After the WaterSHED

Architects, Jonny Day and Mike Riley, explain how it only takes a little imagination to turn a redundant building into something fresh and remarkable.

We are in the business of raising communities, not razing buildings. So when we were asked to design for flexible education whilst minimising construction waste at a school in Rochdale, we decided to give an unused sports hall a new lease of life.

From the outside, it still looks much the same – but it’s an original in so many ways. Retaining and improving the existing structure and using only the most natural materials, it is a truly sustainable, imaginative re-purposing of property to provide a vital, modern school building. 

The client, Watergrove Trust, is a five-academy educational institution with schools located in areas of Greater Manchester suffering from social and low-income issues. In 2020, the leadership decided to use its existing assets and take a different approach to construction and procurement to demonstrate the social, financial and health benefits of teaching within a high quality, sustainable environment. They wanted to promote a sense of ownership, pride and belonging in its student cohort and reduce the frequency of disruptive behaviour.

We carved out two flexible classrooms, a design technology studio, and a café also used for informal learning and events from the existing floor area. The central space is animated by a processional set of ‘Spanish Steps’ with integrated seating, leading to a refurbished mezzanine level. Dining is set here, together with audience seating for presentations and performances, informal lectures and social activities. Upcycled seating along with a ‘grab and go’ food kiosk provide additional area for dining and self-directed learning.  

Small physical adaptions to the sports hall were necessary to bring in more natural light and support heating and ventilation systems; two new roof lights were created and parts of the façade removed at ground level to form a new entrance and windows. The design team reused, recycled or renewed materials and tracked all waste products.

A simple material palette of joinery-grade birch plywood, glulam timber trusses, steel sinusoidal cladding and fermacell partitioning boards was used throughout. Sheep’s wool insulation was installed into the wall build-up to separate spaces acoustically and manage heat loss. Additionally, each classroom has a lining of Troldtekt wood wool absorption board fixed between the exposed trusses to achieve a high-quality acoustic environment and each ‘shed’ has a rooflight installed to bring borrowed light into teaching spaces from the central atrium.

WaterSHED brought social and learning benefits before opening, by involving students, apprentices and the local community in the construction process, adding value to the school’s design and technology curriculum. The benefits of enhanced air quality on health, behaviour and learning continues to be monitored.

With the support of an enlightened and inventive client, the result is a simple, creative and highly sustainable solution, a dramatic social and academic space set within an existing structure, an ingenious solution to meet an urgent demand for school places and to serve the local community. The new, multifunctional facility at Wardle Academy is being used as a test-bed for new forms of teaching and learning and represents an exemplar for modern, modular construction and the creative adaptation of old buildings, not just in the education sector but for all civic structures.