How a school for children with autism is to be built in Green Belt land.
Approximately one per cent of the UK population has an ASD, yet in Essex there is no dedicated school to support these children. We have long backed the National Autistic Society (NAS), through fundraising and giving, and when a site became available, it was a perfect opportunity to promote a plan to build a NAS school for Essex.
Getting permission to develop any part of the Green Belt is protracted, risky, intricate, costly. Just our kind of challenge.
The site had been developed before. As a consequence of prior developments at least half the site had lost its natural contours, having been engineered into a series of football pitches for Tottenham Hotspur, who used it for training. It was at best an artificial landscape, one which we hoped to demonstrate could better serve the district by being sensitively redeveloped.
The central idea was to build the school without calling on the public purse, so the plan would have to include an amount of housing to off-set the cost of the school.
We began by engaging a team: planning consultants, master-planners, architects, designers, transport and technical consultants, and environmental and ecological experts to advise on the proposal.
We also went to great lengths to invite ideas and test reactions with local people. We met with parish, district and county councillors, cabinet members, committees, parents of autistic children and many other local residents. The resulting master-plan creatively captures those influences.
Mock Tudor it ain’t – Chigwell’s reputation can only be improved by this scheme.
The school is intended as an example of best practice. We considered its position in the community, its economic sustainability (a whole life cost), and its environmental impact. Its design considers access and wayfinding, interior space and safety with care to suit its distinctive audience. The exterior design and materials choice reduce the visual impact of the school, sinking it into the gentle rise of the land.
Accompanying the school, a residential community of some 60 houses is arranged around a broad green space, reflecting a typical Essex village plan. The mass of different house styles is disruptive, as is the ‘roofscape’, which, like the school, is carefully blended with its surround.
There is a clear distinction between private and public spaces throughout the site, helped by new planting and restoration of existing trees and hedges around the perimeter.
When the site is completed, its houses sold and the school commissioned, we believe that Chigwell and Epping Forest will have sacrificed a far from outstanding area of Green Belt for a facility and a residential community to be proud of, and a more confident future for many of the district’s children.