Columbus School & College

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  • Vocational rite of passage design for SEN school and college.
  • Innovation for Building Schools for the Future programme.
  • Catering for both school and community needs.
  • Commended in Civic Trust awards.

Columbus School and College in Chelmsford is a special educational needs centre for pupils aged three to 19 with a range of mental and physical problems.Our objective was to create a place that would support the pupils vocational education, helping them to be prepared for life.

The pupils experience a rite of passage as they progress through the school and we wanted to contribute to that with a landscape design that would show a changing environment through the different stages. As a result the school and the college each have landscapes with distinctive design solutions.

The design of the school area focusses on play with the use of sensory equipment to encourage natural play. An eco-trail, which starts and finishes inside the school building, leads through environments including a garden area, a willow dome, a wetland area and a micro-countryside.In each of the areas the children can activate sound posts which are programmed by the school to play changing sounds linked to educational themes.

The college maintained the ecological theme but with a stronger vocational focus. We designed a rain garden courtyard to showcase sustainability.Water from the roof is collected in a raised pond and then channelled through a rocky river bed into a flowering bog garden.These features appeal to the children with strong sensory elements. The courtyard adjoins the classrooms on three sides and provides a sheltered space for outdoor learning with a gym, a reading garden, a performance space and a horticulture garden to be worked by the students.

A new public square was built at the front of the college.A bold decision was taken not to fence this space, making it a public showcase for the colleges social enterprises and a great venue for inclusive community events. It is lit at night with public seating, an outdoor café and eye-catching planting and has become a valuable civic space.

As a scheme in the Building Schools for the Future programme, this project played a part in showing how landscape design could contribute to revitalising special needs education and it has been rewarding to be involved in that.

Both the school and the college were separately commended in the 2013 Civic Trust awards.

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