Marlowe Academy, Ramsgate, Kent


The new Marlowe Academy replaces a 1960s school which had a persistently poor record in educational achievement. Under the government's academy concept, a civic-minded individual or organisation must act as a sponsor, providing £2 million and an ‘inspirational vision' for the school. At Marlowe, Roger de Haan, former chairman of the SAGA Corporation in Folkestone was joint sponsor with Kent County Council and they, together with the Department of Education and Skills, drew up the brief. The academy retains the original syllabus, based on BTec qualifications, of the old school but also focuses on new specialisations - art and design, performing arts and sports.

The design, the creation of an interdisciplinary team at Building Design Partnership (BDP), is closer to an adult education college campus than a conventional school, a response to the unique character of the academy's aspirations. In the architect's words; ‘We wanted to make the buildings foster the broadest definition of ‘inclusiveness', so that the architecture was open and accessible to all, from those with special needs, to the wide range of ages, abilities and backgrounds of learners. We wanted the new academy to feel more akin to a campus than the traditional institutional ‘block'. The design embodies the notion of a campus spirit and the idea of the college as a ‘community hub' that encourages intensive and multiple use.


Building description

The new academy stands out as a colourful landmark in an otherwise featureless setting. Visitors approach by means of a wedge-shaped piazza formed by the curved performing arts auditorium block - clad with mustard yellow panels - on one side and the public library on the other. The glazed main entrance leads to the arena, the social and circulation hub of the building, a huge double-height hall with a dramatic exposed timber gridshell roof. The main communal spaces - performing arts auditorium, library, first floor gym - open off the arena while the teaching spaces are housed in three, curved two-storey wings which wrap around these facilities. By moving screens at the rear of the stage, the arena can also be integrated with the auditorium to form a huge flexible area for whole school assemblies and musical and theatrical performances, emphasising the school's specialisation in performing arts. This also has the benefit of making the auditorium more accessible to the local community for public performances and for use by clubs and societies. The library doubles as a public branch library and has its own public entrance.

The teaching spaces were designed to foster a modern learning environment, supporting traditional teaching while encouraging informal learning and exchange. They are arranged with the ‘heavier' more intensive spaces at the ground floor. The ‘lighter' more flexible classroom spaces are at upper levels allowing a greater elasticity of use. These rooms are naturally ventilated with "used air" being extracted at high level through the central arena and out through the arena roof. Shared resource rooms and meeting/seminar rooms are placed at intervals along the balconies giving views over the open plan arena and providing flexible break-out spaces that can be used as small teaching spaces or for small group tutoring, social space or private study. The first floor teaching spaces are reached from the main arena by lifts and open staircases to balcony corridors overlooking the activity below and providing a gallery space for pupils' work. The open nature of the balconies fosters an atmosphere of accessibility, eliminating chaos between classes and allowing fewer opportunities for bullying.


Materials and method of roof construction

The most dramatic feature of the academy is the exposed timber gridshell which vaults 22 x 68 metres over the central arena. The shell, a triangular grid of Laminated Veneered Lumber (LVL) ribs and an LVL roof deck directly above it, is a relatively shallow vault curving in section and in plan - like a wedge of a doughnut - to accommodate the shape of the arena below. The sectional profile of the vault is made up of two different curves; a relatively sharp curve rises up from the classroom wing and then transforms into a gentle arc that flows down the lower auditorium wing to match the shape of its roof. The ribs which span diagonally across the vault are also curved in plan to maintain an even spacing between the longitudinal ribs; this results in a regular grid of triangles over the whole roof.

The roof rises to a height of one-tenth of its span (virtually the minimum for a structural arch), yet no intermediate columns or struts are used and the ribs are only 300mm deep. The remarkable span to depth ratio is achieved by its double curvature in plan and section and also by several other factors:

  • The 300 x 75mm thick ribs are made of Kerto LVL (laminated veneer lumber) from Finnforest Merk, a high-strength form of plywood produced by rotary cutting the veneers of the logs, most of which are spruce. The top and bottom edges of each rib were profiled by Cowley Timberwork to follow the gentle curves required. They are generally under 3 metres long with many repeat patterns which made them easier to process, both on and off site. It took just under 600 ribs to cover 1000m2.
  • The ends of the LVL ribs were drilled and epoxy bonded with Cowley Connectors with 20mm diameter slots for access. At each node point the ribs were connected to a zinc-plated steel cylinder drilled and tapped to receive the M16 and M20 Cowley Connectors. At the rooflight, twin Connectors were used where composite action with the deck could not be achieved.
  • The gridshell was covered with profiled segments of 33mm thick LVL sheets, shaped to allow them to curve over the roof. The sheets were secured with a dense pattern of ‘Timberlok' screws so that they acted compositely with the ribs as a diaphragm.
  • Lateral restraint is provided by perpendicular concrete walls within the classroom wing and by raking steel struts in the auditorium wing.



Natural ventilation was used where possible and attenuated façades addressed the often conflicting requirements of providing ventilation rates whilst also meeting the acoustic criteria needed for teaching. A cost effective light fitting was developed for walls, ceilings and task lighting; it incorporates integral daylight dimming and sensing, resulting in high quality, low energy lighting environments. Sunlight and daylight analysis ensured that the building orientation and form optimised day lighting and solar control.

To reduce running costs and minimise energy demand, the ambient site environment was analysed and the building form, materials and components were selected to embrace beneficial opportunities for ‘connecting' with the passive conditions. The embodied energy of the construction materials was assessed to ensure that the process of constructing the buildings had minimal environmental impact. TAS and Ecotect software were utilised to assess predicted energy and CO2 emissions.

Completion Date:



Year Published:

January 2009

Building Type:



Ramsgate, Kent


Dept Education & Skills, Kent County Council, Roger de Haan


Building Design Partnership (BDP)

Main Contractor:

Wates Construction

Installer Of Timber:

ECC Timber Engineering gridshell roof/deck

LVL Supplier:

Finnforest Merk

Timber Connections Supplier:

Cowley Timberworks

Timber Elements:

Gridshell roof and deck

Timber Species:


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