Transforming spaces

Refurbing an existing building is not without its challenges. But Angela Youngman looks at some of the key benefits updating facilities can bring

Refurbish rather than new-build? That’s the question increasingly being faced by educational establishments keen to offer new facilities or cater for additional student numbers. The choice is never an easy one, raising issues such as design, future-proofing developments, viability and costs, sustainability and impact.

City and suburban locations bring extra challenges as two recent refurbishments indicate. London-based Abercorn needed a fourth building enabling it to offer a complete educational journey from age two to 18 within easy distance of existing school buildings. The spacious nature of a converted church previously used by Regent’s University and the Pineapple Dance Studio provided the perfect answer.

Over in Chiswick, ArtsEd performing arts school wanted to reorganise a disparate campus within a tight suburban block into a cohesive whole. Having explored all potential development options, it opted to maintain local ties by modernising facilities.

The transformation of the converted premises in Marylebone for Abercorn’s new senior school


Design is key

With any refurbishment, design is always a key factor as Ben Evans, headteacher of Windlesham House School, points out: “The aim of every refurbishment is to ensure the space will be better utilised, the outcomes for our pupils will be higher, and the visual aesthetics will be improved.”

It means looking closely at existing buildings to see what changes can make the available space work better. Timescales are crucial – it is important to ensure that any building work incurs minimal disruption to children’s education.

Simple solutions may be possible. A move towards smaller group numbers within subject areas could mean a need for smaller classrooms or extra changing room space in sports halls. Adding moving partitions or concertina doors to divide large areas provides variable space, while allowing large group work to take place, when necessary.

“The aim of every refurbishment is to ensure that the space will be better utilised” – Ben Evans, headteacher, Windlesham House School

At Windlesham House School, surveying existing building demands led to a change of use for the former indoor swimming pool. Ben Evans tells us: “Spatial resilience was an important factor along with improved functionality and increased pupil opportunities. We want every learning space in the school to work effectively for its desired purpose.

“The music room was once the original indoor swimming pool, built in 1934. The space is large, airy with lots of light and is extremely spacious. It was transformed relatively easily and the area was able to be zoned with raised platforms for performances, separate offices and practice rooms and space for choir practices, more formal work and keyboard areas.”

Adding in a mezzanine within buildings that have tall, high ceilings is another way of providing extra space. At Avanti House Secondary School in Stanmore, the eight-metre high ceiling of the dance studio enabled it to commission mezzanine specialists Spaceway to utilise the underused space within the ceiling area as office space.

Discussions with Spaceway’s designer resulted in the creation of an additional staircase providing access as well as a link to an adjoining building. The school gained more space than they first thought they would have had.

Interior courtyards are increasingly being targeted for refurbishment. Avanti added a four-metre high glass roof, plus underfloor heating to its interior courtyard so as to provide a prayer room.

Redesigning existing buildings also provided a solution for ArtsEd, as Jose Esteves De Matos, director of designers Dematos Ryan, explains: “The master planning of this project within its existing footprint unlocks the site’s potential, creating new studio, rehearsal and teaching spaces in the previously unused courtyard and rooftop areas. It delivers an additional 2,875m² of new facilities.

“The old gymnasium, which took up a third of the existing courtyard space, has been demolished, and a new circulation spine along the rear elevation of the main building has allowed the school to become fully accessible. The new studio theatre, pivotally located at the heart of the block, will adapt to numerous actor/audience typologies, offering unexpected opportunities for creative teams to experiment.”

Glazed individual office units above the dance studio at Avanti created by Spaceway’s conversion


Sensitive refurbishment

Listed buildings pose additional issues since there are specific limitations on what can be done to the building structure. Consultations with local authorities, listed building agencies and the local community are required.

With careful design, refurbishment of such buildings can be extremely successful as Brighton Girls School tells us: “We undertook sensitive refurbishment works to two listed buildings at Brighton Girls – the Vicarage and the Temple Buildings – to create flexible, inspiring teaching spaces, following wide consultations. The Sixth Form moved to the top floor of the iconic Temple Building where students have their own state-of-the-art penthouse space with extensive views, and access to modern, flexible, café-style working spaces on the ground floor.

“Brighton Girls prep school has been reunited with the senior school returning to its original location in the Vicarage at the Brighton Girls Montepellier site.”


Climate change and rising energy prices, together with the drive towards net zero, also provide challenges for refurbishment projects. Designers and educational establishments have to take this into consideration. The results are proving not only sustainable and more cost-effective, but make older buildings more comfortable to use.

At ArtsEd, for example, refurbishment resulted in better ventilation and lighting. The existing practice rooms were poorly lit and had poor ventilation, with moisture visibly running down the walls.

The introduction of a hybrid natural ventilation strategy enabled improvements to be made. Rooftop turrets now serve a new circulation spine between the old and new spaces, together with a green roof complete with plants. Rainwater runoff is controlled by using several approaches including a 200m² blue roof collection zone capable of holding up to 150mm deep water, a sedum planted roof area and below-ground water collection crates within the hard landscape area at the front.

Climate change and rising energy prices, together with the drive towards net zero, also provide challenges for refurbishment projects

The introduction of ground source heat pumps has become an increasingly popular option within schools seeking to minimise energy costs and reach net zero targets. This, in itself, provides problems, simply because of the amount of potential disruption to school activities. Timing becomes all important – this is not something that can be undertaken easily at any time of the year since it can mean changing radiators and switching off heating systems while the new one is installed.

It is a problem with which Kensa Engineering is all too familiar. Timing is crucial. Boreholes and external work is undertaken in areas where they can work safely away from staff and children while the school term is live. This means they can drill in advance of internal work, which can be done during school holidays. The biggest challenge is replacing pipework and radiators in a way that will not affect furniture placement or pupils’ comfort levels within a short period of time, so that teachers can come back to find classrooms ready for the session.

Avanti’s converted office space located above the dance studio


‘Affordability is key’

Every refurbishment incurs costs. Greater energy efficiency enables capital costs to be offset over a long period. Integrating ventilation, heating and lighting improvements into refurbishment plans creates more sustainable buildings using less energy.

Ensuring the financial viability of a project is essential, as Windlesham’s Ben Evans says: “Affordability is key as well as ensuring we are spending our money wisely. The aim of every refurbishment is to ensure the space will be better utilised, the outcomes for our pupils will be higher, and the visual aesthetics will be improved.”

Taking time to investigate all potential options, seeking specialist advice, being flexible, and careful time planning ensures targets are met, while ensuring that every aspect of a project is maximised.

Spaceway designer Katie Amaira comments, “Avanti needed a quick response, so I designed the mezzanine and basic fit-out within a day. That design provided the basis for subsequent discussions as the project got under way. The initial design is open to interpretation.

We could talk through how it currently works, how it could work better because sometimes what clients propose isn’t the best possible option. We even send the details to our building control people because sometimes they make us aware of something we haven’t considered. With all of us working together on the project, it helps open the client’s eyes to the possibilities.”

“It’s become almost habitual to observe, examine and question how the design and architecture of the buildings can affect mental health, wellbeing and happiness” – Andrea Greystoke, headteacher, Abercorn School

Future proofing

All refurbishment projects are costly, which means they need to provide long-term solutions. Using higher specifications when improving heating and lighting, creating flexible space. provides such answers. As Demotos Ryan says, the refurbishment at ArtsEd reduced energy loss, energy use and operational costs within new sustainable services strategy.


Ensuring a successful outcome for every refurbishment project means more than just making sure it is completed on time and to the required standard – it has to make a difference to learning, productivity and ambiance.

Ben Evans says, “The new music space has transformed the teaching of class music in the school. It reused a previously abandoned central space on the campus and transformed it into a bright, airy, modern space used by the whole school. The room’s spacious nature allows for greater pupil participation, a larger variety of musical opportunities including a dedicated performance/rock band stage, centralised staff offices and greater accessibility for staff and pupils. Added to this, refurbishing the space has created a performing arts hub at the centre of the school and adjacent to our theatre.”

Improved wellbeing and mental health for both staff and students are equally desirable outcomes. Abercorn’s head, Andrea Greystoke, says, “Today, more than ever, the majority of people are both consciously and unconsciously aware of the way a building makes them feel. Long periods of lockdown have accentuated this in our minds. It’s become almost habitual to observe, examine and question how the design and architecture of the buildings can affect mental health, wellbeing and happiness.”

Greystoke adds, “School buildings must consider and support the wellbeing of the young minds they are home to. In prioritising open spaces and light-filled classrooms, our new Senior School is prioritising wellbeing and productivity, both of which are benefited by visually calming environments.”

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