Great expectations
Andrew Clague reports on a two-phase plan to re-house the school occupying the former home of one of the UK's most famous authors
Posted by Dave Higgitt | April 25, 2015 | Facilities & buildings
Andrew Clague, Gad’s Hill School , Charles Dickens, Grade 1-listed, Clague LLP, architects, Fulker Consultancy, construction

Catering for 4-16-year-olds, Gad’s Hill School occupies the former home of Charles Dickens in the village of Higham between Rochester and Gravesend in Kent. The author lived there from 1856 until his death in 1870 and his house, Gad’s Hill Place, was converted into a school for girls in the 1920s. In the 1980s, boys were admitted into the kindergarten and junior school before the school became fully co-educational in 2001.

Over the years, the grade I-listed building was extended, but the school’s accommodation has been coming under increasing strain. In addition, Gravesham Council saw that a heritage asset was being spoiled by the amount of use it was using. The staircase, study, conservatory and other reminders of what the house would have been like in Dickens’s time were at risk. One of the house’s most notable features is the subway which the author had built under the nearby main road so that he could access a piece of land on the opposite side where he enjoyed working and writing.

With these concerns in mind, the school governors took advice from Batcheller Thacker and assembled a team to deliver a masterplan to enable the school to relocate to new accommodation in the grounds, eventually leaving the mansion to be converted into a Dickens Museum. Clague LLP were selected as architects and plans emerged for a two-phase development. Phase one covered the construction of a new kindergarten and junior school, phase two the construction of a new senior school, which would allow the school to vacate Gad’s Hill House.

Two alternative locations were promoted with the objective of the school being able to continue operations whilst the new building was constructed. In combination with the planning authority, a site was selected which, although within the Green Belt, preserved views out of and in to Gad's Hill House.

A phase one scheme evolved, with the kindergarten and junior school wrapped around a new sports hall and school hall to cloak their volumes, both of which would be further masked by single- and two-storey accommodation comprising improved administration accommodation, larger classrooms, new science rooms and changing rooms, library, ICT suites, music rooms, kitchen and dining facilities and all-day café. The whole building was to be set against an existing background of trees which would screen it from the public domain.

The external materials were chosen with the location in mind, combining brick, render and timber cladding. Internally, wear- and tear-resistant materials were selected for highly trafficked areas, while the assembly hall and head’s study were amongst areas designed with Gustafs acoustic panels and purpose-made joinery and panelling. Secure external teaching and play spaces accessible directly from the kindergarten classrooms and external dining areas accessible from the internal dining spaces also form part of the design.

Channelling daylight into building has been achieved by via rooflights above voids at first-floor level to allow daylight into the centre of the plan at ground-floor level. Internal circulation meanders around the halls in order to make use of the views and sunlight at a site confined by its landscape. In addition, internal glazed screens have been used to permit daylight to filter through to corridor areas. High-level internal glazing was introduced into the first-floor circulation space so that it can be used as an informal viewing gallery for activities taking place in the sports hall.

Although the local authority bought into the design of the two-phase development, it took some time to obtain planning approval with the section 106 legal obligation to return Gad’s Hill House as a community heritage asset on the completion of phase two.

Project managers The Fulker Consultancy, Clifford Rickards (quantity surveyors), Ross & Partners (structural engineers), MLM (services consultants) and Lloyd Bore (landscape architects) were brought on board to continue work with Clague architects through the technical design and procurement stages.

At about the time that the roof covering was being fitted, approximately half way through the project, delay began to creep in. Difficulties arose in securing sub-contract labour in particular. After much cajoling, however, the project reached completion in April 2013. Compared to the original contract programme completion date of autumn 2012, this was obviously a considerable disappointment to the school, parents and pupils. Undoubtedly, the good relations maintained between the school and contractor assisted in achieving a better outcome than might have been the case.

Phase two and scheme drawings are now ready to go out to tender and there will be lessons taken forward into that scheme when the time comes to proceed. Meanwhile, the school finally has use of its new phase one building.

Andrew Clague is a senior partner with Clague LLP