Cedars Hall, Wells Cathedral School, Wells, Somerset

Introduction

Wells Cathedral School, founded in AD909, is renowned for music and one of just five in the country to offer specialist musical education to school children. Over the years it has grown; its 700 pupils learn and board in various historic stone buildings around the precincts of Wells Cathedral and use the cathedral itself as a music venue for performances and recitals. While this was perfect for traditional performance, the school lacked modern performance teaching and rehearsal spaces, ones that would accommodate recording and data, and allow new forms of music to be accessible to students. 

All these facilities are now provided in an elegant and award-winning new building, Cedars Hall, designed by Eric Parry Architects. There are spaces for the teaching, learning, practice and recording of music, designed to professional standards, together with a magnificent hall for recitals and performance. The new building provides much needed flexibility and a choice of performance spaces. It is a new focal point both for the school and the local community and with its generous foyer and bar can accommodate an audience of 400.

Cedars Hall has been carefully integrated into its historic setting, the listed landscape of Cedars, a large Grade II listed Georgian mansion which is the administrative centre of the school. The site was constrained in every orientation, slotted in between mature cedar trees, flanking a historic curved wall, the Liberty Wall, and adjacent to the school cricket pitch.

The volume/proportions of the recital hall were determined by acoustic requirements. To minimise the visual impact of its relatively large volume on the listed landscape, and to allow views across the grounds to the cricket pitch, it has been partially sunk into the ground and its roof is set back at clerestory level. Light floods in from a series of full height glazed panels set between massive Cor-Ten weathering steel panels. Its interior is designed to world-class acoustic standards, achieved by use of timber elements, including diffusing oak panels, adjustable timber panels, and a double-curved timber roof.

Other facilities are housed in an adjacent, slightly lower structure which wraps around the recital hall and is clad with vertical Siberian larch boards, matching the cricket pavilion and maintenance block nearby, also designed for the school by Eric Parry Architects. Although the first purpose of the new building was always music, it is now a popular venue for many activities in the school and community including toddler groups, debates, dinners, conferences and art exhibitions.

The new recital hall

The façade of the recital hall is of weathering steel panels alternating with large glazed panels, both 5.5 metres high and 2 metres wide. The weathering steel panels have deep reveals and on the inside are lined with red MDF. Each MDF panel is fitted with two sets of 45mm thick acoustic timber boards, one above the other, lacquered red to match the MDF. The timber boards are hinged at their long edges so that they can be adjusted to provide different acoustic qualities to suit different music styles and performances. The pit of the performance space is lined with Schroeder quadratic residue diffuser oak panels, designed with varying depths of surface to scatter sound waves and enhance the sound quality of a performance.

The clerestory roof structure spans 15 x 18 metres and is supported by four columns and 610 x 305 UBs which in turn support a grid structure of beech laminated veneer lumber (LVL), which swells out into the hall at the centre, helping to increase low-frequency sound diffusion. The grid consists of a series of beech LVL primary ribs which span the space at one metre centres fixed to a series of LVL secondary ribs. The lower edge of each primary rib is curved, the curves progressively deepening towards the centre of the diagrid to reach a maximum depth of 1.7 metres. The LVL cross ribs match the curved ribs in depth to create the diagrid. The result is a series of open cubes; the deeper cubes at the centre are infilled at varying depths with 40mm thick beech LVL panels and house lighting or services. The shallower cubes at the perimeter are infilled completely with the same beech LVL panels. The roof was supplied and installed by Inwood Developments, using 3-dimensional profiling to cut the complex curved LVL beech framework.

The recital hall structure

Richard Heath, director, Momentum Consulting Engineers explains the structure: ‘The centrepiece of the new auditorium is a timber grid structure constructed in laminated veneered lumber. Originally conceived as a plywood lamella structure, the building developed throughout the project, balancing construction process, efficiency and cost. The final design is a simple one-way spanning structure with the cross members providing restraint and stiffness. Although light in appearance, the structure supports layers of cement board to provide a high-performance acoustic enclosure. Stability of the roof is also a hidden piece of creative structural engineering. A continuous glazed clerestory means there is no structural connection between the upper roof and lower clerestory roof structures. The upper roof relies simply on portal action of the hidden steelwork and four primary columns. This structure restrains the upper roof and top of the clerestory, while the clerestory roof and perimeter wall structures rely on a concrete ring beam cantilevering from concrete walls. The ring beam works horizontally and vertically, tying together all the horizontal forces and distributing them to the blade columns sandwiched between the 5 metre high windows.’

The foyer and practice rooms

Visitors to the recital hall follow a curved yew-bordered path to the main entrance on the east side, entering a generous foyer which opens out to a double-height gathering space, partly overlooked by glazed observation rooms and also used as rehearsal space for brass instruments.

The first floor contains practice/rehearsal rooms specifically for woodwind and percussion, both designed with solid walls to limit the transference of sound and each with a large glazed observation room for teachers.

These interconnected spaces, wrapping around the recital hall, are clad with a rainscreen of Siberian larch boards in a vertical board-on-board arrangement, chosen on the advice of TRADA given to the project architect. The larch boards run vertically and consist of a series of 150 x 25mm larch boards fixed with stainless steel annular ringshanks at 600mm centres, and surmounted by 90 x 50mm larch battens clipped to the rear boards so that no fixings are visible.

This sequence of vertical larch boards clads the southern façade, which is curved to follow the line of the ancient Liberty wall close by. On the first floor, the large windows of the woodwind rehearsal and observation rooms are recessed behind the line of the cladding to protect them from solar gain. A screen of 100 x 25mm Siberian larch louvres runs horizontally across the windows at high level, angled to deflect solar glare. They are fixed to the rear of 200 x 50mm larch piers, set apart at 600mm centres and secured at high level to the concrete support structure.

Awards

RIBA National Award 2017
Civic Voice Design Awards –
Special Conservation Area Award Winner 2017
RIBA South West Award –
Building of the Year 2017

Completion date:

May 2016

Building type:

Music school and recital hall

Location:

Wells, Somerset

Client:

Wells Cathedral School

Architect:

Eric Parry Architects

Structural engineer:

Momentum Consulting Engineers

Environmental / M&E Engineer

Buro Happold

Acoustic Engineer:

Gillieron Scott

Recital hall timber supplier and manufacturer:

Inwood Developments Ltd, BauBuche (Beech LVL), Heko Spanten BV

External joinery:

Shaylor Group

Acoustic diffusion panels and timber linings:

Acoustic GRG Products Ltd

Timber elements:

roof structure and infill panels, external cladding, acoustic panels

Timber species:

Siberian larch, oak, beech

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