Bow School

Transforming brownfield land for community resource

At Bow we were faced with a particularly challenging site and working for a repeat contractor client, Bouygyes UK, who needed to be convinced by a new design approach. They approached us because their Building Schools for the Future (BSF) Stage 1 proposals for Bow School were over budget and both the Local Authority and the school governors were unhappy with them. Within a month of our appointment we came up with a successful design; a simple solution to a complex problem. It was less expensive to build, provided better facilities and was unanimously approved by all concerned.

Our concept of three linked buildings enclosing the south-facing grounds delivered excellent teaching space and a diverse landscape.  The Main Block consists of north and south facing classrooms wrapped around two atria. The three rooftop multiple use games areas (MUGAs) on the roof maximise the school’s external space.

‘The wonderful new building provides a fantastic and stimulating learning environment for our children. We are all thrilled that Bow School has had this unique opportunity to extend the provision for Tower Hamlets and we are busy developing new learning experiences that make full use of the superb facilities. Although we have only been in the new school for a few weeks, we are already seeing very positive attitudes to learning from all of our students as they recognise the impressive opportunities that they now have.’Cath Smith. Headteacher at Bow School

‘The facilities are much better. The classrooms are huge and there’s more space to learn. Everyone loves it.’Hassan Ahmed, 15, Pupil at Bow School

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The new buildings for Bow School were designed closely with the senior team at the school to offer exemplary teaching and learning spaces for the 1600 pupils, boys and girls, and to make these available for use by the wider community.

The Headteacher, who had experience from a previous BSF project, was open to our ideas and supportive of them. She wanted to have open classrooms as well as open circulation, and maximising opportunities for informal supervision, all of which we agreed would improve pupils’ behaviour and their learning environment. We all worked together: Bouygues, vHH, the School, and London Borough Tower Hamlets, to extract the maximum possible value from the budget, defining the brief, through design development and during construction.

  • Project Details

    • Location: London
      Client: London Borough Tower Hamlets
      Area: 13156 m2
  • Project Awards

    • Commendation - Civic Trust Awards

The School mitigates the challenges of its context and contributes to the regeneration of its immediate locality, improving the public realm, offering community facilities and ensuring its design allows for future projects which will continue to improve the environment in this area of the River Lea valley.

bow gallery 2

The site, adjacent to the Blackwall Tunnel approach road, was blighted by the poor air quality and noise pollution. It was further complicated by the presence of a huge sewer crossing below the site, with a 16m wide exclusion zone for piles. However, there are dramatic views over Bow Locks and the Limehouse Cut, and longer views to Canary Wharf to the south and the Olympic Park to the north.

The concept of the three blocks was quickly identified as the preferred option, sheltering the external spaces from the A12, maximising sun and light for the external spaces. The main ‘mega’ block uses its walls to bridge the sewer, steps to take up the 4m difference in level between the site and the entrance, and delivers a very compact and efficient form – reducing costs, energy use and site footprint, maximising the School’s open space. The sealed façade is heavily insulated and the building is served by an efficient plant with mechanical ventilation and heat recovery, resulting in good internal air quality and lower running costs. The school is BREEAM ‘Excellent’.

The culminating scheme in Tower Hamlets’ BSF programme, the school had 20% of its budget removed by the ‘austerity’ measures of the incoming conservative government. By being continually focused on where to spend money to get best value, working together with the School, Local Authority and Bouygues, from initial concept to delivery, we ensured that we delivered a highly effective and well-built school. This committed teamwork was fundamental to the success of the whole project.

The robustness of vHH’s initial options appraisal and their team’s intelligent and creative design, allowed a radical concept design to become established. This overcame the considerable issues of the site, significantly reducing capital costs. vHH’s management of the co-ordination using BIM at Bow School enabled a straightforward construction phase with very little co-ordination work required on site.

Despite, or maybe due to, their modest size, vHH are good communicators, adept lead consultants and creative technical designers. They maintain a proactive and intelligent dialogue with our production (site) teams, allowing us to explore all aspects of construction, sequencing and programme and to maximise value for money. Ultimately this led to Bouygues UK being able to deliver Bow School 5 months ahead of schedule – to delighted clients.


Bow School

Our use of Building Information Modelling (BIM), with the structural and building services designers, was particularly useful given the size and complexity of the project. It resulted in significantly more efficient coordination across the team and a quicker programme.

By keeping the Dining Pavilion and Assembly Hall as separate blocks these facilities can be used throughout the day without disruption to other teaching spaces; as individual buildings these can also be used by the community. Like most London schools the pupils come from very diverse backgrounds, but at Bow School many are from the Bengali Muslim community, so specialist prayer facilities are provided in the Assembly Hall. It and all the other large spaces can be used for prayer during Ramadan, with ventilation, fire exits and means of escape all designed to suit.

The Main Block to the north contains the reception, as well as nearly all the teaching areas, facilities for a large Sixth Form and ancillary functions. Two atria bring light into the heart of the building, with the large spaces, assembly hall, sports hall and dance and drama studios, wrapped by the teaching spaces. Colour is used imaginatively within the building to aid orientation. A large, sculptural set of external stairs provides the link between the landscape and the main building, and a place to sit and socialise.

‘It’s remarkable the way in which they have managed to place the building on the site to give protection to the pupils and pay appropriate attention to the environment.

“You would barely know that there’s a major road on the other side of the wall, and you have this beautifully landscaped garden next to the canal and can imagine this being a place that young people will really enjoy growing up in.’

Sir Nicholas Serota

This film by filmmaker Alex J Wright succeeds in conveying the impact the new buildings have had on the pupils and staff. The film shows the spaces of the school in use and how good design supports the clearly excellent teaching and support for all pupils.

‘Although the school is not the actual client (just the end user), it was evident right from the start that our opinions and thoughts were really important to the architects as they worked on the design.’

Cath Smith, Headteacher, Bow School

‘vHH’s professionalism and dedication are second to none’

Jody Bishop – Bouygues UK

Project Timeline

  • 2011

    Site as existing

  • Concept Design

    Exploring various options for site plan

  • Modelling
  • Planning
  • BIM Construction Modelling
  • Construction

    Site looking from main block towards dining hall

  • Engagement

    Showing prospective students around as part of Open House London

  • Opening ceremony performance by students in the main atrium

  • 2013