Physical connections


A new sports and swimming pool addition at King’s College School in south west London was designed around visual connections between old and new, and marked the culmination of the school’s masterplan. Roseanne Field reports

Designing a modern, state-of-the-art sports complex to sit alongside Grade II and Grade II* listed buildings in a conservation area is normally a challenge to say the least – but in this case it was one that long-established practice David Morley Architects (DMA) relished.

The sports complex was the final stage in a 10 year infrastructure masterplan – produced by Tim Ronalds Architects – that has seen various improvements and additions made to the popular and growing 192-year-old independent day school.

“Education and sports projects are the backbone of our practice,” says Mark Davies, associate at DMA, explaining how their expertise in the sector gave them confidence to pursue this scheme with vigour, despite its seemingly daunting nature. The practice were invited to a limited competition before being awarded the contract. “Our ‘dream’ projects are those which pose a challenge, e.g. which are in a sensitive or heritage setting,” Davies explains.

The practice’s vast experience in the sports sector stood them in good stead for the briefing phase of this complex scheme. “It allowed us to interrogate what was right for this client,” he says.

“We know what different sports need – the standards, the benefits of natural light in those environments for encouraging participation in a gentle way.”

The school already had a variety of sports facilities, but they were spread out around the site and in need of renewal and bringing up to modern standards, says Davies. The school’s estate had seen various additions and changes over the years, so the functions were distributed in an ad hoc way. “A key element of the brief was to bring it all together cohesively,” explains Davies.

The new £21m facilities were the third and final element of the 10 year masterplan, which presented an “ambitious regeneration” comprising a new reception, pavilion and quadrangle, plus a refurbished dining hall, new classroom block, state-of-the-art music school (complete with 200 seat concert hall), and finally the sports centre itself.

As well as the pressure from siting the development alongside listed buildings and in a conservation area, the ante was raised further by the prestigious school having been named the Sunday Times Independent School of the Year multiple times. Nevertheless the school were reportedly happy to entrust the practice with the design. “The masterplan was flexible and open,” says Davies. “They were model clients – they came to us with an aspiration and trusted us to develop the vision.”

They had multiple meetings throughout the design process – which Davies says proved incredibly useful. “There were rigorous development meetings where we would come to the client with key briefing questions, which helped us know what they were thinking and what direction we were headed in,” he says. “Thorough and engaged meetings helped us address critical issues at each step to ensure key decisions were made within RIBA workstages.” It’s a process that the school also appreciated: “The planning result is testament to the excellent team and client working relationships we created,” says Owen Carlstrand, governor at the school.

With the existing facilities having evolved over a long period, in an uncoordinated manner, many were in an unusable state. The swimming pool was “outdated,” says Davies, its dimensions unsuited to modern standards, and the gym facilities were also in need of updating – dedicated studio space was needed and the facilities were on the whole no longer adequate for the number of pupils. The masterplan therefore sought to “consolidate the sports buildings to a single location,” which pupils, staff and sports participants and swimming members of the ‘King’s Club’ can easily access. It also proposed removing some of the outdated buildings to allow for more outdoor space to house playing fields, tennis courts, and cricket nets.

The practice came up with a design that would replace the existing swimming pool, tennis courts and cricket nets, and “absorb” the existing 1980s-built sports hall, and the squash courts, built in the 1990s. The new design comprises three linked pavilions – one housing a six lane, 25 metre swimming pool, and another the six-court sports hall – which can also accommodate assemblies and exams. Lastly, a central two storey pavilion is home to the reception, changing rooms, viewing galleries, a gym, exercise suite, and offices. Also added were six new outdoor tennis courts along with three cricket nets.

The “real challenge,” says Davies, was integrating the new and existing facilities – “physically, practically and visually.” They wanted to ensure their concept would instantly look like it belonged alongside the other buildings on the site, “absorbing the courts and blending with the existing sports hall.” He continues: “The vision was to create not only excellent visual connections between indoors and outdoors to encourage physical activity among pupils, but also to connect the old facilities with the new.”

Form & design
One of the first challenges for the practice to address was the level changes across the site – both in terms of what was appropriate for the new elements, and also how to fix the problems in the current buildings. The existing layout was “awkward,” says Davies, with facilities accessed via “a series of complicated level changes,” with some below ground level. It was a design priority to make all areas easily accessible and create a better flow, which included deciding which level was the ideal one to use as a baseline.

The new entrance path to the main reception is now the point of access for the members of the King’s Club, while school students can access the facilities from the other side of the pavilion. A double-sided lift was also installed alongside a new staircase to allow easy access to the various levels internally.

As well as access for the public and students, they also needed to consider access for fire tenders and pool maintenance – both of which needed to navigate away from the main road, through constrained spaces. “We had to find a resolution that would suit all the different requirements,” Davies says.

Another key focus for the practice was to achieve the balance between ensuring the buildings blended into the existing site, while also making sure each had its own distinct character. The listed buildings were “an important consideration,” Davies says, which “informed the strategic layout of the site.” The extensively-glazed single-storey swimming pool hall was designed with a green roof that slopes down to meet the orchard of the Grade II* listed Southside House.

On the other side, the sports hall also sits alongside the garden of the Grade II listed Gothic Lodge, and the practice were therefore “determined to mitigate the large mass of the sports hall and potential overshadowing,” Davies explains. There’s also an underground stream running through the site – essential for the various gardens, so they were also careful not to disturb that by setting the building too low in the ground. “It was a balancing act,” Davies says. “We treated each facility as a separate mass.”

The existing squash courts and sports hall – which remained mostly untouched – were absorbed within the colonnaded lobby. There was some minor modification to the building frontage in order to accommodate new access, but largely “it was about connecting them,” Davies explains. Absorbing them within the new elements “put a new facade on the existing buildings” without a huge overhaul being required. The colonnades were added to “allow daylight into the spaces that were retained,” says Davies. “The staff rooms and flexible spaces benefit from this.”

Externally, the pitches and playing fields are located to the south of the pavilions and are the “primary outdoor space,” says Davies. Previously, the old swimming pool, a rifle range and garden wall were dividing and cluttering the existing playing fields, but what Davies says was the masterplan’s “core strategy” was to make the largest playing field more open, and consolidate the buildings into one area. To the north is the school’s Lodge Garden. Overall, the composition of the pavilions “frames the Lodge Garden, allowing it to become part of a hierarchy of outdoor spaces enriching the school grounds.” The garden was created in the space between the new buildings and existing Lodge, strengthening the relationship between the two volumes. “The garden space works with the colonnade,” says Davies. “The setting and nature helps knit everything together.”

One of the more challenging aspects to design was the swimming pool, Davies explains. The school required the pool for both swimming and water polo lessons.

“The two functions have different requirements,” says Davies. “There was a great deal of discussion about the profile and depth of the pool, it was about balancing the needs of both.”

Internally, the facilities were designed with a “see it, do it” principle in mind. “Increasing the visibility of the sports means people are more likely to participate,” Davies says. This idea influenced the extensive use of glass on the swimming pool hall, large windows looking into the sports hall, and the upstairs access galleries which overlook the halls and pool and can also be used for spectators during events. The studios and gym upstairs also feature extensive glazing which overlooks the pitches and playing fields outside. “It was about creating views both inside and out, connecting to the sport all around,” explains Davies.

A key part of ensuring the buildings didn’t overpower their surroundings was the use of brick, explains Davies. The sports hall is a particular example, featuring a large external brick facade. “There was a great deal of dialogue with the school about the brick selection,” he says. “Getting the right brick mix and mortar combination, and breaking the large mass of the sports hall down by how we layered them, and the texture.” The bricks chosen were carefully selected to be in keeping with the variety present in the nearby garden walls and building facades.

Internally, the materials were carefully chosen based on what was appropriate for the setting, says Davies. The sports hall was constructed with a steel frame and concrete panel wall system to create “robust surfaces that were impact resistant,” explains Davies. “We wanted to avoid the usual concrete blockwork.”

The practice used a concrete frame for the central pavilion, which contained the changing rooms, gym, and strength and conditioning suite. Glulam and CLT were chosen as the primary structural materials in the pool hall due to their properties in this corrosive environment, bearing onto concrete columns.

Despite timber’s resilience to moisture, the architects avoided its use in “splash zones.” The timber roof – white-washed to complement the concrete columns – sweeps down in a wave-like motion from the viewing galleries within the central pavilion to the single storey end of the hall.

The shape of the roof, as well as being practical to allow for the change in storey height, was also influenced by the incorporation of a continuous rooflight to create a good and even light distribution over the pool and reduce glare for swimmers. The glulam beams therefore have a dynamic shape and varied depth to support this.

Glulam was also used in the concert hall – part of one of the earlier phases of the masterplan – which both won and was shortlisted for several architectural awards. Recently, and thanks to its timber roof design, the swimming pool hall was named the Education & Public Sector winner at the 2020 Wood Awards.