A home from home

Forget Malory Towers, says Melanie Anning, 21st-century boarders have en suites and a say on the design

Welcome to the modern boarding house experience, where pupil wellbeing, sustainability and fantastic facilities are the norm.

Midnight feasts, cold showers and high jinks are the stuff of boarding school legend. But what is the reality of creating ‘a home from home’ boarding house in the 21st century for Generation Alpha?

With student and parental expectations less Malory Towers and more chic, boutique hotel, the stakes nowadays are high to ensure that any new or improved facilities tick the right boxes.
We spoke with staff and pupils at two independent schools, both of which have opened new boarding facilities during the pandemic.

Emma Humphreys, estates bursar. She is standing outside one of the new boarding houses


Charterhouse School

In September 2021, Charterhouse School in Godalming, Surrey, became fully co-educational, welcoming girls into year 9 for the first time. When the plans were announced, four years ago, it was clear that the boarding facilities would have to expand as 95% of pupils lived in.

“We needed to provide an additional 128 beds, as the school would have an increasing pupil roll,” said Charterhouse estates bursar, Emma Humphreys. “The starting point was a modern boarding house for 64 pupils and three staff members. The issue was trying to fit two new buildings into a campus with architecture ranging from the 1870s to the 1970s!”

Emma Humphreys is a qualified architect with over 20 years’ experience in construction and 12+ years in estates within the independent schools sector. She said it was vital to ensure that the new buildings would ‘look like they belonged.’

“We took great care in achieving a design, and using materials, that followed and complemented the old campus style, without looking like an exact copy,” she explained.

Saunderites, a boys’ house, was relocating from another part of the school, and Northbrook was to be the newly founded girls’ house. The school worked with TSH Architects and Feltham Construction to complete the project.

The buildings are set out in a ‘c’ shape around a semi-private external space. “Architecturally, there’s a nod to the high gothic design of the old buildings whilst incorporating the colour palette and materials of the adjacent 1970s structures,” said Humphreys.

The wings of the ‘c’ are three- and four-storeys high, with the upper storey set into the roof space with a series of dormer windows to each facade. The Queen’s Drive elevation has a striking main entrance door set into a precast stone surround, and key windows and gables are picked out with stone surrounds and ‘chimney’ details to accentuate the verticality of the design.

Unsurprisingly, energy efficiency and sustainability were also core to the brief. “The materials are a modern twist designed to provide longevity – zinc roofing, precast stone, brickwork, double-glazed powder-coated aluminium windows, and curtain walling. The building is super-insulated and has photovoltaics on the roof of the four-storey wing to reduce energy use,” Humphreys added.

Charterhouse pupils were involved in the process from the beginning. “We showed them the designs to ensure the spaces made sense to them. They had a strong say in the look of the common rooms.” And it is the double-height common rooms that are at the heart of each house. They provide direct access onto a three-sided courtyard, which opens onto the school fields beyond.

We took great care in achieving a design, and using materials, that followed and complemented the old campus style, without looking like an exact copy – Emma Humphreys, estates bursar, Charterhouse

“These houses are the first to offer dedicated social spaces for different year groups as well as specific bedroom types for each year group. The houses offer multiple occupancy for younger pupils, to help them settle in, while providing en suite rooms for the sixth formers,” Humphreys enthused.

“The pupils really like the new houses, and there is great demand from prospective pupils to be allocated these boarding houses. They like the rooms but also love the well thought out social spaces and the high-quality showers!”

Year 13 pupil Tristan Egremont-Lee is certainly impressed. “Now, for sixth-formers, there is no walk down the corridor for your morning shower. Instead, it’s just a few steps into your own bathroom! Although it was sad to leave the beautiful old stone house in the main part of the school, the move to the new boarding house gives us the opportunity to forge new memories.”

Charterhouse faced several challenges during the build as Humphreys recalls: “Fortunately, Charterhouse has a large site, but there are always health & safety and safeguarding issues with building sites. These were overcome with close co-operation between the school and the contractor.

“However, the biggest challenge was the Covid crisis which started just three months into an 18-month build programme. This caused disruption in terms of manpower shortages and the supply of materials. It is a great credit to Feltham Construction that the houses were still completed on time to a very high standard.”

Gemma is in year 9 and was in the first wave of pupils to live in the new boarding facilities. “Northbrook is my home away from home. Moving into a brand-new building was a feeling I will never forget. I’m extremely lucky to be in such a modern boarding house. I particularly like the clean open spaces and gorgeous views.”

Going into her eighth year at Charterhouse, Emma Humphreys has no doubts that the multi-million-pound investment in the boarding facilities has been worth it. She said, “The increased pupil capacity will pay for the houses very quickly.”

Charterhouse, Godalming
Founded by Thomas Sutton in 1611
Total pupil roll: 890
Boarders: 851
Day pupils: 39
26% of pupils from overseas


Leighton Park School. Image © Peter Savage


Leighton Park

At Leighton Park School in Reading, the youngest pupils, aged 11 to 13, are the delighted beneficiaries of a £1,000,000+ boarding house refurbishment. In their Lower School, Fryer House, they now have a co-ed space, a cosy snug, a cinema room, a kitchen-diner and separate, alarmed accommodation for boys and girls in dormitories of three-five beds, each with an ensuite.

“The new Fryer boarding house is really nice; it’s really homely; it’s so colourful; and it’s really comfortable; there are so many cool rooms. The TV room has the biggest TV ever!” said Calista, a year 8 pupil.

Students and parents were involved in selecting bedroom furniture, floor coverings, soft furniture and technology. This helped us settle on simple colour schemes that would stand the test of time and give students plenty of scope to make the rooms their own – Keith Eldridge, Leighton Park bursar

“The design was intended to be simple, comfortable with a light, bright, airy feel,” said Leighton Park bursar, Keith Eldridge. “Students and parents were involved in selecting bedroom furniture, floor coverings, soft furniture and technology. This helped us settle on simple colour schemes that would stand the test of time and give students plenty of scope to make the rooms their own.

Keith Eldridge


“We’ve created 24 beds across eight rooms, adding capacity for up to 15 boys and nine girls. The architect was Levitt Bernstein, and T&B completed the building works. The bar has been set high. Eldridge said, “This refurbishment represents the standard of boarding accommodation that we aspire to across the school.”

Chavelli Brewster is the boarding house manager. “Fryer House is special because it’s a community. All the students look out for each other, and as much as the staff are there, students really take care of each other.”

The refurbishment was not without its issues, recalls Keith Eldridge: “There were inevitable unknowns as walls, floors and ceilings were stripped back. The water system needed to be boosted to make sure it could meet the demands of extra student showering! The contractor also had to pause mid-project because of Covid restrictions in the building industry, but we were able to recover most of this time.”

“We have a beautiful new junior boarding house that students look forward to staying in. The facilities are very comfortable, and parents can be confident that their sons and daughters will have everything they need for an excellent boarding experience. We’ve also been able to include better insulation and technology that closes off radiators when windows are opened, which all helps with the sustainability of the building.”

Leighton Park School. Image © Peter Savage


Eldridge said that the feedback from students and parents has been ‘overwhelmingly positive’. “We are very confident that generations of students will enjoy boarding in the new facility. It’s been fantastic to see day students booking in for weekend boarding so they can enjoy our parkland setting and everything the house has to offer.”

Looking back over the last couple of years, is there anything either Leighton Park or Charterhouse wish they had done differently with the build? “Not build during a worldwide pandemic,” said Charterhouse’s Emma Humphreys semi-jokingly.

“There’s nothing fundamental that we would change at Leighton Park, in terms of the design, as we consulted widely and had a strong professional team to guide us. But an even bigger cinema screen would always be welcome of course!” concluded Keith Eldridge, with a smile.

Leighton Park School
Founded in 1890 as a Quaker school
Total pupil roll: 523
Total boarders: 134
Day pupils: 389
Overseas pupils: 80

You might also like: The benefits of boarding for students’ mental health

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