It’s one thing to construct a major extension on top of an existing, mid 20th century-era school building. It’s quite another to do so with pupils continuing to attend lessons while the building work goes on above them.
Yet for just over two years, that was the situation at Turnham Primary Foundation School, following Lewisham Council’s decision to expand its premises. According to executive headteacher John Halliwell, “They were aware that the pupil population was increasing and that there needed to be more space. The challenge with the site was that there wasn’t much space outside. We’re essentially surrounded by an estate of flats – I know that a number of different options were looked at.”
Halliwell is a fairly recent arrival at the school, having only been appointed as executive head in January this year – just in time to preside over the final stages of what had been quite a protracted build process that saw initial site works commence in October 2015. While not there at the time, Halliwell’s understanding is that where the planning was concerned, “There was a very clear view of what could happen and how, due to the age of the building and its location, which the school was consulted on. But then the building work was delayed, due a range of factors.”
Edward Williams, managing director of the appointed architect, Edward Williams Architects, picks up the story: “There had been a great deal of discussion between Lewisham Council, the school and external advisors concerning the need for adding an additional floor.
“After we became involved, there followed a stand-down period while investigative work was carried out on the school’s foundations to ensure they could take the extra load. We discovered some rusting steel lintels and other elements, which is one of those problems you often get when dealing with existing buildings – you don’t necessarily know what’s there until you start opening it up.”
With these unforeseen additional works eventually resolved, work resumed in earnest. The school’s new second floor extension was to feature extra classrooms, a dance hall and a dedicated SEN space – the latter originally envisaged as two separate rooms, but later combined into one at the school’s request.
On the whole, matters proceeded relatively smoothly thereafter. “There was the question of what to do with the school’s flat roof,” recalls Williams. “We looked at whether we could support the structure by making holes in the existing roofing system, but in the end decided that was too risky, so we took the whole flat roof off. We were able to develop a lightweight timber solution that enabled a very speedy construction and avoided the need to put a roof over the entire building, which would have been prohibitively expensive.”
The right people
One issue that did need careful managing, however, was how to keep the school open while the works were in progress, without too much disruption to the teachers’ and pupils’ daily routines. “From the outset, it was a case of looking at how the school ran on a day-to-day basis, what space we were able to have, and in particular, at maintaining the children’s safety and access to the school,” says Halliwell.
“With children in the lower floors of the main building, managing routes and areas the children could access safely was very important,” remembers Williams. “We also had to ensure that periods of noisy building work were co-ordinated with the school’s activities, planned around exams and carried out in holiday periods wherever possible.”
Happily for the school, the personnel involved in these efforts were more than up to the task. “You’ve got to have the right people working alongside you,” observes Halliwell. “We appointed a site manager who had an extensive understanding of building and construction, and was sensitive to the various demands of the contractors when they were on site. Having that link enabled the school to function well and organise things in a timely manner with the contractor. The relationship we had with them was very strong.”
Enthusiasm and vigour
Having successfully negotiated the hidden complexities of an ageing building and the logistical challenges of keeping the school functioning, however, there was a further obstacle to overcome – the reputational hit that perhaps inevitably follows from having a school clad in scaffolding for an extended length of time.
“Pupil numbers have deteriorated over the duration of the build,” concedes Halliwell. “If you’re a parent choosing a local school for your child, and one of them’s a building site with the children largely in temporary facilities, that obviously doesn’t look good.”
With the building works finally completed in February this year, however, the Turnham community is now very much looking to the future. “Moving back into the building has been a unifying experience for the team,” Halliwell says. “We were virtually two separate schools throughout the duration of the build. Now that we’re all back under one roof, it’s created a renewed sense of enthusiasm and vigour.”
So what aspect of the school’s new building is Halliwell most pleased with? “The dance studio right at the top is an amazing space for a number of reasons. It’s allowed us to specialise in creative provision for dance, but has also meant that for the first time in the school’s history, we’re able to hold whole school assemblies. Seeing that is amazing.
“I also think the quality of the actual build itself is really high. I’ve worked in a number of new build schools, and I haven’t seen a spec as strong as the one I’ve seen here.”