Learning from the past


Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios designed a replacement primary school in south London which builds on the features created over time in its predecessor, and celebrates its mixed community. Jayne Dowle reports

When Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios (FCBStudios) won the competition to replace and expand Rotherhithe Primary School in south London in 2017, the existing school buildings had reached the end of their life. They were cold in winter and overheated in summer, draughty and with failing services – typical of schools built more than 50 years ago.

Now, a confident two-storey contemporary urban school building stands in its place. Built in a light taupe brick referencing the pub next door and the gateposts of nearby Southwark Park, its facades are punctuated by distinguished brick detailing and huge windows.

In a busy urban area, yet virtually invisible from the road, the existing modular-built single-storey school, dating back to 1971, felt insular and cut-off from the vibrant multicultural local community. Pupils and staff at the school speak more than 40 languages. A wonderful positive feature of the new school is an unusually generous playground – the overall site totals 9,390 m² – creating a garden landscape around the buildings and providing a safe, vibrant and stimulating environment for children to learn and play in.

Rotherhithe Primary School is part of the London Borough of Southwark Regeneration Division’s ambitious primary school expansion programme. The plan was for the new school to replace the existing two-form entry provision with a three-form entry primary on the same site, creating more space for pupils to attend. Meanwhile, the existing school had to remain open while its replacement was built alongside.

A school has stood on the site for more than 120 years. FCBStudios were determined to both honour the proud history of the school and celebrate the life, energy and positivity that makes it such a forward-thinking educational establishment, and community hub.

FCBStudios partner Helen Roberts says that the opportunity to rebuild Rotherhithe Primary School resonated with FCBStudios’ ethos of collaboratively creating “socially-engaged” buildings.
“We welcomed the opportunity to work in a dense inner-city area with a strong sense of community and identity.”

Another appealing factor for the practice was that the school’s curriculum focused around learning from – and in – the natural environment. “Alongside their brief for a contextually responsive, timeless, sustainable building, this chimed with our practice’s agenda,” says Roberts. “So, entering the competition was of great interest to us.”

FCBStudios had recently completed a South London secondary school, The Charter School East Dulwich, working with an academy trust and Southwark Council, and was working with council planners on developing school design standards across the Borough.

Rotherhithe Primary School “presented a further opportunity for the practice to build on that relationship and extend its considerable portfolio of carefully crafted educational buildings,” says Roberts.

Design, development & form

Galiema Amien-Cloete, executive headteacher of Rotherhithe Primary School, praised the architects’ approach to the briefing and design development process, saying they “listened intently” to what she had to say.

From starting the project in October 2017, the FCBStudios team visited the school many times as part of the design process, observing and engaging in extensive dialogue with the council, school leadership, teachers and maintenance personnel.

Key priorities identified during this process included the need for new learning spaces to accommodate modern teaching methods, creating much more effective internal paths to manage the flow of pupils, and making the entrance more welcoming and effective.

“We also documented valued elements such as the generous halls, visual connections with courtyards and landscape,” says Roberts. They had been impressed “by the inventiveness of their adaptations to the building, including improvised break-out spaces carved out of corridors for small group or 1:1 learning support.”

The FCBStudios team also embraced the school’s commitment to displaying artworks, murals and mosaics which celebrated the school’s diverse community, and links to Rotherhithe’s maritime and industrial past.

These elements were worked into the designs, helping bring a grounding and familiarity to the new building. In the new school, the spacious entrance foyer acts as a ‘garden room’ for parents, children, staff and visitors, offering a place to welcome guests, hold community gatherings and mount displays to celebrate the children’s work, as well as providing multi-purpose teaching and assembly space.

The design of a two-storey volume around a courtyard allows for views across, out and through the school to give informal connections and relationships between indoor and outdoor spaces, but also views to specific trees and to the sky.

The school and Southwark Council encouraged a flexible approach to designing specific rooms such as the library and IT and music areas, allowing for flexibility and combining of functions so that generous, multi-purpose modern spaces could be designed.

At each juncture in the design process, FCBStudios considered how each space could serve not only its core educational use, but also the many extra-curricular clubs, societies, and social support functions which are a pivotal part of the school’s wider responsibilities.

A particular quality of the existing school was its unusually generous playground, creatively programmed to offer a huge range of outdoor environments for learning, exploration and play. As perhaps the only safe play space some pupils have access to, Roberts notes, this area has been brought to life by a significant number of mature trees, offsetting some of the harshness of the surrounding urban environment.

“Re-creating this range and quality of outdoor spaces, to actively inspire and nurture the children, and retaining as many trees as possible, quickly became as important as the design and organisation of the internal spaces,” says Roberts. “The new school became conceived as ‘school in a garden’.” Classroom window openings are generous, and low enough for young children to see through. Window frames and louvres are of red oxide powder-coated aluminium, a marked, yet subtle contrast to the light brick cladding.

Several aspects of the school’s design draw inspiration from the historic trade and maritime activities that once occupied the area, including shipbuilding, the timber trade and rope-making. “The language of monolithic brickwork was inspired by the site’s history,” Roberts explains. “The tiered central courtyard amphitheatre creates a secure, protected space which evokes the masonry dock basins which once harboured Rotherhithe’s fleet of cargo ships.”

Helping fulfil the school’s vision for a calm learning environment as well as picking up references to ancient trading links between the River Thames and Scandinavia and the Baltic States, carefully-detailed timber is used internally, for the main gathering spaces and staircases. Roberts says that the restrained material palette, with accents of colour, was also selected to reflect this heritage, coupled with the school’s aspiration that the space should be a calm, focused learning environment, in contrast to the bustling city outside.

The new steel-framed school’s GIA of 3,500 m² is largely determined by the Building Bulletin for Schools, but as Roberts explains, “spaces with irregular shapes occur at the point on the site where there is a shift in geometry.” As part of the consultation on the designs with the school leaders, the FCBStudios team used VR headsets to explore digital three-dimensional models of the new building to test and refine appropriate heights and sizes for windows and furniture.

This also facilitated seeing the building from the youngest pupils’ perspective: “We set the eye-level to that of a nursery-age child to simulate their viewpoint,” says Roberts. “This allowed us to check that the scale of spaces is not overwhelming and to ensure both adults and children benefit from views of the landscape and sky.”

Programme & functionality

The biggest difference, compared to the former design, was the decision to site the new school north of the former buildings to provide an environmental buffer against the traffic, pollution and noise of busy Rotherhithe New Road, which had intensified over the years. This also facilitated the phasing of the construction because the existing school had to remain open while the new one was built.

“Working closely with our landscape architect colleagues at Fabrik, we developed a site diagram that pushed the principal ‘public’ elements, the main entrance, school hall and foyer, to the site boundary,” Roberts explains. “Like many urban schools, Rotherhithe Primary does a lot more than provide a setting for education, being used extensively for community activities. Creating a formality to the street elevation and a prominent front door – both of which the former buildings lacked, the new school now directly addresses and welcomes its community reflecting its civic purpose.”

This allows for a quieter courtyard to be created within, which the focus placed on an existing mature red sycamore. A ribbon of outdoor spaces on the periphery creates dedicated areas outside each nursery and classroom for Year 1 pupils. This visual connectedness helps in conveying a sense of belonging to the school community and an awareness of others, and there’s a further connection to Southwark Park, conceptually bringing its ‘borrowed’ landscape across Hawkstone Road and into the main playground.

“Achieving a balance of security and openness is a fundamental challenge in urban school design, but one which is critical to embedding a school within its context,” says Roberts. She continues: “Key to the successful and sustainable operation of the school are the graded sequence of secure lines. The arrangement of the welcoming entrance area ensured the hall and foyer spaces could be used by the community out of hours, and be safely, quickly, and efficiently set-up and managed by the school.”

Great consideration was given to ‘anthropometrics’ in relation to designing according to the size of the children using each set of spaces. This creates a subtle sense of progression around the building as the children mature.

“For the nursery and reception classes it was crucial to create intimate spaces to ease their formative experiences of the education system,” Roberts explains. “We employed smaller, more playful spaces, with furniture and finishes of a more domestic character to create an element of familiarity.”

Meanwhile, dedicated circulation routes and play spaces define areas for different key stages, and the building is designed so all enjoy views through and across the school as they circulate during the day. As the children move up through the school, they move upstairs where the classrooms have more formality. This gradually prepares them for their eventual departure onwards to secondary school.   

Throughout the school, unexpected and often discrete spaces have been carved out for small group learning, intervention and play, including seating areas under the stairs, both internally and externally.

All this was achieved in challenging circumstances. The existing school had to remain operational throughout the construction. FCBStudios created a phased masterplan that enabled the practical delivery of the project, but also considered the quality of the interim conditions to minimise disruption to the school. “This creative approach to site planning ensured the project budget was focussed on permanent works with a tangible ongoing benefit to the community, rather than on temporary works and accommodation,” says Roberts.


Sustainability considerations began with FCBStudios’ approach to the site, following the ‘school within a garden’ concept. The green ribbon around the school is imagined as an extension of Southwark Park. The garden creates a habitat corridor, but also offsets the urban heat island effect through use of trees and greenery, reducing rainwater run-off and creating an attractive outlook from surrounding homes.

Ground floor levels of the building were raised to future-proof against projected flood risk. Some smaller hard standing areas passively drain on to larger, soft areas. Permeable surfacing materials such as rubbercrumb (made from scrap tyres), bark mulch, and MUGA (multi-use games area) surfacing also reduce run-off.

The planting palette is drought-resistant to minimise watering requirements to only the harshest droughts and safeguard the landscape’s future. A wide variety of drought and heat-resistant tree species now thrive including Cercis, Parrotia, Gleditsia and Koelreuteria, preventing future loss from disease threats, whilst creating playground shade and learning interest for the children.

Following the ‘energy hierarchy’ within the London Plan, the design focused on limiting energy consumption, and thereby carbon emissions, and employed a fabric-first approach. This was enhanced by passive and active energy efficiency measures, informed by “early-stage energy analysis” to predict energy usage and carbon emissions and ensure that GLA’s mandatory requirement of 35% fewer carbon emissions than Building Regulations was met.

Alongside these passive measures, the technological specification for the school includes active elements such as heat recovery through a localised MVHR system with “highly-efficient” controls.

There is also an approximately 70 m² rooftop photovoltaic (PV) array, augmenting the energy provided by a gas-fired absorption heat pump and highly-efficient low NOX condensing gas fired boilers. They serve a heating circuit with a flow of 70°C and 50°C return temperatures and an EC/DC motor-driven system of variable speed drives on all pumps and fans.

To comply with the current London Plan regulations as well as Building Regulations, further energy-efficient features include high performance (low G-value/high luminous transmission) glazing, and LED lighting throughout, alongside energy-saving heating, cooling, ventilation and lighting controls.

The building has achieved a BREEAM ‘Very Good’ rating, and has improved on the Building Regulations CO2 emissions requirements by 36.8%. Annual CO2 emissions from embodied carbon to practical completion were recorded as 610 KgCO2eq/m². Embodied carbon over the lifecycle of the building is calculated at 963 KgCO2eq/m² using dynamic thermal modelling software.


Children and staff of the school feel hugely positive about their new building. There is now the space and the facilities to deliver not just a full educational programme, but host events to bring the community together.

Parents and the wider community are involved in school life, attending events such as parent workshops and Christmas fairs, for example. “There’s something about the building that attracts them to want to be here,” says the school head, Galiema Amien-Cloete. “The school facilitates such activities beautifully, we have the space and it is an attractive space to make that happen.”

Roberts says that for her team, working on the school with a committed local council and school leadership team, was “an incredibly enriching experience”. What was most important to FCBStudios was the ability to work in collaboration with the client to “appropriately reflect the very specific needs of its community”.

The result is a building carefully designed for pupils which also recognises its community’s history, enhances its local environment. The spirit of the predecessor buildings lives on, highlighted through a characterful palette of robust materials aligned to confident architectural expression. The project is shortlisted for a RIBA London Award, to be announced in May 2024.

The school’s head concludes “I’m most proud of contributing to creating a beacon for this community, something that will stay here for the next 50 years, I hope, if not longer.”