Lessons in Reinvention: A Victorian Girls’ School Reborn
September 3, 2018
Is it possible that London architects Luke McLaren and Robert Excell of McLaren Excell were Zen monks in a past life? We think so. The two specialize in using (in their words) “pure and restrained” materials—hay-bale-like wood wool, for instance—to create spaces of surpassing quiet and beauty. “Calm authority,” they say is the goal. Which is no doubt what won them the job of refurbishing Merrydown, a Victorian-era girls’ school in Dorset with an “almost monastic layout: one large room with a single corridor off it and cell-like bedrooms and bathrooms to one side,” as the architects say.
Since the 1970s the school had been lived in by the mother of the current owner, who approached McLaren Excell with the project. The single-story building was an obsolete hand-me-down in need of reinventing, and “the brief,” says Excell, was to “strip the structure bare and produce a larger, more interesting set of spaces,” a second story included. The wrinkle? The building’s existing envelope couldn’t be changed. Read on for a lesson in found space and the power of speaking in a whisper.
“It was important that the bedroom above was completely suspended from the roof structure to prevent any supporting walls or columns from compromising the living room. This was achieved by concealing the bedroom structure wherever possible and, where this was not possible, it was disguised by using painted steel sections that were indistinguishable from the existing timber roof structure. The result is a deceptively simple ‘floating’ room that seems to defy logic.”
Above: The living area fits tidily beneath the bedroom without feeling hemmed in. Here’s the architects’ fuller explanation of their found space: “The original ground floor was sitting above a one-meter void [roughly three feet], and the original ceiling had been suspended from the roof joists by a considerable distance. By claiming back these untapped voids, and with a generous existing ceiling height of three meters [almost 10 feet], we were able to deliver two stories without underpinning the perimeter walls or increasing the height of the roof structure.”