Eleanor Palmer Science Lab, London

Introduction

The Eleanor Palmer Science Lab is a small but carefully crafted timber building, one which uses simple timber construction techniques to create an inventive space dedicated to teaching science to young children. Anthony Boulanger, founding partner of AY Architects, describes it as ‘a learning environment that aims to foster enquiring minds, curiosity and wonder in the world’. He envisages it as a timber ‘wonder room, a cabinet of curiosities, and a place for discovery and experimentation’.

The Lab has been squeezed into a corner of the playground of Eleanor Palmer Primary School in Kentish Town, North London, and its purpose is to accommodate classes and after school clubs for up to 31 pupils, aged 3 to 11, and to share this space with other schools and with the local community. It is part of Camden Council’s programme to develop science, technology, engineering and mathematics in primary schools. But whereas most other projects in the programme adapted or extended classrooms, the Lab is a new model building typology. The client and architect worked together to develop the brief and the result is a building which is multi-layered, and designed to encourage children to engage their curiosity and enjoy the sciences.

The new Lab replaces the exact footprint of an under-used canopy structure built against the high Victorian boundary wall of the school playground, a place with complex site and boundary conditions, between a noisy road and a disjointed playground. It is a large, single-volume learning space flooded with light, not only from a row of windows but also from two triangular timber roof structures which rise up above the main roof. They provide north-light clerestory glazing and ventilation, and give additional height for science experiments.

The two raised roof structures are set back from the street boundary to reduce the visual impact of the building on the street facade, while adding to the character of the boundary wall. A single deep window punched through the boundary wall gives glimpses out onto the main road, a visual connection which helps to link the Lab with the local community.

A door at the far end of the Lab leads to a specially designed Science Garden that incorporates planting, a rainwater butt, anamorphic play equipment and a pedal powered outdoor disco.

Use of timber

Key to achieving the concept and the environment of the Lab was the use of timber, all of which is FSC-certified. The internal space is lined with walls and built-in furniture of spruce and birch faced plywood; the primary and secondary structure consists of sawn spruce beams, columns and joists in standard sizes, and the external cladding is Siberian larch, chosen for its hard wearing qualities.

The construction of the Lab is deliberately simple and is visible on the inside, as the architect explains: ‘So that children might become aware of the logic of the structure and be able to analyse the parts of the building intuitively.’ The roof structure and its supporting timber columns are exposed and the highly insulated stud walls and structural roof deck are lined with spruce plywood sheet.

Along the east wall is a continuous row of Lab Station worktops and sinks on plywood base units, with a set of double-glazed windows above, and open plywood display shelves in front. All the details are scaled to suit primary school children.

The west wall, which accommodates a change of level at the Victorian boundary wall, is insulated internally behind concrete blockwork. It is lined with birch and laminate-faced plywood storage units and display shelves, designed to hold artefacts gathered by the school and specimens brought in by children.

The structure

Sarah Pellereau, associate structural engineer at Price & Myers, describes the structure.

‘The proposal was for a single storey timber building with two raised triangular timber roof volumes. This form was used to act as a horizontal truss to transfer the load to the shear walls on either end of the masonry wall to the back of the building. The raised triangular roofs allowed clerestory north light windows, meaning the columns at the nodes of the roof truss could be used to transfer the loads through bending from the upper roof to the lower level. These columns were also used to restrain the top of the Victorian masonry wall, transferring this load back into the roof and through their triangular truss shape, back to the end timber diaphragm shear walls.

As all the timbers were exposed internally, most of the connections were screwed or bolted with just a few hidden Ricon connections or bespoke steel plates. Where visible, the fixings were all carefully set out on site to perfectly align and then plugged. Timbers were sized to avoid the use of noggins, and all structural grading markings and scuffs needed to be sanded off. The structural timber was grade C24, with non-visual grade specified for the few areas where hidden to help keep the cost to a minimum. Two layers of 9mm ply with staggered joints provided the diaphragm action where needed.

The only steel beams required were for the cantilever over the entrance canopy and the cantilever bench, where they were necessary to transfer the load to the primary structure.

Exposed 300 x 90mm timber columns at 2740 centres run along the east and west walls and support a set of 300 x 90mm sawn spruce beams, fixed at a 60 degree angle to span across to alternate columns. The columns reduce to 90 x 90mm and rise 1000mm above the beams to support a higher set of sawn spruce beams. The lower and upper sets of beams form the two triangular roof volumes; they incorporate clerestory glazing on the north side and adjustable ventilation shutters on the east side, away from traffic noise. Exposed timbers are treated with clear Envirograph fire-retardant.

The external walls are lined with a hard-wearing Siberian larch rainscreen cladding. A robust horizontal cladding profile was specified, closely spaced at low level to accept impacts from the playground users and prevent small fingers from getting trapped. The cladding spacing becomes wider at high level, creating a lighter effect while facilitating the natural airflow to the concealed ventilation shutters. A timber bench runs the length of the west wall next to the playground.

Sustainability

To the practice, the design of the Lab is an example of their philosophy of passive environmental design and it illustrates how architecture can help to reduce the reliance on energy-consuming equipment. As an integrated passive design approach, the servicing of the building is kept simple. Environmental control is provided within the building fabric, by the use of façade and roof openings and the use of natural light and air. The objective is to create a comfortable environment where environmental factors generate a meaningful part of the architecture.

Awards

Wood Awards 2019 Education and Public Sector – Highly Commended

RIBA National Award Winner 2019

RIBA London Award Winner 2019

Completion date:

May 2018

Building type:

Science and technology classroom

Location:

Camden, London

Architect:

AY Architects

Structural engineer:

Price & Myers

Environmental/M&E consultant:

Ritchie + Daffin

Main contractor and joinery:

IMS Building Solutions Ltd

Timber supplier:

TJ Brewer Timber Merchants

Timber elements:

roof and wall structure, wall linings, internal fittings, cladding

Timber species:

FSC-certified spruce, FSC-certified birch and Formica-faced plywood, FSC-certified Siberian larch

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