School among the trees is a triumph

Architectural innovation has helped transform Inchicore National School into a light-filled space that has had an uplifting effect on the children who attend it


‘It’s a very modern, very wooden building,” says a child in sixth class. It’s true, and it’s very glassy, all of which we are appreciating from this tree-canopy level classroom with its low – seat-height – sill and vertical bands of glass framed in coppiced sweet-chestnut staves. Light is rushing in and we are gazing out eastwards into the leaves of horse chestnut trees.

The project to reconfigure the National School in Inchicore, Dublin, and add a building, worked around the mature trees on the site; letting them live and establishing a close relationship with them.

“They call the new building the Tree House,” says recently retired principal Terry McCarthy, who led the charge to transform Inchicore National School from a handsome but gloomy 1853 cut-limestone building that was too small for purpose, into an RIAI-award winning, community expanding structure, by Donaghy + Dimond Architects.

The existing building, constructed as a Model School after the completion of the nearby Great Southern and Western Railway works and houses in 1846, remains the core of the site. This was in a U-shape enclosing a courtyard, with the boys’ school on one side and girls’ on the other. Later interventions included a toilet block in the courtyard – not a great position for cross-ventilation – and low, false ceilings in the classrooms which shrunk the soaring volume and masked the exposed timber trusses and pitched roof. It made the rooms stuffy, says McCarthy.

This is all history now: the architects took out the fake low ceilings (and added insulation) and put a roof over the courtyard, with tilted glass panels bringing bands of southern light into the new hall, circulation and break-out space, and views the other way up into chestnut trees.

Vast window

All classroom doors onto the hall now have huge glass panels, replacing those tiny panels we all grew up with, through which higher echelons could peek through and check on pupils while remaining largely hidden. Even the staff room in the new building has a vast window onto the playground. “We thought the children would stare into the staffroom or be distracted by all the views,” says McCarthy, but it has actually led to a greater sense of community and calm. It all helps light flow through, but creates literal openness too – schools, like Irish society are opening up.

That openness extends to the community, with new views of Inchicore village and a hall at the base of the new building on the east side of the site, in which parents can do courses and school gatherings can take place.

The building’s break-out spaces even help learning, says McCarthy, as “Maths Eyes” projects involve observing the local area – which can be done from the roof terrace beside resource rooms in the new building. And the overall scheme mirrors the community with its allotment, lanes, park and buildings.

When McCarthy first approached the Department of Education about expanding the school she had little idea about what would follow. As a first step, she was asked to combine the boys’ and girls’ schools into one, which she did in 2001, while keeping fifth and sixth class separate for certain subjects such as maths, Irish and literacy, due to concerns that competitiveness and self-esteem issues would arise. Yet just weeks in, the boys and girls asked to be together. “We felt that was very healthy,” says McCarthy, noting there were benefits after they combined, and overall better behaviour.

Having done that, she was then tasked with choosing architects, even though the Department of Education was to be the official client. There’s a lesson here for architects. She appreciated those applying for the job in 2005 who actually visited the building – because some didn’t. But of those who came, she was “interested in the level of engagement with me”.

Track record

“Some just came in and said ‘leave us to it’, and went off to look at the building,” she said, conveying a sense of haughtiness “But I remember a conversation over there [she points to the former courtyard] with Marcus [Donaghy].”

Other reasons why Donaghy + Dimond Architects were chosen include their track record: Will Dimond had worked on the Ranelagh Multidenominational School and another in Cherry Orchard when he was at O’Donnell and Tuomey Architects.

The Inchicore project was completed in stages, with pupils being moved around the site. But sometimes areas were used even before they were finished, such as the reclaimed pitch-pine suspended floors in the classrooms, with sheep’s wool beneath, which the children happily sat on until delayed furniture was delivered.

The new structure, wrapped in sweet chestnut curtain walling and cladding, has clever, life-enhancing interventions everywhere.

Bench-seating is throughout the buildings and playground, with those in wide corridors used as break-out teaching space and a play area on rainy days. So important was the built-in bench seating to them that the architects had to stand their ground over sill heights in the new classrooms. Guidelines have them higher but the architects held out for them to be seats.

If guidelines weren’t challenged this school – and others (and other areas of society) – would have remained in the dark ages. Donaghy points out rules on a poster in the entrance lobby, from the 1863 Handbook of School Management: “The walls of a school should never be less than 12ft high”. The handbook also warns against building near trees as they cause damp, and make the building dark and gloomy.

The more austere parts of this scheme are there for a reason, such as in the concrete and dark-brick (matching the existing black quarry stone walls surrounding the school) entrance to the new building. This is designed to bring the outside in and up onto the polished concrete stair, lined with black, bees-waxed mild-steel balustrades, which ascends to its more-tree-like state of wood and light shafts as you climb towards leaf level. Indeed, the new building itself has a tree-like form with its thinner masonry base, faced in brick and chestnut, rooted into the ground; deeply dug out because the surrounding land was higher than the street.

The building above is then cantilevered. This gives the structure a light footprint on the school playground and naturally provides a sheltering spot from the rain. Here, parents wait for children or vice versa, on the covered ramp that runs from a new school entrance gate up to the level of the 1853 school. Further shelter is provided by the covered walkway from the existing building to the new one. Cantilevers, loggias and other folding forms also speak to the work of other Italian architects Luigi Snozzi and Aurelio Galfetti.

The new design “has dramatically altered the teaching and learning environment,” says McCarthy, bringing “an uplifting and calming effect. The children love [it] and are calm, proud and happy. The building project has been an incredibly positive experience.”