Body heat to keep Weetabix school cosy

19th December 2008 at 00:00
It has taken two decades and cost more than Pounds 5 million. But Acharacle Primary is poised to move into its new building, dubbed the greenest school in Scotland. Emma Seith reports

Acharacle primary's new home has been nicknamed the Weetabix school. An architect had meant to call it after Ready Brek, but confused the two cereals.

The notion is that the Highland school, on the remote Ardnamurchan peninsula, will be heated largely by the children's bodies. The architect imagined them giving off an internal glow like the children's stomachs in the Ready Brek ads on TV.

What the school is called - or even nicknamed - is of little concern to pupils and staff, however. It is the fact that it is being built, and soon will be ready to move into, that fills them with wonder.

Acharacle Primary has been 21 years in the planning and the children who first contributed to its design will be "long out of high school" by the time it opens its doors in March, according to the headteacher, Lyndsay Bradley.

But as recently as last year, it looked as if it would never get underway, with estimates double what the authority had budgeted for.

"The children wrote to the Scottish Parliament, Richard Branson and the Queen," says Ms Bradley, the head for two years, who previously taught in South Ayrshire. "I don't know if it helped, but in October we got the go-ahead."

The building started in January. It was scheduled to be completed by Christmas, but now the moving-in date is late March after extreme weather conditions led to delays (at one point, the whole site was under four inches of water). This means a little more time will have to be spent in what Ms Bradley describes as the current "terrible" and "shambolic" accommodation.

Acharacle Primary at present consists of a Victorian building with a tacked-on temporary wooden structure and two 20-year-old Portakabins. One Portakabin houses the nursery pupils and the other provides an additional classroom. There are two further classes in the main building and another in the temporary extension, along with an eating area. ("It would be a joke to call it a canteen," says Ms Bradley).

Since the building started, pupils have had to contend with a tiny playground, as the new school is being erected on the doorstep. Then, as if all this were not enough, in February the inspectors called. "The playground was taken away on the Wednesday, and HMIE arrived on the Thursday," she recalls.

The inspection, however, went well and the headteacher believes its recommendations will get them off on the right foot in their new building.

The impact the new school will have on learning and teaching cannot be overestimated, she says. "Staff all do a good job of trying to keep the building interesting and stimulating, but there are limits."

Already the new school has inspired a string of lessons, and seeing it going up has been "fantastic" for its 64 pupils, says Ms Bradley.

A blog has been kept, recording progress. The general consensus seems to be that the building is "cool", evidenced by the fact that "even the teachers" are excited.

The new Acharacle Primary is built entirely of wood. But it does not look like a sauna, insists Sam Foster, the project architect at Gaia Architects in Edinburgh (not responsible for the cereal gaffe, he says). It feels warm, tactile and has good acoustics, he adds.

The structure is made from "Brettstapel" - layers of wood stapled together - and was delivered from Austria in sections, complete with spaces for windows and doors, which were then slotted into place.

"The use of one tonne is the equivalent of taking a car off the road for nearly five months," explains Mr Foster. (It's based on carbon dioxide calculations: one tonne of Brettstapel sequesters 930kg of CO2 - which is the average quantity of CO2 that an average car would emit over five months).

Michael Foxley, a leading Highland councillor who has been heavily involved, adds: "The difference between this type of building construction and others is that it has a high level of energy insulation which creates a very safe, non-toxic environment for people to live and work in. It's not cheap because of its location, but it is a forerunner of future sustainable projects and we will learn from it."

Any additional energy required will be provided by a wind turbine. And rainwater collected on the copper roofs will flush the toilets.

"This building is designed to lose very little heat," says Mr Foster. "In the walls and roof, there is nearly one foot of insulation and in the floor 18 inches. The quality of air tightness is 40 times better than the building regulations require."

But to make the building truly sustainable, the community has been involved from the outset.

The new school will have its own hall - it uses the village hall for PE now - and playing fields, providing applications for funding are looked on favourably. "At the moment we have to travel 14 miles along a single-track road to use the fields in Strontian," explains Ms Bradley.

On a personal note, Ms Bradley, who shares her office, is looking forward to getting her own space. "I had a call to make over lunch time recently. I ended up in the toilets with the cordless."

Come March, there will be no more roughing it.

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