Fitzalan High School – Creating a heart space for the school

Fitzalan High School

Fitzalan High School -
Creating a heart space for the school

By Victoria Slater, Architect, Austin-Smith:Lord

The challenge of how to design an inspiring new school building on a constrained city centre site in Cardiff was difficult – this was set to us in Spring 2019 in responding to Cardiff Council’s tender for the replacement of the current school as part of the Welsh Government’s Band B programme of school rebuilding. Austin-Smith:Lord were appointed as Lead Designer providing Architecture, Interior Architecture and Landscape Design services as part of Kier’s successful design team.

Our design response at tender stage was extremely well received, successfully interpreting the vision and brief produced by the client team within the limitations of the schedule of accommodation and the extensive site constraints. Central to this was the way we unlocked the school’s spatial requirements to provide a large central space which acts as the heart for the whole school.

Project Vision

The project vision stated the following key objectives;

    • Replacement facilities for the 11-18 year old 10FE High School plus 350 place Sixth Form, 1850 pupils total
    • Extended Opportunities provision for 40 pupils & Primary Cluster for 10 Key Stage 2 pupils
    • Accessible by community after school; ability to zone these facilities securely including a 25m indoor swimming pool
    • Learning spaces which adapt easily and quickly to provide a variety of pedagogic approaches for the New Curriculum in Wales
    • Provision of a bright, high quality new building that will support the changing and developing needs of both learners and teachers
    • Integration of learning and working environments with a visible ‘public face’ to raise aspirations

Design Concept

The simple concept for the massing of the building is derived of 3 interlocking blocks reflecting the differing functions of the brief; the school, sports facilities and the community pool. These are clearly expressed for ease of wayfinding, with cut away entrances where each of the blocks intersect. The main school teaching accommodation is formed by a 3 story “superblock”, a necessary response to the site constraints.

Designed for the New Curriculum for Wales we zoned the Areas of Learning (AoLe) vertically and horizontally through the building, in response to the proposed changes we knew were coming. Working with educational consultants, Lloyd Wilson Partnership, we re-ordered the Schedule of Accommodation away from the traditional departmental model which was still in use at the time.

Atria are placed throughout the building to bring natural daylight into internalised spaces, to create visual connections across the different floors; acting as unifying elements for the various AoLe, social, dining and open learning spaces located around them. These light-wells are extremely important to the success of the building from a health and wellbeing perspective; delivering a light and spacious interior that inspires and supports the school community.

Heart of the School

A key design challenge within the School’s briefing documents was the requirement to provide two separate assembly halls in addition to a dedicated dining space. This was required to meet their teaching timetabling, however they longed for a larger gathering space to hold whole-school events and celebrate their achievements with the community, after having been constrained for so many years by their existing school buildings.

We turned this challenge into an opportunity through the innovative co-location of these spaces in 3-dimensions as illustrated in the sections below. By utilising some of the breakout space area allocation we provided a large Hellerup staircase as part of the dining hall (or learning steps) which functions as an informal seating area to link the two assembly halls together with the dining space in the centre. The concept section through the halls demonstrates the flexibility to create different sized spaces through large folding partitions at the ends of each hall. When these partitions are opened up it therefore creates an impressive, inter-connected large space which has become the heart of the new school.

Achieving the Vision

The heart space provides multiple opportunities for hundreds of staff and pupils to gather, learn, present, perform, welcome, study, dine and celebrate. It also offers an opportunity to better engage with the wider community, with the spaces also available for hire to generate additional school income – this became an important long term benefit in terms of current school funding challenges.

Through the detail design development stages we worked through the technical performance requirements to deliver the winning concept – analysing the acoustic performance of the halls, partitions, modelling the spaces throughout the day, undertaking spatial analysis against exam and lesson timetables with the project acoustician and educationalist.

The technical coordination of the AV equipment enables the linking of the three spaces together via projectors, camera and audio relay, allowing performances and assemblies to be held to large audiences, including those without direct sight of the stage. Also key to the success of this concept is the selection of the FF&E, allowing for multiple configurations and positioning of the speakers and performers through modular flexible staging, mobile AV positions and seating types to suit the configurations. A bleacher seat unit can travel forward in the upper sixth form hall, which is mostly used for lectures, allowing for direct sightline views into the dining and main hall at ground floor when capacity is not maximised.

It has been a privilege to work with the School and the entire project team to design and deliver this unique series of spaces, and to see the vision brought into reality. We are delighted to have had the opportunity to join the school at some of their first events to utilise their heart space and see what a difference it is already making for pupils, staff and the local community, and look forward to a continued relationship with our friends at Fitzalan High School.