Project 2021 seemed a good idea at the time. In 2016 the plan was hatched to grow capacity of our international school from 1,600 students to 2,300, at our 16 acre central Bangkok Riverside campus.
The first part went remarkably smoothly despite a few hiccups. In order to free up space we moved all parking underground. On Christmas Day December 2017 we started the onerous task of breaking up existing roads to build a three storey underground car park. The complaints from a nearby hotel as the piling loosened fillings and other medical installations was also compounded by the heartbreaking moment when a much loved sports field disappeared.
“The swampy underpinnings of Bangkok provided us with a few grey hairs as my desk would vibrate to the tune of the machines.”
Building work is not easy. The noise, the vibrations, the complexity and the danger all combine to set challenges like no other. The swampy underpinnings of Bangkok provided us with a few grey hairs as my desk would regularly vibrate to the tune of the machines some 400 metres away, and also the ever present water seeping in from the River of Kings (or Chao Phraya) meant that large cracks appeared in concrete all over the site.
However our contractor RITTA proved from an early stage to be trustworthy and hugely safety conscious. In advance of the build we met with a director of the company to get across our concerns and issues. Safety, safety and safety were the items on the agenda as we laboured over fine details about crane jib length and access to site. This laser focus on H&S and the follow up work from school was an early success and something that has worked for us since those early stages. The relationship built with RITTA has meant they have earned new contracts and we have faith in all they do, especially when they have delivered the car park on time and on budget.
“I asked the marketing team to press the claim that we are the only school in the world with a three-storey underground car park, but they weren’t impressed.”
I attempted feebly to get the marketing team to press the claim that we are the only international school in the world with a three-storey underground car park, but they weren’t impressed. Even when I suggested the “Holroyd Hole” (after my brilliant predecessor and boss at the time Stephen Holroyd) as the name for the completed project, nobody bit – but they did laugh. This was key as the complexity of the projects increased over time and the decisions became more challenging, humour became a key part of our approach.
Not swallowed by the car park, we set off on the next stage – a delightful interlude where we developed a new shop, reception, medical centre and staff room in one summer (only twelve months after completely redesigning a two-storey library). By this time (through 2019) I was spending more time with architects than my wife. This is probably the reason why our marriage survives, but my relationship with DWP Architects has developed into a mutually supportive understanding. First drafts of plans are close to the eventual outcome with increasing regularity – proof absence might make the heart grow fonder, but being together more often than not is the recipe for the success of any relationship.
“By this time I was spending more time with architects than my wife. This is probably the reason why our marriage survives.”
We then embarked on the main build. Seven storeys of dining, science, mathematics, computing, 6th form space, and innovation (whatever that meant?). This question of what innovation means took me round the world on a quest to find the perfect piece of architecture. However, visits to Babson, Caltech, premium schools in the UK, Cambridge and Choate Rosemary Hall in Massachusetts delivered a consistent answer. The innovation we all seek is in the minds of young people, and could easily be “over-engineered”. The simplicity of those spaces in top class establishments and some forward thinking by our head of sixth-form drove the concept of “Space to Think”. Adaptable and flexible spaces that offer everyone an environment free from distraction and replete with opportunity.
During the lengthy 2020 lockdown we employed these principles and accelerated a refurbishment of our design department. With no students on site we gambled on not returning for the remainder of the academic year and went for it – we were right all bar 13 days in June where the DT department moved to its junior school facility. We’ve built new open plan spaces allowing circulation, great light and access to all manner of facilities and materials – an environment fit for innovation.
In the new sixth-form space we now are building Darwin Rooms. Small breakout rooms that could be timetabled for smaller classes in MFL or such like, but also freely available to the students and staff for their own thinking. In science the laboratories are 120sqm, larger than most. Space to move, and space to think in abundance. My world tour of architecture over three years also took me to Manchester, initially not a promising destination but there we found S+B Labs, a world leading design and build company offering premium fit and finish and willing to deliver bespoke units in our oversized facility.
“If you started playing serious sport in the early 90s as I did, strength and conditioning was having a cup of tea in the pavilion and a slow lap of the outfield.”
Size has become a key discussion in recent years at Riverside as we look to move past the 2000 mark for total roll. The enrolment of new students could have been a challenge in a pandemic, but has been met with enthusiasm and innovation by a wonderful admissions team conjoined perfectly with the senior management team (that’s another article right there). With numbers looking good, size matters. Eighteen labs, 16 maths classrooms, 140spm of makerspace, 140sqm of robotics lab and 340sqm of strength and conditioning to accompany the two new basketball courts bringing our total to five.
If you started playing serious sport in the early 90s as I did, strength and conditioning was having a cup of tea in the pavilion and a slow lap of the outfield, but now sports science reaches all levels of abilities in schools like ours. The new facility is based on the Powerbase concept at Loughborough, another clear indication of our ambition in Project 2021.
“The year 2021 is upon us and applications are coming – who said building in a pandemic was impossible?”
As I write the glaziers are on site, the carpets being selected and furniture being ordered. Since we started we’ve seen one pandemic, two lockdowns, one Thai election, Brexit, three Christmas breaks on deserted beaches, two UK elections and endured most of the Trump era. The year 2021 is upon us, Facebook Live sessions espousing the virtues of the new build and applications are coming – who said building in a pandemic was impossible?
A quick Google search reveals that Winston Churchill apparently said: “we shape our buildings: thereafter, our buildings shape us”.
These projects have indeed shaped us, and will continue to build this community long into the future. We are truly fortunate to have our owners, the Sophonpanich family supporting us, as well as brilliant governance from the UK and Thailand. Plenty more to build as we redevelop the rest of the senior school, Project 2031 comes next. Floreat Salopia.