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Shape of classrooms to come


It may look like an armadillo, but it's the future of education.

Emma Crates learns a thing or two as Balfour Beatty gets to grips with the first DfES 'classroom of the future'.

CLIENTS can ask some funny questions at the best of times but when they are aged between 7 and 11, normal protocol goes out of the window.

'The most common thing I get asked, ' says Balfour Beatty project manager Alex Wright, 'is 'When can we see the stars?'' It's a pertinent question.

Mr Wright, who readily answers to 'Bob the Builder' in conferences with his young clients, is overseeing the construction of an extraordinary classroom for St Francis of Assisi Primary School in west London.

The curvaceous structure includes remote control telescope and interactive learning zones.

The pupils - he has become used to conducting progress briefings in assemblies - have more than a passing interest in the building taking shape in a fencedoff section of their playground. They designed it.

Well, that's almost true. They were the first in the country to take part in a groundbreaking Governmentfunded project to create a 'classroom of the future'.

In consultation with architectural practice Studio E, the pupils submitted a series of full colour drawings showing their vision of the ideal classroom.

The result, a 12 m-high organically curving structure, topped with a large dome housing a remotely controlled telescope, certainly looks to have come out of the children's art class. But it is toned down a tad from the original brief.

'The original drawings looked a bit like a World War II tank, ' observes Balfour Beatty construction manager Paul Woodhams. 'It's now more like an armadillo.'

Whatever he thinks of the shape, Mr Woodhams is only a visitor to the site. Responsibility rests with Balfour Beatty project manager Alex Wright.

Managing a £1 million project - Balfour Beatty's cut is a shade over £500,000 - can be a lonely business. Mr Wright is the only full-time representative from Balfour Beatty on site and, despite the complexity of the task, he sees an average of just six subcontractors daily and only 12 workers at peak.

'It sounds quiet but it's not, with the kids, ' he adds.

Mr Wright, who reached the finals in the Construction News Site Engineer of the Year Awards in 2000, was picked to take the helm at St Francis because of his strong track record of setting-out.

Even so, he readily admits that this project, which discards traditional angles in favour of curves and circles, has been an 'engineer's nightmare'. Because of the restricted space around the site Mr Wright was forced to do much of his setting-out in the school playground.

But the painful process has paid off. The classroom now rises from its pedestal - looking every bit as space age as the pupils intended.

One side of the structure curves into a wooden and glass-reinforced plastic (GRP) pod, like the upturned hull of a boat, which has an overhang 3.5 m above ground, designed to act as a shelter for children playing.

On the other side light pours through windows made from ethyltetrafluroethylene (ETFE) - the same material used on the Eden project. The ETFE cushions are pumped with air, and are supported by wooden and GRP hoops, a little like the hood of a sports car.

Because of its unusual shape, many of the sections have been prefabricated off site. The sections were designed and manufactured by specialist teams:

Cowley Structural Timberworks, based in Lincoln, manufactured the GRP pod and Vector Special Projects of London was responsible for the ETFE section. Both companies had their own design teams and were working closely with the architect and Balfour Beatty.

The two halves are linked by a steel band. The GRP pod sits in steel hangers which are joined to the perimeter steelwork that cantilevers off a reinforced concrete wall. Gabion walls restrain the ETFE sections.

'We've worked with this variety of materials on other schemes, but not on anything this small, ' says Mr Woodhams. He adds that precise sequencing of the construction process has been essential. 'The only leeway we have is in landscaping.'

Although a total of 17 piles, each 6 m deep, were driven to support the structure, load bearing issues were not Mr Wright's main concern.

'The pod is filled with air, like a balloon. The difficult bit is holding it down, ' he says. He describes the windows and the pod working in tandem, like an antagonistic muscle.

'Tolerances have been very low but it's generally gone to plan, ' says Mr Wright. 'We taken out all the risk by setting up the project on a 3-D model on a CD.'

Keeping the structure watertight has been one of his biggest preoccupations.

'When placing the GRP sections, you have to get it right first time, ' he says. 'If you let the atmosphere back into the pod it would expand and damage the GRP.'

Mr Wright's construction method has minimised scaffolding, avoiding the possibility of piercing the ETFE cushions. Most elements have been lifted into place by crane.

The week that Construction News visited the site, the dome for the telescope was being lowered into place.

Later that week a team of abseilers helped jack up the hoops supporting the ETFE cushions before they were locked into position.

If the project runs to schedule, and Mr Wright is confident that it will do, the classroom will be handed over for fitting-out in early spring and will be ready for full star-gazing in the summer.

In the meantime, Mr Wright has had to add 'chief football retriever' to his list of other duties.

'One of the subcontractors even filled out 'ball retrieving' on his day work sheet. I had to give him short shrift for that, ' he grins.

Education first

ST FRANCIS is the first school in the country to benefit from the classroom of the future project, launched by the Department for Education and Skills and launched in 2000, in which local authorities were invited to submit their vision of what a future classroom could look like.

The Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea won a £750,000 Government grant in February 2001 for a permanent classroom for 30 children. The structure incorporates two separate interactive learning zones that can accommodate up to 30 visitors. All three areas will have access to a remote control telescope on the roof of the building.

The St Francis classroom is designed to be as an environmentally friendly as possible. At Balfour Beatty's suggestion, reclaimed railway sleepers are being used for the floor and on the decking outside.

To reduce the use of concrete, old spoil is being used from the earthworks to create gentle slopes that will form fire escapes.

Currently under development - and planned as a retrofit once the project is completed - are solarpowered ETFE cushions. Vector is experimenting with adding a skin-thick layer of photovoltaic cells to the ETFE. If successful the cells will provide the power to keep the cushions pumped.

Project details

Project value: £1 million

Architect: Studio E

Main contractor: Balfour Beatty (value: £550,000)

GRP pod: Cowley Structural Timberworks

ETFE cushions: Vector Special Projects