Houlton Secondary School, Rugby

A new educational home from the historic

 Houlton School is the new, multiple award-winning, 6FE + 6th Form secondary school at the heart of Urban & Civic PLCs new community at Rugby. Houlton will provide 6,200 homes on the site of the former Rugby Radio Station. Our proposals involved the creative adaption of the striking 1926 listed transmitter building, C Station, and the creation of three new buildings, open spaces and playing fields to form a coherent school campus.  The project plays to our strengths: within the historic environment, with low energy design, and with buildings for learning. The project successfully restores and repurposes the historic buildings as an integral part of a highly sustainable, purposeful and distinctive secondary school that is a key attraction for those considering living at Houlton.

Houlton School has been recognised as an exemplary architectural project through a wide range of award wins, including two categories at the Architect Journal’s Retrofit Awards, a Refurb BDA Brick Award, an RICS Public Sector award and many more.

See the full list of award wins by clicking here.

 Our partnership with vHH has been hugely supportive to date and we value their visionary and innovative design approach in realising what will be a truly exceptional school and learning environment.”


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Our challenge was to reconcile the Houlton masterplan, with its tiered planning process, physical layout and phased delivery programme, the Academy Trust’s particular brief, and the character, significance and condition of the listed building. Learning from our experience delivering the first primary school at Houlton, St Gabriel’s, and the range of issues and the complexity of discussions the project was intensively – and happily – collaborative.

Initial ideas started from our analysis and understanding of C Station, hugely helped by the historic drawings and photographs within the British Telecom Archive and in the book The History of Rugby Radio Station by Malcolm Hancock, based on his 38 years of work at the site.

Sadly, our generation leaves an uncertain future: visible climate change, increasing temperatures and extreme weather. Maintaining the legacy of ancient buildings can conflict with the legacy of climate change: as architects we balance responsibility for both.


The adaption of C-Station to create Houlton School shows that it is possible to transform the energy use and carbon emissions of many listed buildings – and most older buildings of lesser significance – avoiding the false premise that only new buildings can perform well. The project transforms the historic buildings’ performance, comfortably exceeding the Building Regulations for a new building. This enables the building to be used, and secures it a viable future, so its built and social heritage will enrich future generations.


  • Project Details

    • Location: Houlton, Rugby
      Client: Urban & Civic

Our concept design emerged from an intensive design charette organised by Urban & Civic and led by Houlton’s master planning architects, JTP, with all our key stakeholders present. We were able to explain how the old buildings could be best used, what their limitations were for a school, and JTP explained their vision for the District centre. Open debates allow everyone to engage with each other’s aspirations and understand their concerns.  The workshop sessions showed us how the new campus could best relate to the future civic square, streets and other uses, and JTP how their district centre master plan proposals could best embed the school.

Our scheme design recognised the need to subdivide the immense spaces of the former C Station to create functional spaces – with enough useable floor areas to make the fixed costs of upgrading the envelope offer reasonable value for money. These were much too big for regular classrooms or labs, and were too small for the Sports Hall, so we proposed a new Sports Block and two efficient teaching blocks, one for STEM subjects and one for Humanities.

The former Power Hall is divided into two, creating the school’s Assembly Hall and Dining Hall and their ancilliary spaces. The former space of the Valve Hall at the base of the Transmission Block provides the height for the Drama and Activity studios, with a new independent structure inserted within it carrying the new floors above with the library, music and art rooms, and the Sixth Form Centre at the top. The former administrative spaces of C Station are reused, minimising change in one of the more sensitive areas, as the school’s administrative and SEN spaces.

The most radical outcome from the charette was the unanimous recognition that the main school entrance should come directly from the Civic Square at the heart of the future district centre, even though this would not be built for several years after the school. To do this, rather than significantly alter one of the main facades, we proposed demolition of the single storey ancilliary rooms between the two main blocks, retaining their two former facades to define courtyards, and adding a substantial entrance canopy that would address the square to the south.

The regular process of detailed liaison meetings with the heritage and planning consultants, Rugby Borough Council officers and Historic England and the Twentieth Century Society, allowed everyone  to understand the constraints imposed by the significance of the buildings, opportunities they presented and how the impacts on the historic fabric and the character of the buildings could be mitigated. These underpinned our team’s design development of both the school layout and the technical strategies for the school.

The heritage consultees recognised that the value of the whole building being restored, with missing elements reinstated and poor-quality additions being removed, for a sustainable long-term public use helped balance the acknowledged impacts of the adaptation.  Major elements reinstated included the cornice to the transmission Block, lost in the 1944 fire, the blocked-up windows to its north and south elevations, and the blocked up circular windows and roof lanterns to the Power hall, replaced in the 1980’s with plastic rooflights.

Our advance listed building application for enabling works allowed early site clearance and strip, demolition of subsidiary structures of no significance, and the total removal of asbestos and lead paint from all of C Station. It also provided opportunity for us to use high level MEWP access and for some final design decisions to be made. The main Reserved Matters and Listed Building were then applied for, and consents achieved well within programme.

We were determined to make the school have exemplary energy performance, despite the challenge of a wholly uninsulated listed structure forming a large part of it. Sadly, our initial aspiration to deliver the three new buildings to the passivhaus standard was refused by the DfE, who insisted on adherence to their standard Outputs Specification as a condition of the funding agreement with Urban & Civic. Nevertheless, working closely with Etude and Hoare Lea, the project transforms the historic buildings’ performance, comfortably exceeding the Building Regulations criteria and, with the excellent performance with the new buildings, the campus as a whole meets the DfE’s operational energy standards.

The high significance of the C Station facades led to the decision that we would insulate them on the inside, combined with considerable new floor and roof insulation, and new windows. The system used is made of vapour-open wood fibre insulation and a lime plaster parge coat providing the insulation and air tightness. The scale and complexity of the installation was unprecedented in the UK; the board is normally used for traditional domestic-scaled buildings, here the subcontractor installed c. 3,500m2. The historic windows were mostly replaced with thermally broken metal or timber frames and high performance double glazing, designed to replicate those removed, with the more intricate examples being restored and backed with double-glazed secondary glazing.

The effective working relationship developed with Historic England and Rugby Borough Councils was key to gaining consent for this, with very detailed pre-application discussions exploring the options, their technical consequences, and their relative impacts and benefits. The research, details and modelling submitted as part of the applications led to consent: otherwise the project would not have been able to upgrade the historic building effectively to minimise energy, operational C02 and lifetime costs for the school.

The technical design was developed with Morgan Sindall appointed under a two-stage tender process, allowing enabling works to start, and us to benefit from the input of their supply chain during the second stage of tender. This continuity was maintained with vHH being novated to Morgan Sindall for the construction phase, with vHH completing the production information, reviewing fabrication drawings and contractor design elements, and reviewing suppliers’ samples.

Despite the limitations imposed by Covid this included attending site to regularly review quality and workmanship with Morgan Sindall’s site managers for each block. These involved focussed visits to review the workmanship of the internal air tightness layer and insulation and its interfaces, the detail of the brickwork façade repairs and alterations, and coordination of the services routes exposed in the historic structures. As with any old building, as works progressed better knowledge became available, and in several places revised details were adopted, after review with the Local Authority.

Project Timeline

  • 1926

    Construction of new Radio Station complete, ready for the first transatlantic radio transmission to Houlton, USA.

  • Original Fit Out

    Original alternators in Power Hall to generate direct current for transmitter

  • Aerial Masts

    Illustration of original 800ft high aerial masts surrounding C-Station. The last mast was demolished in 2007, just after C-Station was listed

  • 1933
    International Telephone Exchange

    The telephone exchange used by the Radio Station was in London

  • 2014

    Urban & Civic receive outline planning consent to develop Rugby Radio Station site into a new community of 6300 homes

  • 2015
    Urban & Civic PLC Commission Feasibility Study

    Our involvement began with a feasibility study to establish if C-Station could be used as part of a new secondary school

  • Heritage Research

    Review of historic drawings and details at the BT archive. Original section of Transmission Hall, link block and Power Hall,

  • Site Investigations

    Investigations included a 3D Point Cloud Survey that formed the basis of our Revit model. Point cloud image of the Power Hall

  • Design Charette

    Project began with a design charrette organised by JTP, Houlton Masterplan Architects, with Urban & Civic, the Design Team and key stakeholders

  • Concept Design

    Initial proposals respond to the school design brief, the nature of the existing buildings and the future masterplan setting

  • Design Development

    Design review of new block façade; materials, area of glazing for good daylighting and views out, solar shading and relationship to listed building

  • Planning Submission

    Submission for planning and listed building consent, after months of carful stakeholder and public engagement

  • Energy Modelling

    Modelling the thermal upgrade of C-Station and highly energy efficient new blocks to demonstrate the schools low energy use, to secure DFE funding

  • 2019
    Enabling Works

    Strip out, demolition and salvage of historic equipment. Locomotive engines off for a second life at Severn Valley Railway

  • Technical Design & Contract

    Working with Morgan Sindall to finalise technical detail and agree contract sum

  • Main Works

    C-Station internal thermal insulation begins. First layer of lime plaster for airtightness, followed by wood fibre insulation and finishing board

  • Material Samples

    Essential sample sign off visit by Rugby Borough Council takes place outside due to Covid

  • New steel frame and stairs being craned into Transmission Hall

  • Steel frame and roofs to new buildings completed

  • The restored brickwork to C-Station and facades of the new teaching blocks define the playground space at the heart of the school

  • Office site visit to Houlton. Sharing lessons learnt and a chance for the rest of the Office to see the fruits of the teams labour

  • 2021

    Works almost complete, ready for pupils to start in September

  • 2021

    New school complete and open to students

  • 2023

    Multiple awards wins for Houlton in 2023!