Where the green flag flies

5th September 1997 at 01:00
Nicolas Barnard visits an eco-friendly school which celebrates light and colour

The first thing that strikes you about Admiral Lord Nelson School in Portsmouth is the light.

It floods the building, pouring through the long glass roof, bouncing off curving white galleries and bathing the long sweeping street that runs through the centre of the school, bringing to life the aqua-marine carpets and the mosaic floor that flows like a river three storeys below the atrium.

This, its architects believe, is a secondary school for a new millennium - low energy, low maintenance, eco-friendly.

It has been built in the face of considerable challenges: an ecologically-sensitive site; a two-year building deadline and the handover from Hampshire County Council to Portsmouth City Council.

The school was Hampshire's response to a critical shortage of school places in Portsmouth. Even with 900 places, the Pounds 10.5 million school will not solve the problem alone. There is already talk of building a second school, or even extending the new one.

That is for the future. Meanwhile, head Dianne Smith is overseeing the delivery of 400 tables, 600 chairs, and everything else needed for the arrival of hundreds of pupils next Tuesday. The keys were handed over just 10 days ago.

Portsmouth's places shortage was urgent enough for the school to open two years ago with a single year of pupils in a cramped converted Victorian primary school. It is growing one year at a time - it will have 460 or three years' worth of pupils when term starts next week - and is already heavily over-subscribed.

Mrs Smith has been involved since before the first line was drawn, asked by Hampshire's award-winning design team to imagine her dream school.

"I wanted it to be good for living and good for learning," she says.

"It had to be vibrant and dynamic - that's where the colours come in. And it had to be very forward-looking: it is a school for the next millennium. "

That means a fully-networked building which anticipates further leaps in information technology, including the growing use of independent learning systems. ALNS plans to be at the forefront of curriculum development; the building matches that in design and detail.

Other specifications included classrooms grouped by subject, large performance areas and lots of display space to celebrate pupils' work. But that wish-list was only the beginning of the challenges for architects.

Low-lying Portsmouth is surrounded by marshland, much of it reclaimed, which has attracted large numbers of Brent Geese. Migrating flocks have scuppered several high-profile projects in the city, including a new stadium for Portsmouth football club, halls of residence at Portsmouth University and an industrial development.

The designers produced a plan which minimised the impact of the building on the Langstone Harbour environment and made it more attractive for wading birds. Rain water off the building feeds a wildlife area and pond.

ALNS is built in a long, thin curving strip, hugging the road so it invades less of the green-field site. Behind it lie industrial and retail parks (sadly not subject to the same rigours of design as the school); before it a golf course and the sea.

Along one side run classrooms, built in terraces on three floors, with wide planted balconies to soften the appearance of the building and create a sense of space in classrooms. Glazing is floor to ceiling.

On the other side are the big spaces - the kitchens, gym and hall, music and drama rooms. A solid red brick wall fronts the road, echoing the naval forts which overlook the city and providing an acoustic barrier against traffic.

And through the centre is the walkway with its glazed atrium. Windows open on one side of the roof to allow rising heat to escape in summer while the insulated glass and solid walls retain heat in the winter.

A similar sense of pride and hope must have accompanied the new schools of the 1960s and 70s in this country's last major phase of building. Some of those costly failures are now being demolished. Hampshire architects believe the lessons have been learned.

David Eastwood, who as Portsmouth chief quantity surveyor inherits the building, says: "Instead of laminated panels which only last five or 10 years before they start showing signs of deterioration, the outside here is maintenance-free. Brickwork improves with age and glazing lasts a lifetime. "

But a building is not a school - all will depend on how the state-of -the-art base is used.

The signs are good. The Office for Standards in Education inspectors last term declared it was "well on the way to being a very good school".

"It's about creating the right ethos in school and a positive environment for the children," Mrs Smith says. In that, curriculum and building are as one.

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