Work has started on the adaptation of the derelict Royal Mail sorting office on Barrack Road in Northampton, turning it into an innovative and contemporary school.

The Northampton International Academy sets a benchmark for the future of mixed-use developments centred around education, blending it with commercial units and community use.

The academy is the product of a collaboration between Architecture initiative, the Education Funding Agency (EFA) and Northamptonshire County Council, and will significantly contribute to the economic regeneration of the local area.

The new academy, which will be part of the EMLC Academy Trust, will respond to the desperate need for school places in Northampton.

Northamptonshire County Council identified the vacant building as a huge opportunity for the area and it is ideally located at the edge of the town centre, in an area of acute need for school places. Architecture Initiative was able to work closely with the EMLC Academy Trust from the outset to ensure the internal layouts would enable them to teach their specific curriculum, based on a modern foreign languages specialism.

Offering state-of-the-art facilities for 1,500 secondary school pupils, 300 sixth form students and 420 primary school children, the innovative design will also provide opportunities for future community facilities, cafes, office space, a private nursery or a gym. The flexible adaptation means that internal spaces can be reconfigured in the future to rebalance the educational/commercial mix, ensuring this building never becomes redundant again.

By re-using an existing building, the council can create an extensive, high-quality educational facility in the most efficient manner. The combination of a modest acquisition and an intelligent low-cost conversion will see the delivery of 2,220 school places for less than £1600 per pupil gross – far cheaper than a typical new-build school. Re-using an existing building also have wider knock-on effects for the economic regeneration of the local area as large-scale abandoned buildings bring down local property prices, encouraging vandalism and antisocial behaviour. The cost of demolishing these substantial structures and site remediation effectively rules out wholesale redevelopment and the buildings remain in limbo; in the case of Barrack Road, for over ten years.

Matt Goodwin, Managing Director at Architecture Initiative commented, “As architects we believe in the power of design to create learning spaces that will inspire the next generation. Projects such as this academy also demonstrate how we can regenerate entire areas and increase local prosperity through a considered, commercial approach.”

Northamptonshire County Council cabinet member for education, Councillor Matt Golby, comments, “This a fantastic opportunity for us to take a building that is a liability to the local area, an icon of neglect and abandonment and make it iconic for positive and aspirational reasons. The school will not only alleviate pressure on school places, which is a growing challenge in Northampton, but give us scope and space to be really innovative and creative with its design, especially in the areas of creative arts and design technology utilising the double-height spaces in the building.”

The design of the refurbishment is centered around the idea of creating an open, accessible hub of activity. New windows will be added to the outer shell, creating movement into and through the building while also bringing natural light deep into the building. The main mass of the school will remain largely unchanged, aside from the addition of a new five-court sports hall filling the existing rooftop courtyard. A generous public plaza will further emphasise the sense of openness and encourage the staff, students and the local community to interact in this new space for Northampton’s future development.

With work now underway, the new school is on course to transform Northampton and alter the role education can play in UK urban environments.

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