Primary school classroom. 1973-1974 to a design by Ben Stephenson and Mike Bracewell under County Architect, Roger Booth, for Lancashire County Council Architects’ Department. The original primary school, 1908, architect unknown, 1950s, 1960s, and circa 2000 extensions, and the link corridor between the plastic classroom and the main school are not of special interest and are excluded from the listing.
Reasons for Designation
The plastic classroom at Kennington Primary School, Preston, built in 1973-1974 to designs by the Lancashire County Council Architects’ Department under Roger Booth; job architects Ben Stephenson and Mike Bracewell, is listed at Grade II for the following principal reasons:
* Constructional interest: as the first fully structural plastic building in Britain, designed as a prototype for a system of pre-fabricated mass production of schools by Lancashire County Council Architects’ Department, based on self-supporting glassfibre-reinforced plastic (GRP) panels, and making early use of computer aided design (CAD) to produce the complex geometrical designs needed for an inherent rigidity;
* Degree of survival: the plan form and appearance of the classroom has survived well, clearly retaining the original character which resulted in the children’s nickname of ‘the bubble’ when it was built;
* Educational interest: the encompassing form of the classroom was perfectly attuned to the pedagogical thinking of the time by an influential governmental primary education review (1967) which promoted ‘teaching in the round’ with freedom of movement and fluid arrangements of space to engage pupils and foster friendly relationships.
Kennington Primary School was originally built in 1908, first appearing on the 1:2500 Ordnance Survey map published in 1912, when it was a small school with two classrooms flanking a central hall. The building expanded over the years with a large classroom block built set-back on the west side in the 1950s. An extra classroom was added in the 1960s, appearing on school plans dated 1972, as did the hall built to the rear of the original building.
In 1973-1974 a prototype glassfibre-reinforced (GRP) plastic classroom was built at Kennington Primary School, described by the Guardian as a ‘space age addition’. It was in fact the first fully structural plastic building in Britain; earlier industrial examples, such as rail relay switchgear cabins developed by Mickleover for British Railways in 1961 and Bakelite's 1963 telephone exchange in Birmingham, were not fully structural in their use of GRP. Since 1962 the Lancashire County Council Architects’ Department under Roger Booth had been responsible for a sizable programme of school building in Lancashire, with funding for research and development available. In 1973, 80 schools were at the design stage, 128 were at the tender stage and 348 were under construction. The department embraced prefabrication and standardisation as the best means of delivering the expansion programme. Amongst these Booth explored the development of glassfibre-reinforced plastic (GRP) for pre-fabricated mass construction. The nature of the material demanded self-supporting forms with inherent rigidity. Booth became interested in polygonal geometries such as icosahedra which, formed of components of equal size, lent themselves to prefabrication. The influential governmental primary education review Children and Their Primary Schools (1967) advocated the freedom of movement and fluid arrangements of space as a means to engage pupils and foster friendly relationships; the centrally planned, cellular layouts of the icosahedra perfectly suited primary teaching ‘in the round’. Booth envisaged ‘a basic teaching unit consisting of a control or nuclei with five, six or eight adjoining classrooms’, and this approach using GRP is shown in a mid-1970s, computer-aided design (CAD) for an un-built junior school at Thornton Cleveleys. He developed plans to market the system internationally under the name 'Lancon'; even in an international context mass production had not previously followed on from pioneering plastic buildings, which were mainly houses.
Internationally, building control approval was difficult to obtain to develop plastic buildings particularly with regard to fire safety. The Kennington classroom was the first building Booth's team actually constructed using the GRP panels. Prior to its being built, Synthetic Resins Ltd of Liverpool developed a new phenolic foam system base, faced with GRP. They and Warrington Research Centre then tested the materials, demonstrating them to ‘more than meet the requirements of Fire Regulations’ making the classroom the first plastic building in the country to pass fire safety requirements.
The job architects for the building were Ben Stephenson and Mike Bracewell. It was a 16ft (4.9m) high, centrally-planned structure composed of 35 white, tetrahedral panels arranged into a modified icosahedron, affectionately called ‘the bubble’ by the children. The panels were secured by a new, patented jointing system and were self-supporting and bolted to a concrete foundation pad. A 2in (5cm) thick lining of phenolic foam was used for fire-proofing and insulation. The floor space was about 22.5ft (6.8m) wide with seven sealed-pane windows set low in the walls so children could see out. The lighting and ventilation were controlled from a single panel in the flat-roofed resource area linking the classroom to the original school.
The absence of vertical walls and corners required an innovative approach to classroom furniture. In April 1973 furniture design consultants Macpherson and Kernaghan were appointed to liaise with Booth on the development of a new range of plastic furniture and flexible room dividers, known as ‘main frames’, to which pin boards and storage units could be attached.
The classroom cost £28,400, though this was partially due to development costs such as testing of the fire-proofing, and it was assembled in four days once the foundation was laid. It had been anticipated that economy of scale would decrease manufacturing costs as more, and bigger, schools were built. However, the oil crisis of late 1973 led to rocketing prices for plastics and made the mass production of plastic buildings entirely uneconomical. The Kennington classroom remains as a one-off proto-type despite successfully remaining in use up to the present day.
The classroom was published in the national press and the Lancashire County Council Architects’ Department won a Building Innovation Award by Building Magazine in 1977.
Historic photographs show that the classroom retains its original appearance, but the flat-roofed resource link has been refenestrated with the original walls of full-height glass panels with slim mullions replaced by uPVC mullion and transom frames incorporating casement windows and a glazed door on the north side. Inside the classroom the specially designed original furniture has been replaced.
Primary school classroom. 1973-1974 to design by Ben Stephenson and Mike Bracewell under County Architect, Roger Booth, for Lancashire County Council Architects’ Department. The original primary school, 1908, architect unknown, 1950s, 1960s, and circa 2000 extensions, and the link corridor between the plastic classroom and the main school are not of special interest and are excluded from the listing.
MATERIALS: built of glassfibre-reinforced plastic (GRP) panels with a concrete base.
PLAN: the classroom is a modified icosahedron in shape.
EXTERIOR: the classroom is situated on the east side of the original school building. It stands on a wide, gently-sloping base of textured concrete. There is a deep, ribbed concrete plinth of nine, slightly-inward sloping faces on which the plastic frame is set. The plinth abuts the low, smooth concrete walls of the link corridor on its west side. The main body of the classroom is formed from angled, triangular GRP panels, which are white in colour. There are seven windows around the lower part of the structure, alternating between two types: adjacent triangular lights, meeting at an outward-facing angle and three triangular lights converging in an outward-facing triangular pyramid. The lights are fixed with rubber gaskets. Above, triangular panels rise to form an angular dome. There are five, circular, button-like ventilators around the dome apex.
The attached link corridor has been altered with different fenestration from the original and the insertion of a doorway on its north side, and is not included in the listing.
INTERIOR: the classroom retains much of its original appearance with faceted walls and an open floor space. Temporary, hessian-covered, triangular boards have been fixed between the windows for display purposes. The original seating around the perimeter has been renewed and the original spot lights on runners attached to the frame have been replaced by five suspended strip lights.