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Bridge Academy, London, United Kingdom

Tuesday 30 Aug 2011

No hackneyed school design...

Bridge Academy by BDP in London, United Kingdom
Bridge Academy by BDP in London, United Kingdom Bridge Academy by BDP in London, United Kingdom Bridge Academy by BDP in London, United Kingdom Bridge Academy by BDP in London, United Kingdom Bridge Academy by BDP in London, United Kingdom Bridge Academy by BDP in London, United Kingdom
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Vertical school in Hackney maximises social interaction and provides inspirational learning place 

Bridge Academy rethinks the idea of the school as a piece of urban design integrated into the city fabric. The design creates a unique vertical school in this dense urban brownfield site, formerly a gasworks, in the heart of its multi-ethnic community. Responding to the opportunities of this constrained water-side site, the innovative vertical Academy creates a compact school shaped around a multi-level ‘heartspace', maximising social interaction and optimising passive surveillance. The design displaces ground upwards taking advantage of magnificent roofspaces for performance, learning and play.

Three building elements form the basis of the design: the 'sound shell', a performance hall and a sports hall. The sound shell wraps teaching spaces around the social heart of the school and terraces down to the canal, creating a sense of enclosure and protection, with the 'hoop' supporting the large ETFE wall unifying the academy spaces and bringing vast amounts of daylight right down into the lower ground floor. The north and south halves of the shell are arranged on half levels so that adjacent teaching spaces are reached by 10 steps in the staircase, providing stronger links across the different academic departments. A play deck and learning resource centre are suspended from the sound shell and are located above the central square, which opens out onto a café with views to the canal.

The 450-seat concert hall for use by the wider community outside of school hours was another opportunity for unique design. It is designed as a pavilion surrounded by nature, set among a hanging garden.

The sports hall has been sunk into the ground to reduce its height and with glazing at street level. Separate access is provided for off-hours use of the sports hall and a fitness room for local clubs. Terraces at each level of the building allow for a continuous stepped landscape from the top of the sports hall down to the canal. 

A curved truss beam suspends the library above the central square, freeing up the ground floor for assembly and social interaction. The steel structure is intended to be visible so that, in keeping with the specialism of maths and music, the school becomes not just an environment to learn in, but an environment to learn from.

Construction was from February 2007 until June 2008. The school is 10,250 m2 and it accomodates 1150 pupils. Bridge Academy won the Scala Award for Civic Building of the Year in 2009.


Bridge Academy is part of the national government initiative to build state-of-the-art schools in the country’s worst performing areas. It aims to improve the attendance and performance of students at the school, in turn reducing youth crime and improving the economic future of the area. Situated on the Regents Canal on an inner-city brownfield site, the design creates a focus for the regeneration of a neglected area. Predominantly reachable by foot for a local pupil base, this new school is also accessible for community use out of school hours. The scheme builds on BDP’s successful schools without corridors, which maximise social cohesiveness and minimise opportunities for bullying. Care has been taken to create a fair and inclusive learning environment for all. These details are subtly integrated in to the overall design to ensure users do not feel different because of their disability. Control of noise levels in teaching spaces is important to optimise learning for students with hearing difficulties. Bridge Academy is a non-denominational school, which nonetheless attracts a diverse variety of faiths and ethnic and social backgrounds which need to be respected. The sports hall window on Laburnum Street can be screened off to provide privacy during PE lessons. Similarly the kitchen caters for Halal and Koscher meals. In response to the background poverty within the area, the provision of discounted nutricious meals was a key part of the brief set by the school’s sponsor, as quite often the standard of cooking at home could be low. As such the kitchen is oversized by comparison to other schools to provide freshly cooked meals on site every day.


Innovative computer modelling software (BIM) was used in the design of Bridge Academy to coordinate structure and mechanical designs. This was subsequently transposed to the fabrication line, thus reducing wastage, streamlining the construction programme and increasing the efficiency of site delivery scheduling. A 3D animation, created by 3DW, was particularly useful in the early briefing stages of the project as the model was viewed around the world in various offices of client and sponsor organisations. It was also used as a tool for the local population of the London Borough of Hackney to see the building in context and take a virtual tour of the building’s internal spaces. Through its application, the structural engineers took a leading role in defining the building form. The architecture and building services were wrapped around and through the model to ensure creative and practical integration. The use of BIM provided several benefits to the project including efficient drawing production (the model is sliced horizontally and vertically to create general arrangements and cross-sections) and the export of the model to structural analysis software packages. It enabled early detection of clashes with architecture and building services and enhanced communication of the construction methodology. It eased the transfer of information to the steel fabricator and the models enabled the client and other members of the design team to better understand the building form. The BIM work on this project has already been recognised with a Bentley Enterprise Award.


With floor space at a premium on such a confined site, flexible use of space helped meet demands of the brief. Retractable partition arrangements are used to allow spaces to be used in different configurations. A key example of this is the Performance Hall which creates a 450 person auditorium out of curriculum teaching space using a retractable acoustic ‘Skyfold’ wall and retractable seating units. Circulation space is appropriated for learning - for example the Central Square has multiple uses including assembly and the ICT balconies around the atrium. Out of school hours, the building is used in a number of novel ways. The lecture theatre is used as a cinema, and the sports hall will be a beach volleyball training facility during the Olympics. Wedding receptions, business fairs and private functions are held in the central and it has been used by local community groups for festivals and events. Recording suites, recital suites, music technology labs and the performance hall are made available for hire without disrupting the day-to-day operation of the school by means of a dedicated community entrance. This also ensures additional revenue for the school which can be put back into the running of the school. Designing future flexibility was necessary to meet changing educational and technological needs. Positioning the structure towards the perimeter of the slab enables the reconfiguration of partitions. Cellular beams and raised floors also offer flexibility for services. There is also future potential for the covered car park to be converted into usable space.


In line with BDP’s commitment to sustainable development, several basic principles were implemented from the early stages: sensible building orientation, natural ventilation, natural daylighting, enhanced insulation and solar shading. The form of the building has been designed as a single wrap of teaching spaces to minimise energy use by cross ventilation and maximising daylight from two sides. The use of ETFE ensures that the building is well lit, from the very top to the basement of the school, even on the dullest days. Direct sunlight is controlled by high levels of insulation and solar shading to reduce the heat load. For the most part of the year the school is naturally ventilated, utilising the seven storey space on the canalside of the building to enable a stack effect in the building's central space. A ground remediation strategy was developed that minimises the extent of off-site disposal, whilst creating a safe environment for the academy and the community. Demolition material from the previous school building was used in the sub-structure. All timber used was sourced from sustainable sources. The school design makes use of the canal as a unique feature of the site to discharge rainwater overflow in to, hence reducing the size of the below ground rainwater attenuation tanks and minimising the extent of excavation and off-site disposal of material. A key principle of the design is that the school is set 700 metres from most of the pupils’ homes in the catchment area, meaning that use of vehicular transport is largely unnecessary and therefore minimal carbon emissions result from journeys to and from school.


The building creates a number of characterful places and makes circulation joyful, while its layout has an underlying clarity which makes orientation simple and easy to manage. The two main stairs and lift cores act as foci for movement and social interaction, and life’s essentials such as the toilets can be found in similar locations across floors. The north and south half-levels of the building are identified with different colours which progressively change as one moves up the building to ease wayfinding and help those with visual impairments or cognitive difficulties. The Bridge Academy attaches great importance to its partnerships with the local community and those with prestigious organisations such as Queen Mary University of London, the sponsor of the Academy, UBS Investment Bank and The London Symphony Orchestra. These links provide additional opportunities for students to have a rich educational experience. UBS’s staff volunteer their time at the Academy and work with students and staff on a wide range of activities including Maths and English intervention and the Academy’s Maths and Music specialisms. The feedback we have received form students and staff is that the building has been successful in providing an inspirational learning environment for all. This can be primarily put down to the open and social feel of the building and its distinct identity within the community. For the academic year 2009-10 the attendance figure was 95%, well above local and national averages.


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