Studio Weave Conjures a Whimsical School Expansion Outside London

Completed on a tight budget, the 1,615-square-foot project in West London offers moments of play and calm for students facing moderate to severe learning challenges.
Studio Weave Belvue School architecture

The new classrooms, with their outdoors-focused lessons, are distinctly separated from the typical teaching program in the main Belvue School building. Courtesy Jim Stephenson

“What creatures live in a forest?” isn’t the first question you’d usually ask when designing a school. But the odd query set the groundwork for a new addition for Belvue School, designed by the London-based practice Studio Weave.

Technically speaking, Studio Weave posed the question to the school’s students during a story writing workshop. The architects wanted insight into how the children would feel comfortable inhabiting the school’s wooded site, on the outskirts of West London. So, beyond dreaming up forest fauna, the students were asked to imagine what a gateway to the forest—a safe place to inhabit on the edge of nature—would look like.

This atypical approach is indicative of the firm’s affinity with fantasy. Take the studio’s meandering, looping “longest bench” on the South Coast or its whimsical “Lullaby Factory” for London’s Great Ormond Street Hospital. Studio Weave also has several children’s educational projects under its belt, but the Belvue School project had its own unique challenges.

Belvue is a secondary school for boys and girls aged 11-19 years with moderate to severe learning difficulties. For this expansion, the school administration sought facilities where students could learn to feel comfortable with nature. “The goal of the school is to provide students with as much real-life experience as possible,” says headteacher Shelagh O’Shea. “This includes dealing with nature and outdoors, being around a fire and cooking—it’s all very important.”

Studio Weave Belvue School architecture

The “barn” is a transitory space, used for going out or coming back to the woodland. It also hosted a recent school art competition. Courtesy Jim Stephenson

Consequently, Studio Weave’s project, which is located south of the main school building, provides two indoor activity spaces and a central, open-ended “barn.” Despite having no windows, the barn has two sliding doors which, when open, provide a direct link between the woodland and the playground. However, the barn primarily serves as a transition space: a room for donning coats and boots as well as gathering tools used for outdoor activities.

The classrooms at either side offer a much calmer environment, despite their modest size (540 square feet each). To use the term “classroom” is perhaps misleading: the spaces feel homier than a conventional teaching venue. One room is dedicated to cooking and eating, doubling up as a café and canteen, while the other, complete with log-burning stove and sofas, is used for storytelling and music therapy and other activities.

Studio Weave Belvue School architecture

Dappled light filtered by the woodland illuminates classrooms during the day. Courtesy Jim Stephenson

Besides being a physical gateway between the playground and woodland, the new classrooms, according to the architects, provide psychological sanctuary too. “The whole building on this side is a wall—it’s protecting you,” says Ahn, pointing to the wood-clad, playground-facing facade. In contrast, the other side has extensive glazing that faces southward to the forest, admitting tree-filtered sunlight. Additional diffused light enters from skylights, which, when coupled with the curved birch plywood ceiling, creates a calm, warm environment. With views focused on the nature outside, the smell of wood inside the cozy interior is a welcome aroma. All of this furthers the circus- and tentlike qualities of the rooms.

“Inside, it’s grown-up, churchlike, because of the high volumes,” Ahn continues. “But when you see this shape collectively from the outside, it feels more childlike, though in a very controlled manner.”

One of the most incredible achievements of the project is the price: just $295,000. To achieve this, Studio Weave used mostly standardized fittings and sizes where possible. A high-performance heat pump (as part of a heat recovery system) and long-lasting zinc roofing was, according to Ahn, about “spending money where we need to spend it.”

Still, the school’s tranquility is its biggest asset. “We didn’t want a space that felt like a classroom, just a space you can be in,” adds O’Shea, who went on to note that more than three-quarters of children at the school go home to residences with no back garden. “To be in this environment is having an impact on [the kids].”

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Categories: Educational Architecture