Highfields Spencer Academy

Sector: Education
Status: Completed August 2020

Derbyshire has a population of around 780,000, which is expected to increase by 10% by 2039. The need to provide more infrastructure, housing and school places has been one of the County Council’s top priorities in recent years. With the addition of a new major housing development comprising of 1,200 homes, the council approached Morgan Sindall and Lungfish to support them in the delivery of a primary school to accommodate more than 200 pupils from the new, growing community.

The new Highfields Farm development in Littleover is being built by Taylor Wimpey, Barratt Homes and Miller Homes, with the £5.3million school project being part-funded through Section 106 agreements. With section 106 funding in place, the school needed to be delivered in time for the occupation of a pre-agreed percentage of properties on the estate. Yet, with an increase of housing developers from two to four on site, the percentage of house completions doubled quickly, increasing the importance and speed of the school being open and operational on time.

Together with the council and the academy sponsor, Spencer Academies Trust, we have worked collaboratively to design a one form-entry primary school that will provide a high-quality and inspiring learning environment. Using our experience and expertise in offsite construction and modular design, we worked to develop a solution for the council that not only created a striking new school but enabled the project to be delivered efficiently within budget and tight timescales.

Through comprehensive engagement meetings, the project was submitted to planning officials within six weeks of the first meeting. Planning permission was granted in August 2019 with work commencing in December. The school was completed in July 2020 – ahead of schedule and under budget, despite the restrictions and challenges posed by COVID-19 - ready for the September term.

About the project

As a one form-entry primary school, the new Highfields Spencer Academy will offer 210 pupil places and a 26-place nursery. The single-storey school will be of modular design with 45 pre-fabricated modules constructed offsite. This allows for the construction to run concurrently with the groundworks, shortening the overall construction period. This approach will also benefit the local community, which is already experiencing a high volume of construction traffic, as the majority of construction will be offsite, keeping disruption to the site and surrounding areas to a minimum.

Spencer Academies Trust believe that children learn best when they are engaged in an exciting, creative and tailored curriculum. With that in mind, our design for the school boasts eight spacious classrooms, a landscape garden and a ‘habitat area’ for a biodiverse outdoor learning zone, allowing the pupils to engage and interact with the external environment, increasing their stimulation and creating the opportunity for them to gain practical hands-on learning.

Internally, the large classrooms will feature a modern and bright design throughout, creating positive and engaging learning environments. The building will provide an effective healthy indoor environment with natural daylighting and ventilation along with thermal comfort and acoustics which have been designed to support educational attainment. Outside, the school will have great sporting facilities with a hard play area with marked netball and basketball courts, and a large grass football pitch. The nursery and reception class entrances will have external canopies, as will the main entrance to provide weather protection and covered outdoor play.

THE OFFSITE APPROACH

As the school needed to be handed over in July 2020, allowing Spencer Academies Trust to move in ready for the September term, this gave the design and project teams only 17 months to design and deliver the new school. The tight timescale required the teams to move quickly and enter into a six-week engagement period with the council, in order to put the school plans and architectural drawings in for approval almost straight away. This is where offsite solutions come into their own. Having previously delivered schools within similar timeframes and utilising offsite solutions, we know that the building can pretty much be guaranteed to be delivered on time and to the highest quality, as the mitigating circumstances such as bad weather will not impact the project.

SAFE WORKING THROUGH THE PANDEMIC

An offsite approach to construction was identified as the best way to achieve construction, even before the coronavirus pandemic began to unfold, because of the comparative speed and the removal of many of the variables, such as the weather, which can impact traditional construction.

This decision was further vindicated as coronavirus-mandated social distancing guidelines came into force.

Due to the fact that much of the work on the 45 modules was carried out offsite within a factory-controlled environment, it could be completed safely and efficiently, unaffected by the logistical challenges facing many construction sites around the country. The school’s external framework arrived with the windows and roof sections already in place, while M&E fittings were also completed within the factory, reducing subcontractor traffic to site.

Work which needed to be completed onsite was done in line with government guidelines and all members of the supply chain worked collaboratively to ensure each other’s safety and wellbeing. Excellent collaboration and regular, open communication with all stakeholders has been essential to completing the project ahead of schedule.

SOCIAL VALUE CREATION

Before COVID-19, the project team hosted numerous site visits to help pupils learn about construction and what the new school would look like. To keep this momentum, the team created a series of drone videos issued to surrounding schools and the community to keep everyone involved in the education of the build process.

A COLOURFUL AND INSPIRATIONAL OUTCOME

“We call this the Magic Rainbow School.” Anna Jones, Principal, Highfields Spencer Academy


The single-storey, 15,510 square foot main building features seven general purpose classrooms, a reception, nursery and a double-storey main hall. Every single class has access to the outdoors with their own dedicated area, as well as to the large playground and playing field.

External facilities include a soft play area, a large playing field, and a MUGA pitch. The children will also benefit from a quiet sensory garden and a space for gardening club, as well as a visitors’ garden and allotment area. There will be an additional parking area and cycle storage facilities.

“It is somewhere that's quiet because of the way that the building has been designed with the classrooms toward the back of the school. It means that we're not being overlooked by people walking past. It's just a really positive, bright place for the children to be in.”

The colourful windows of the main hall, with their optical illusion, is a favourite feature for our team. The hall will be able to be utilised by the local community outside of school hours, and fronts the public square. It provides a welcoming impact, and the windows are completely flat to the façade. Some very careful geometry and execution has generated this effect, and it will create animation from all angles.

The new academy will provide 210 primary and nursery places to pupils aged 3 to 11 within the local area. Despite the pandemic, the project achieved a social value investment of £1,549,583.76 back into the local community.

“Highfields Spencer Academy has the potential to leave a lasting legacy which challenges the current state of construction in the education sector and demonstrates what is achievable when a practical-led approach to design is adopted from the outset.”


Simon Reid, Managing Director, Lungfish Architects