London's warm and healthy "snowflake"

Snowflake School in London is a new Ofsted-outstanding teaching environment for children with Special Education Needs and one with a special focus on pupils with severe autism.

Photo: Gareth Gardener

Patalab architects were commissioned to convert this intriguing building off Acton High Street in the London borough of Ealing. Originally, the building was purpose-built as a meeting hall for the Salvation Army before being turned into an animation studio. Inserted steelwork mezzanines over a herringbone-floored hall contributed to a mishmash of conversions over the years.

Given the nature of the school and the links between autism and noise sensitivity, Troldtekt acoustic panels were specially chosen by the architects to promote a healthy sound environment and calmness. As Project Architect Sophie Fuller explains, “The double-height central space works really well as the school’s main hall. In order to minimise sound reverberation, we chose to clad the upper half in acoustic panelling made from wood wool. The texture and neutral colour of the panelling also help to make this tall space feel friendlier and warmer.”

The architects’ brief emphasised keeping the budget as low as possible without compromising the spaces for the children and their teachers. Therefore, the focus was on reusing as much of the existing building fabric as possible. This has resulted in a layered aesthetic. It is particularly evident when metal frames are only partially covered in plasterboard and sound insulation is exposed. The upper part of the main hall has also been clad in acoustic panelling. It makes the double-height space feel warm and inviting whilst also ensuring the noise reverberation is minimised.

The project is a demonstration of the charity’s success. This meticulously considered office-to-school conversion provides an inspiring learning environment that helps the school to build upon their accomplishments in the long term. It contributes to bringing Snowflake School’s exceptional specialised teaching to even more children and to a new local area.

Following design guidelines, as well as meeting fire protection and safety requirements, meant many aspects of the building’s history had to be covered although glimpses remain. For example, the original timber floor used in the assembly hall, original metal handrails protruding from new plywood balustrades and relocated doors and windows. At the same time, ramps and a platform stairlift were added to create accessibility.

Spaces have been reconfigured to create staff rooms on the upper floors, new classrooms directly below with the retained double-height space at the centre. The latter forms a communal use as the school’s assembly hall. The lower ground floor, originally built as a secondary hall, now accommodates learning and play spaces.