How to make a sports hall disappear

John Pratten, Bursar & Clerk to the Governors at Box Hill School, explains how the school built new facilities by digging deep

I checked my email archive before starting this article and the first communication I had with the architect about our new sports hall was dated 19 February 2013 and it included a pdf looking at the footprint. Since then there’s been a merry dance with the local planning authority.

So what is it that we’re building? A four-court sports hall with changing rooms, classroom, weights room, and office. Relatively simple one would think except if the school happens to be in an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB); Conservation Area in the Green Belt; within spitting distance of a Grade II listed property; next door to a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI); and on a Bechstein Bat flight path – not to mention that we’re building outside our development line! All this required us to come up with a “plan so cunning we could stick a tail on it and call it a weasel”. What our architect came up with was to dig down, put a tennis court on the roof of the single story section, and build up a bund on two sides thus lowering the profile so much that most of the complex effectively disappeared. A move so popular with the local authority that they would have liked us to include most of the school, except the listed asset, in it!

 The site chosen (the only one possible according to our Conservation Plan) was on top of the old tennis courts that sit 1.5M above the old Basketball Court (included in the site). In order to lower the tennis courts to the level of the basketball court will entail shifting 4,300M3 of earth from the site. Luckily, we have a similar sized drop at the edge of the playing fields, which means we can save on the cost of disposal and extend our pitches at the same time.


As I aim to contribute a series of articles as the build progresses to completion in the spring of 2018 I thought readers might be interested in two of our 11 pre-start conditions.

Sustainable drainage is growing in importance in Surrey especially with the County Council who are now responsible for it. Part of the planning process was to submit a Drainage Strategy Report, which covers the drainage plan plus flood risk and mitigation for a once in 100 year event plus 10%. Crucial to the information is a percolation test; this involves digging a large hole, filling it full of water, and timing how long it takes to disappear.

It turned out that the ground was so porous the bowser couldn’t fill it fast enough before it drained away; not a problem you’re thinking! Actually, big problem for the County Council that we didn’t conduct a test exactly as per specification with a full hole. So now we have two bowsers, a big hole, and a pre-start condition.

I mentioned Bechstein Bats earlier in the article. Apparently, the school is on the bat flight path when they’re minded to land in the trees surrounding the building site. The problem is the new tennis court flood lighting acting as a distraction, which we’ve had to redesign twice so far. Perhaps we should put the old floodlights back as the bats were obviously used to them.

Anyway, work starts in earnest after half term and you can monitor progress on the webcam or via my Twitter feed: @boxhillbursar #BHSSportsHall

To find out more about Box Hill School, visit their website. 

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