Pupils on the panel

School buildings can teach much when architects take real account of the environment

The eco-school is a living lesson in sustainability, conserving energy and resources through its fabric and design.

From the outside Notley Green county primary looks more like a vessel than an institution, its low-lying, cedar-clad construction reminiscent of an ark. Reached by a wooden footbridge, the school - which was opened in June 2000 by poet Michael Rosen - caters for 180 pupils in this newly developed patch of Essex housing. Notley Green's design is the result of a 1997 competition held jointly by Essex County Council and the Design Council.

The brief was to plan a school that would "touch the earth lightly", but within the usual pound;1.2 million budget for a school of its size. The resulting triangular-shaped building, designed by architects Allford Hall Monaghan Morris, features an energy-saving south-west orientation and uses renewable and recycled building materials to make a groundbreaking "eco-school". The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development has praised its "exemplary learning facilities".

The children particularly like the "green roof", with sedum, a plant with thick, fleshy leaves, growing out of a horticultural mat to provide insulation and encourage insect life. Steam from the environmentally friendly gas-condensing boiler - which provides under-floor heating - puffs harmlessly into the air at roof height. The untreated cedar on the exterior walls will weather naturally and is maintenance-free.

Inside, the building has been designed to maximise the use of natural heat, light and ventilation. North light is provided by windows set into the ceilings. Floors are made of durable but renewable bamboo parquet. A see-through panel cut into a wall in the ICT lab shows children the recycled newspaper (treated with flame retardant) that has been used to fill the "breathing" walls. "Children are very proud of the school," says head Fay Trussler. "They know it's different."

Six classrooms lead off one long corridor, with communal and office areas grouped around an internal court. Minimising internal circulation areas has freed space for teaching. The hall features sliding doors, which open out the space further, and each classroom has doors on to its own outside teaching area.

Not all the innovative design features have been successful. The linked classrooms, without doors, can be noisy. The rooms, all of which seem to have five or more sides, can be difficult to furnish. "Infant teachers like to have corners," says Fay Trussler, "and they haven't got any here."

Recycled materials are a feature of the building, and using them in class is part of children's learning. The bright, multi-coloured plastic surrounds on the classroom sinks are made from plastic packaging - detergent and shampoo bottles. Pencils and rulers are made from discarded vending machine cups. But recycled materials are expensive, says the headteacher. "You can't blame people for not recycling if it's expensive.

It's something we should be looking at nationally."

In accordance with the theme of touching the earth lightly, the Notley Green school's planned lifespan is just 60 years.

Ones to watch

School Works Design thinktank that "recycled" Kingsdale school in south London Cromwell Park primary, Cambridge Newly built school with solar power and water recycling Eco schools International "green" education and action project flourishing in 7,000 schools.

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