Too Tall for School..?

A disused high-rise office block is an unlikely candidate for housing a school – but we recently attained permission for exactly that.

A stereotypical view of the British population is that our houses are our castles – complete with gardens and gates to function as the proverbial moat and drawbridge. We like buildings to be short; we prefer suburbs to inner cities; and we believe schools need a large parcel of land to accommodate all those classrooms, halls, gymnasiums and playing fields. We’re rather taken with the traditional, and, on the whole, we are wary of change.

Is this assessment fair, though? Well, maybe. But there is a growing awareness that with land at a premium, a generation that are struggling to afford housing, the impacts of ecological degradation and climate change, our lifestyles too must change.

So, we return to the idea of a high-rise school. We recently secured a renewal of temporary planning permission to use one such office block as school premises. This is less radical than may be first thought – indeed, Chicago and Hong Kong both have high rise school projects that exploit the extra floorspace created by additional levels without requiring additional land. A handful of major cities in the UK have also followed suit.

Singapore International School in Hong Kong provides ample space on a tiny footprint →


The benefits of this approach include reusing brownfield land, minimising travel distances, freeing up land for other uses, and the potential to provide an educational facility where traditional constraints would make it impossible to do so.

In the case of our client, utilising a vacant office block has provided them with a facility that delivers a larger floor area per student than the national average whilst simultaneously requiring a substantially smaller footprint – all within easy travelling distance of the urban core in which most pupils live. Moreover, the comparative financial and environmental cost of adapting existing buildings in some cases may be miniscule beside that of constructing a new campus, let alone finding a suitable site on which to do so. An unorthodox approach – but one that is creative, encouraging efficient land use and socially responsible solutions to complex problems; arguably, tying the economic, environmental and social aspects of sustainability together in one simple change of use.

Other current aspects of rethinking high-rise construction include applying passivhaus principles to make skyscraper buildings entirely energy efficient and integrated arboricultural-architectural design. With a growing population and increasing urbanisation world-wide, the best planning is attempting to proactively design solutions.

← Milan’s Bosco Verticale (Vertical Forest), designed by Stefano Boeri Architetti, is a “model of vertical densification within the city”, which provides both human habitat and opportunities for reforestation.

It is perhaps such ‘non-conformist’ strategies that will prevail to be the norm and not the exception.

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