The Deaf Academy, Exmouth

Through its spatial layout, natural lighting and colour schemes this exemplar academy promotes wellbeing, inclusion and communication.

Deaf Academy Hydrock -credit Stride Treglown

Our civil and structural engineering team developed an exemplar Academy for the education of deaf children and young adults (3- 21 years) with on-site residential accommodation.

The development is made up of a mixture of purpose-built facilities and refurbished existing buildings to accommodate the education of 134 pupils and circa 200 associated teaching and support staff.

The 4,950m2 new facilities are located on the site of the University of Plymouth’s former Rolle Campus, which contained a range of existing buildings – some of which were retained and refurbished while others were demolished and replaced. The aim was to create an inspirational environment that could act as an exemplar for inclusive architecture for those who are deaf or have a hearing loss.

The Academy was designed to enable excellent visual and oral communication. The quality of light (for when sign language is used) and the quality of acoustics (for when oral communication is used) were critically important to the design.

One of the main challenges for our team was designing the buildings to reflect the specialist nature and particular needs of the students, which include learning difficulties, social and emotional needs, autistic spectrum disorders, mobility difficulties and visual impairment. There also needed to be clear distinction between the different age ranges (pre-school and primary/secondary/adult) for safeguarding reasons, and to ensure a clear sense of progression for the students.

The facilities also include new residential accommodation with circa 40 rooms in the form of three townhouses, containing 8 self-contained flats and a common room. Within our design, we reflected the necessary visual connectivity required, with quality design and construction while allowing for future flexibility to increase capacity if required. The three-storey residential building featured traditional load-bearing masonry wall construction, supporting precast concrete floor slabs and a timber trussed roof. Oriel windows were used to provide a point of interest to the façade and resolve overlooking issues, including cantilever slabs and pop-outs in the elevations.

Our team carried out inspections and assessments of the existing estate to identify which buildings could be re-used. We were able to identify that one of the main assets – the Owen Building – could be re-used as a part of the development, which assisted in reconciling the estimated construction cost with the client’s budget.

We also designed a new and unique main teaching building, tailored towards the needs of deaf people, through its spatial layout, natural lighting and colour schemes that promote wellbeing, inclusion and communication. The building is a rounded pentagon shape, which allows for wide corridors with sounded corners to improve pedestrian visibility.

The main atrium contains the school’s ‘learning forest’ and dining areas, including a central ‘tree’ which stands within the atrium, housing the lift and with the main stair winding around it, and branching out to support the longspan clerestory roof, which brings natural light into the space. Cantilever walkways circulate the atrium, providing access to all teaching rooms.

We chose steel framing and composite slabs due to its rapid construction sequence and cost effectiveness, whilst being lightweight and permitting long span floor and roof structures, and providing open column-free adaptable teaching spaces.

A two-storey link structure connects the new building with the Owen Building, providing a sheltered pedestrian route between the two at both ground and first floor levels.

Throughout the project, we used our engineering skill to add value to the scheme and maintain its viability, including justifying the re-use of existing buildings, minimising waste and designing cost-effective structural engineering solutions. As the project progressed, we participated in many value engineering exercises to revise the design whilst still maintaining the essence of the original design brief.

The academy opened in 2020.

Image courtesy of Stride Treglown.