AJ-LogoEvelyn Grace faced tough planning requirements and a tight budget. But it was worth it, says David Williams

Although the announcement of the Stirling Prize winner was greeted with some surprise, the planning team behind Zaha Hadid Architects’ Evelyn Grace Academy in Brixton, south London, felt it was a worthy and justified winner.

Before joining CBRE, I worked with Lambeth Council as the project’s planning consultant, and I feel the negative reactions are misplaced. While there was obviously strong political support for a new school on the site, Evelyn Grace’s future was far from certain, due to a tight and unmoving delivery programme, and mixed opinions over its size and boldness in a residential area.

The design is unapologetic, but institutional and public buildings in the past have often been grandiose and different in scale to their immediate surroundings. It demonstrates authority, creates a signpost in the community and makes a statement of civic identity and pride.

Leaving aside opinions on design, the size of the site and its relationship to the surrounding listed villas and adjacent conservation area and park, were constrained. The project team persevered, believing the building and its layout sat comfortably within the site, making efficient use of the land.

The academy’s planning application coincided with the tightening of legislation on the format and level of detail required for outline planning applications, particularly in terms of layout and scale.

The requirement to quantify the development ‘envelope’ and the layout of the buildings and external spaces was challenging, as the design was still evolving during the outline planning application determination process. Diligent use of development ‘parameter plans’ for approval at this stage satisfied the need for a fine balance between, on the one hand, quantifying the scale and the layout’s maximum and minimum dimensions to the level of detail required by the planning authority to determine its impact, and on the other, flexibility for further evolution.

By establishing detailed development parameters we gave planning officers and committee members the clarity and comfort they required to approve the outline application. This also reduced the ‘details pursuant’ conditions, as the planning authority was satisfied with the impact of the building’s layout, bulk, scale and massing, leaving aside its appearance and landscaping for further consideration as part of a ‘reserved matters’ application.

Extensive value engineering to the cladding and glazing threatened to compromise Evelyn Grace’s design and appearance, but the development team stayed true to their beliefs and the vision they had presented to key stakeholders, especially the council’s planning committee.

However, the Evelyn Grace Academy is not just one, but four schools within a single building, embodying the ‘schools within schools’ principle. This suggests that small schools improve students’ achievement, facilitate stronger teacher-student relationships and ease the transition from primary to secondary schools. The building also has outdoor space for competitive sports and recreation, which all required extensive consultation with the future occupiers.

It was a challenge to quantify the ‘envelope’ and layout of the school space

The running track has been called a gimmick, yet it not only provides the area with much-needed sporting facilities, but creates permeability through the site. Accessibility for all routes to and within the site was covered at outline planning application stage, and there were significant planning benefits to the wider community.

I have now worked on two RIBA award-winning buildings, the Evelyn Grace Academy and Schmidt Hammer Lassen’s City of Westminster College. While educational funding cuts mean that we are unlikely to see a school building like these in the near future, it proves that public buildings can be a catalyst for a better future in tough urban areas.

Evelyn Grace was expensive at £36.5 million and it does shout ‘Zaha’, but it has created a strong sense of place and responds to its environment; a pivotal consideration for both planning and architecture. David Williams is a senior planner at global real estate services provider CBRE.

David Williams was a senior planner at global real estate services provider CBRE

Key Points:

  • Tightened legislation on format and level of detail for outline planning applications
  • Requirement to quantify development ‘envelope’ and layout of buildings and external spaces
  • Design still evolving during outline planning application determination process
  • Development ‘parameter plans’ at outline planning application stage reduce ‘detail pursuant’ conditions
  • Appearance and landscaping left aside as ‘reserved matters’