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Building a courtyard classroom

Updated: Mar 1, 2020

Here is a look at my latest outdoor classroom project I completed recently. 

In early 2015 Scoil Mhuire National School in Lucan, Co. Dublin put out a tender to commission a creative outdoor space for the students to utilise for years to come. It was commissioned under the government’s ‘Percent for Art Scheme‘ which allocates 1% of the building cost of any public building to the installation of an art project.

The school prides itself on its commitment to sport and creativity. Drama and music are very important in the school, and the school wished for this to be reflected in the submission. It was also essential that the children were to be involved in some aspect of the work. 

Having consulted with the children they had recommended that the project have something uniquely Irish. The design must be site specific, and be sympathetic to the local geographical and historic context, with reference to local heritage.

Taking all this on board, my design was based on a space that is both functional as well as sculptural, a structure that is visually inspiring from both the outside and the inside, a place for children to get excited about being in the great outdoors as well as learning about it.

Uniquely Irish.

Two ancient and iconic features of the Irish landscape are the dry stone walls that knit much of the landscape together and the ring forts that perch on many of its hilltops.

This outdoor classroom pays homage to both.

Structure Description

The main structure consists of a 6 meter wide circle with two entrances with curved timber seating lining the walls. The walls are constructed of dry stone walls that slope in height from 0.5 meters up to 1.2 meters. A second two tiers of seating protrude out from one half of the circle creating additional seating for larger classes as well as creating tiered amphitheatre style seating for events like class plays and class photos. The walls of the outer tiers descend in the opposite direction to the inner walls creating flowing sculptural shapes.

Building the courtyard classroom

Built during the spring of 2015 almost every weather condition imaginable was experienced. Fortunately one of the many benefits of building walls dry (free of any mortar) is that you can still work even when it’s raining. 

 One major challenge in this project was the fact that it is a internal courtyard in the school, meaning that everything coming in and out had to be transported by wheelbarrow through the school corridors.

An estimated 60 ton of material had to be wheelbarrowed into the courtyard through the school. About half of this was the limestone used for the walls.  The walls were built with the help of Ken Curran, a fellow dry stone waller from Co. Tipperary. 

Another challenge was building the walls themselves due to their shape. Putting a ‘batter’ (tapering the wall in) on a curved wall is a challenge in itself, but this project had the added dimension in that the wall was also tapering down from a height of 1.2meters down to 0.5 meters. As a result of this the foundation of the wall gets narrower as it goes along. 

The dry stone walls of this project are limestone and come from Mike Kelly’s quarry near Knockcrockery in County Roscommon. All the stone was handpicked and bagged at the quarry. Most of the rounded cope stones were shaped in the quarry to reduce the amount of waste material being shipped to the school. Approximately 32 tons of stone was used in the construction of the walls.     

‘Leamhcán’ A river runs through it.

 The river Liffey plays a vital role to the creation of the Lucan village as many of its early settlers would have arrived here travelling up the river. In the Irish language, ‘leamhcán’ means ‘place of the elm trees’.

The name probably comes from people that travelled by river, as Lucan is the first place that elm trees are encountered if travelling inland from the Liffey.

The paths that lead up from the double doors at either end of the courtyard are inspired by this, made up of leaf shaped patterns that are laid in a flowing pattern to give the effect of elm leaves flowing down the river Liffey. 

This pattern flows from either end of the courtyard, swirling around in the centre of the circle where the two streams meet. The leaves that make up the floor of the classroom are a combination of mosaics made by the students and hand cut leaf shaped stone engravings.  

The brief required that the children were to be involved in some aspect of the work. This provided a wonderful opportunity for the students to have their own stamp on the classroom.   

The leaves that make up the floor of the classroom are a combination of mosaics made by the students and hand cut leaf shaped stone engravings. All 414 students in the school got to make their very own leaf tile. 

The inclusion of a number of large metal flowers by Irish artist Jack Harte bring additional colour and interest into the space throughout the year.

Click on the video below to see the making of the project from start to finish.

It was wonderful to get to build another outdoor classroom project for students to enjoy. You can see some of the other public projects I have worked on in the “Commissions” section of my website here

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