When an infant school needed practical and flexible lighting, design practice Light Bureau came up with all the right answers, as Sarah Kingsford discovers

It was a case of going back to the classroom for London design practice Light Bureau when it was asked to create a lighting scheme for a 1970s building that was being refurbished.

Alexandra Infant School in Kingston upon Thames has seen some major changes over the past few years: as part of an ongoing refurbishment plan, the building has been extensively updated and remodelled. Phase One was completed in 2009 and consisted of a new nursery, library and classroom.

Now that Phase Two has also been finalised, the main hall and reading area – arguably two of the most important and well-used areas of the school – have also been refurbished, with the design expertise of Light Bureau. The practice was able to work with the school to provide exactly what was needed in these multi-use spaces.

An integrated approach

The geometry of the school hall is similar to that of the nursery, which was refurbished in the previous phase. The hall is a large square room.

Paul Traynor of Light Bureau worked on the project and describes the main considerations: ‘Architecturally, this space is very unusual in that it has a pyramidal ceiling. We wanted to exploit this, create a nice bright surface, but still have a flexible space. The hall is similar in architecture to the nursery, which we also worked on, but different in terms of use. With the hall, we also had the multi- function nature of the room to consider.’

In the hall, the needs of many users have to be taken into account

In the hall, the needs of many users have to be taken into account

The pyramidal ceiling in the hall has a new lantern light, but it is the only source of daylight in what is a large space, so it was extremely important to create an effective lighting system.

Like in many schools, the hall is a multi-function space. The children will have their assemblies, lunch and PE lessons here, and any number of extracurricular activities will take place here, so the needs of many users had to be taken into account.

Paul Traynor explains the challenges of a space like this: ‘One of the factors we had to consider was the need to avoid any bright light sources that would glare into the children’s eyes if they looked up – when they’re playing sport for instance.’ They also had a more practical consideration to take into account: it was essential to avoid any lighting that could be damaged by a wayward football during a boisterous PE lesson. To suit the diverse needs of such a wide range of users, a variable lighting solution was essential.

Time was limited. All work had to be carried out over the summer holidays while the children were away, and completed by September.

In the meeting room, LED spotlights are directed at bookcase

In the meeting room, LED spotlights are directed at bookcases

Light Bureau was keen to integrate the lighting into the architecture, and for the hall project, they found a way to do this. A horizontal ‘I’ beam spans all four elevations below the pyramidal soffit and the designers realised this was deep enough to incorporate a continuous uplight. By adding a shallow painted timber up-stand, a pelmet was created into which a continuous overlapping fluorescent batten system was installed.

Paul Traynor explains how this idea was developed: ‘Further enhancement was conceived on site with the idea of running the new ceiling straight into the ‘I’ beam, creating a better angle of distribution and thus efficient and even light output. This is the sole source of electric lighting to the hall and the result is excellent: bright, glare-free lighting, that is very uniform, so the whole space is equally well-lit.’

In a neighbouring area, a perimeter pelmet source washes down on the sunny yellow-finished doors and to the bamboo-clad sloping ceiling in this space, a suspended linear pendant from Fagerhult has been used to supplement the concealed sources.

Reading room

The reading area between the hall and school entrance is something of a bonus, having been created from what was originally just circulation space. Now, thanks to its bookcases, low tables and chairs, this is a practical and essential area for the school, used by many of the children for their phonics or reading groups.

A pyramid ceiling make the hall an unusual space

A pyramid ceiling make the hall an unusual space

By simply adding pelmet boxes to existing bulkheads, this is now a pleasant, bright environment, thanks to the use of simple batten sources. A handful of LED spotlights, each rated at 3W, are fitted and directed at the bookcases to provide emphasis and accent.

Another consideration was to minimise energy consumption, and for that reason a daylight/dimming system has been included. All light sources used have Dali digital control gear using a simple rack- mounted four-channel control system from Zumtobel.

The system commissions itself on powering up and scenes, daylight sensitivity and levels are accessed from the momentary action switches. When switches are activated, a daylight sensor determines the dimming level for each luminaire group and trims the power appropriately. The users can also dim.

The personal touch

The finished result has been a resounding success. Rachel Hollis, the headteacher, is delighted: ‘The lighting has had such a positive impact on the pupils’ learning environment. Visitors to the school from the teaching community can’t believe how big an impact the refurbishment and new lighting have had on the space. It’s truly unique.’

Light Bureau was keen to integrate the lighting into the architecture

Light Bureau was keen to integrate the lighting into the architecture

Paul Traynor is equally happy with the result: ‘I’m really pleased with the way we’ve been able to integrate the lighting in this project: the hardware isn’t on view, and no one really notices it, but they do notice the overall improved effect. I’m delighted with what we’ve been able to achieve here by what are basic and almost invisible means.’

For Traynor, it’s the personal connection that means a lot. His daughter is a pupil at the school, so as a parent he knows just how important these spaces are, and how much they mean to the whole school. Being married to the interior designer really helps to keep it in the family. His wife, Ros Jones, was initially involved as a designer, but it wasn’t long before Traynor was called in to offer advice.

This was by no means a big job for us, but you really get a great sense of achievement working on something that has such a benefit for the children and the community. The response from everyone involved has been so enthusiastic. Local authorities and other schools love it and that’s been fantastic. This project really was a labour of love.’

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