Waterbeach Barracks Primary School

The Waterbeach Barracks development is a large residential development managed by Urban & Civic PLC on a former MOD Barracks. This will form a large new community, adjacent to the historic village, with its own transport links and social facilities. These will include a number of schools to serve the emerging community, and which are intended to be an important civic presence, providing high quality education and facilities to benefit the wider community. As the first school on the site, the quality of its design was a key issue for both Cambridge County Council, the commissioning client, and Urban and Civic, the master developer. They established a competition design and construction of the project, which vHH won with R G Carter.

The brief required a pre-school, providing 72 places, and a 3 forms-of-entry mainstream primary school. We were particularly attracted to the project by the Councils NZEB sustainability brief, and the developments wider holistic sustainability, including transport and community focus. An important part of the masterplan was that the school and pre-school entrances were from a pedestrian plaza, with no vehicular access, and linked to the extensive cycling and walking path network.

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In order to achieve the Cambridgeshire NZEB brief, 80% of the building’s total energy demand (for everything) has to be met by its own power generation. This required a design which considered form, orientation, and envelope quality, to minimize energy demand and maximise PV outputs. The brief led to a strong focus within the design and build team on the building form, orientation and fabric performance, on efficient services systems and short service runs, tightly coordinated, and on the need to accommodate significant PV areas. These minimised demand and maximised generation.

At the same time as considering how to keep operational energy to a minimum, and provide most of its energy directly, we wished to minimize embodied carbon. Our experience of similar projects (using Oneclick LCA to calculate their embodied carbon emissions), demonstrated that emissions caused by the construction, maintenance and end-of-life of the building could often be significantly more than half of the lifecycle emissions. So with R G Carters support, vHH and Engenuiti, the structural and civil engineers, focused on minimizing the carbon intensity of frame and substructure and envelope, to target exceptional whole life carbon performance, without sacrificing any of the architectural quality. This led to the proposals being based on a lean mass-timber frame, minimizing plastic insulants and other plastic components, and with resilient and durable components and finishes. Much of the timber is expressed, bringing its advantageous character to everyone in the school.

Our design is made up of three areas; teaching wing, central block and pre-school, with carefully designed zoning for community use and spaces which can be adapted for different pedagogical layouts. Through extensive engagement with client and stakeholders we were able to propose a compact massing, with the halls at the centre of the plan and lit by northlight clerestory windows. The good form factor is combined with optimal orientation, with teaching space almost all facing north or south, and effectively shaded on the south, and with the facades of the School and Pre-school defining the small arrival plaza. Designed by Macgregor Smith, along with the rest of the school grounds, this creates an informal meeting place and the opportunity for small community events; an extension of Waterbeach woods, linking the school building to its surroundings and referencing the rural landscape beyond.

  • Project Team

  • Project Details

    • Location: Cambridge
      Client: Urban & Civic PLC

In developing the proposals we benefited from Cambridgeshire’s Design guidance, and from the thorough engagement with the school operator, Anglian Learning. Their advice and feedback informed the design proposals, requesting the provision of generous canopies to all ground floor classrooms, to provide useful covered teaching and play space, and the provision of a changing places facility and two classroom sized SEN rooms, to improve the ability of the operator to cater for those with SEN needs within a mainstream setting.

The Trust were supportive of our decision to have classrooms in groups of three, with more open connections in the younger years, arranged around generous toplit corridors that provide breakout spaces and decent circulation. Three stairs give ready access for the upper years to the playgrounds.

The halls can be opened-up to each other to maximise the size of the assembly space and allowing the small hall to double as a stage for the larger hall, or to function independently at the same time. Administrative space is generally clustered around the main entrance area, with generous circulation acting as a foyer to the halls, and the staff social room upstairs. The studio is placed at the edge of the building next to the school plaza, allowing its easy use for breakfast and after-school clubs. The halls occupy the centre of the plan, within northlight clerestorey windows, easily accessed from the main entrance and overlooked by the surrounding circulation spaces. The full-service kitchen and servery adjoin the large hall, and the small hall is provided with a small refreshment servery for community use.

The pre-school proposed is physically linked to the main building but is a discrete entity, with separate grounds and access, thus allowing it to be either run by the Schools operator, or by a separate provider. In the school holidays it can be run independently without the rest of the school needing to be open.  The main hall and small hall (which can be combined), and studio spaces, and external landscape and pitches are designed to be readily accessible for community use. It has a single large teaching space, with all its supporting facilities opening off it, and with free-flow access to the grounds to the south, again with generous canopies.

The landscape design, by Macgregor Smith, provides a wide range of environments for learning, sports, food growing, and play, with a matrix of diverse ‘mini-habitats’ picking up on the wild and agricultural features of the fenland area, providing a rick source of learning and very biodiverse habitats. This becomes less intensive it as it extends to the edge of the site, with grass pitches and ‘school field’ that can be used for sports days, fetes, community events and then informal planting, designed to merges with the naturalistic landscape of the acoustic bund, providing a green enclosure to the school grounds, across the boundary fence. This landscape provides a wide variety of teaching and play environments, links the surrounding habitats and hugely increases diversity (albeit from a very low datum) over the site.


vHH led the team in minimising embodied carbon emissions, with Engenuiti developing a very lean substructure and timber frame design, and Hoare Lea optimising hybrid ventilation, using MVHR and natural vent openings for summer-time free cooling and purge vent, ASHPs and entirely electric plant. .

A substantial roof mounted PV array is proposed comprising c.1050m2 of panels providing c.188,000kWh/yr output. Water use is minimised by the selection of low water-use fittings and by including leak detection. vHH modelled the impacts of alternative construction approaches, using Revit and One Click LCA to minimise the embodied carbon of the scheme, by using timber as the main construction material, minimising plant and distribution runs, avoiding plastic insulants where possible, and avoiding / selecting the applied finishes accordingly.


Based on the Stage 3 assessments (PHPP and TM54) and the modelling of the PV arrays, the school will achieve the Councils NZEB target, with heating demand of c.12kwh/m2/yr and an Energy Use Intensity of 56kwh/m2/yr (TM54 central case) and annual operational carbon emissions of 2.91KgCO2/m2/yr. (BRUKL TER)

Our OneClick LCA embodied carbon assessment estimated embodied carbon emissions, including that of the PV arrays, is 464KgCO2eq/m2. Taken together with the operational energy and water emissions, this gives the proposals an exceptionally low Whole Life Carbon impact compared to most new build schools in the UK. The predicted Whole Life carbon is about c.165kg CO2e/m2/yr from cradle to grave, which consists of circa 48% embodied carbon and 52% operational carbon, based on the standard RICS study period of 60 years. The proposals will also sequester about c.1,525 tonnes of C02, mostly in the timber frame and woodfibre insulation, for the life of the building