, though the school was able to occupy the building and start using it from February of that year.
AH: The building work went right up to the point where we were supposed to be moving, so there wasn’t much opportunity to show the children around beforehand. I was pushing to get us moved in as quickly as possible, which we managed after the February half term. I told the teachers to prepare their lessons and not do anything differently in the new building – to just take the children into their new classrooms, sit them down and carry on as normal. It was interesting to see how quickly the children adjusted – they really took it in their stride.
RW: We wanted to use the space dedicated to the school as effectively as possible, but also make this particular mixed use scheme feel united in its built outcome. We located the school and residential entrances on opposite sides of the site, so that they could work independently and have their own identity from ground level, while outwardly appearing as part of a single building.
AW: The architect and LA’s technical advisor listened to what we needed there to be in the school and translated those requirements really well, particularly the specialist teaching rooms. We have a cooking room with space for 30, two ovens, two sinks and two dishwashers.
There’s also an art room, a dance/drama studio and a climbing wall that we’ve had installed. The outdoor areas are gorgeous, too – there are vegetable planting boxes on one of the roofs, alongside a wildflower meadow, and we keep bees up there.
RW: What we tried to do with this design was ensure the school had rooftop play areas that weren’t encroached on by the residential side. When you’re on the site, you simply feel like you’re in a school – you’re not aware of any residential structures looming over you. As you move further up the building, the storey flats have screening at the lower portions of their windows so that they’re looking out and across, rather than down at the school.
AH: The parents and staff are so wowed by the building that they barely notice the residents above us. I can’t think of a time when I’ve seen someone on their balcony, or even been aware of their presence. As the community above us grows, with more people moving in, I’d like there to be some form of collaboration. I want to invite them in to our Christmas concert and other events. Rather than simply ignoring each other, the best outcome would be to create a community that perhaps goes beyond the school.
RW: It’s a two-storey building that has two wings. The classrooms are all located along the edges of those, so that they’re looking out onto different play spaces, each designed with a specific use in mind. There’s a MUGA on the ground floor to the east, and a KS1 play area in the centre that has water dams and interesting play equipment based around physics and balance. On the west side is the nursery play space, and on the east roof there’s a calm play area with seating for storytelling and similar activities. Finally, there’s my favourite – the west roof, which has planting areas for horticulture and a space for beekeeping.
AH: The move to a new building coincided with a change in our site management. Our former site manager had decided to retire at around the same time, so we began using a facilities management company and were very lucky in that they appointed as our site manager someone who had previously worked with us as a TA. There are some new challenges to manage, such as ensuring the wooden equipment on our exposed rooftops is regularly checked for splinters and other types of wear, but in general it’s worked out well so far.
RW: The school uses roof lights that act as passive step ventilation chimneys, while bringing light deeper into the classroom spaces. Those are connected to a building management system that can be overriden from the classroom spaces, and we utilised a concrete frame to keep the building cool and prevent overheating, which can be a common occurrence in schools.
AH: The classrooms are big and the ceilings high, so everything feels light and airy, and the underfloor heating in the classrooms is set at just the right temperature. In our old building we used to lose at least a month of learning during the summer term, simply because the children were too hot, uncomfortable and unable to concentrate. This year we simply breezed right on through to the holidays with barely any issues at all. Everything felt so much more comfortable.
AH: We have a number of children at our school who have autism, and we wondered how they’d cope with the change, but they’ve all found the new building to be very calming. There’s the lightness, the sense of space and size of the classrooms, but other aspects too – the classrooms are all fitted with baffling to dampen the sound, which means the school feels especially comfortable on a sensory level to children with additional needs. That’s made a huge difference.
RW: In the centre between both wings there’s a ‘heart space’, which is where the school’s learning resource centre and main breakout area is located. There’s a set of feature stairs centrally positioned there which look up to an area called the Park Room, which is a versatile space for reading, holding exhibitions and other uses with a view over Hackney Downs. I think this, alongside the breakout area, is one of the development’s most successful spaces.
AH: If I was to pick my favourite bit of the school, it would have to be the climbing wall. I just adore it – seeing the children coach each other from being terrified, to being able to climb to the top is something I’ll never tire of. I make the same joke to everyone we show round – ‘We’re the top primary school in Hackney for rock climbing…’
RW: We’ve been back a few times to gather user quotes and experience on how the building is working in practice. The variety of spaces it has allows the school to offer a curriculum that’s really forward-thinking and quite different to other schools in the area.
AH: The thing that pleases me the most is simply seeing the children – particularly those who I know who I know live in difficult situations outside of school – and how happy and proud they are when arriving each day, and how excited they are to learn here.