Baulon : under the courtyard, childhood
Cédric Smal, janvier 2022
Topophile - l’ami-e des lieux is the magazine of happy spaces. It questions ecologically our relationship to the world, to spaces and places, to built and natural environments, it questions our ways of building, living and thinking in order to remain fully and justly on Earth. In this article, Cedric Smal, from the FARO collective, author of the project, presents the creation of a homogeneous, functional and convivial complex aiming to bring together two schools that were not adapted to each other to form a brand new school environment in Baulon, a rural commune in Ille-et-Vilaine.
Geoffrey Airiau : The courtyard that you are building in this school seems to be the undeniable central element of the project, both visually and in terms of its use, why this choice?
Cédric Smal: Indeed, the courtyard here is the founding element of the project. It is the largest part of the building, both in surface and in volume, and its central position makes it an active place, which distributes all the other premises. Its dimensions allow for outdoor use in all weathers and its architectural treatment, particularly its wooden framework, strongly characterises the atmosphere of the school. The courtyard becomes a real covered playground. This choice was made following our initial discussions with the building’s users, in particular the school headmaster and the elected officials in charge of the project. Their objective being to have a very energy-efficient building, with a constrained budget, the elimination of the heated interior circulations immediately emerged as a financial and energy-saving issue. This option was clearly feasible given the size of the programme and the few rooms to be distributed. But for us, this saving had to allow us to be generous in other respects, and to propose a different type of relationship with the outside: more direct but also more protected. Thus, instead of making 80 m² of circulation, we were able, for the same price, to offer more than 400 m² of covered courtyard. Finally, in an urban context with relatively few focal points around the project site - parking areas, suburban areas - it seemed appropriate to propose a building with a strong interiority, but still present in the landscape, to assert the new facility. The courtyard and the large roof covering the school thus became the icons of the project.
Geoffrey Airiau: There are many didactic elements hidden throughout the space around the courtyard. Can you talk about them in more detail and explain how these spatial devices can actively participate in the awakening of children in the space where they themselves are being built?
Cédric Smal: Our intention was to make a very didactic building, with a playful dimension. It is a school, so this approach makes sense. As a general rule, we design places that can be understood and express how they are built. The structure is always apparent and the elements that could hide the technical elements are minimised as much as possible. This is both an ecological approach - to save materials and carbon - and an aesthetic one. In Baulon, we wanted to formalise and express the environmental intentions of the project in very concrete terms. This takes the form of small « house » type volumes arranged under the courtyard, each of which expresses an aspect of it:
The use of wood in a short circuit can be understood from the entrance of the building by a volume with transparent polycarbonate cladding, revealing the structure of the wood frame walls behind and the wood fibre insulation filling;
The library, in the centre of the courtyard, is a volume built entirely of raw earth from the site, combined with straw fibre infill in a timber frame and covered with earth plaster inside and out;
The external toilets explain the rainwater cycle: large oversized metal gutters and facades covered with climbing plants. Indeed, the vast roofs of the buildings and the courtyard allow a large volume of water to be recovered, which follows a circuit passing through planted valleys to a recovery tank buried in the courtyard.
All these elements aim to arouse the curiosity of the children, but also of the adults who attend the school, and to make them wonder about our relationship with the environment, to be aware of the resources that exist in the area they live in. It is to show them that it is possible to build a school with elements as simple as the earth of the site and that they can also take part in it. Through participatory workcamps, in which some of the children were able to take part, they also became actors in the construction of their school. This is why this project also offers an educational approach, both in its construction and in its final form.
Geoffrey Airiau: Most of the filling of the interior walls of the classrooms was done with the earth of the site. Was it your intention from the start to use this resource and how was this project received by the children, their parents and the school staff?
Cédric Smal : As with the use of wood, the use of raw earth to build the school was part of the intentions of the elected officials of the commune. The soil on the site had even been analysed before the start of the studies to check its capacity to be used for the construction. Even though we had no experience in this field, it was an extension of our design process. It was the perfect context and programme to implement this material: a resource present on the site, skills in the region - the Rennes basin is traditionally a region of earth construction - and a client who is a driving force on this subject. We were therefore assisted technically by Samuel Dugelay to meet this expectation and to integrate this material coherently into the project. However, even though we were enthusiastic about the fact of building part of the school in raw earth, it was debated throughout the project, both by the elected representatives and by the users (teachers, technical services), by the companies which took part in the construction and even by our project management team, among our co-contractors. It was certainly the children who had the least preconceptions about the subject! However, very soon after the earthworks were built, and even more so today, with two years’ hindsight, the hygrothermal comfort - particularly in hot weather - and acoustic qualities of the premises finally convinced everyone, over and above the ecological and aesthetic considerations.
Geoffrey Airiau: Patrick Bouchain has said that « the building site is the ideal place to teach the virtues of the collective ». You have adopted this adage by carrying out part of the project as a participative worksite with future schoolchildren and their parents. How was it possible for you to easily associate parents and children on a construction site?
Cédric Smal: It is above all within the framework of the earthworks that the collective construction initiatives were set up. Raw earth construction is one of those sectors that have a very virtuous life cycle: extraction of the raw material on site, i.e. without transport, implementation requiring very little energy and deconstruction creating no waste. On the other hand, its implementation requires a lot of manpower, although the latter can be only slightly qualified and can acquire the know-how quickly. It is therefore a material that is very suitable for collective or even festive work sites! And I would cite a very local example, the Plinn dance in Brittany. This dance was practised with the aim of compacting the ground of recently built houses and on this occasion the whole neighbourhood was called in so that the steps of the dancers would transform the earthen floor into clay. Coming back to Baulon, it was not always a party. The participatory workcamp with the children to create a fresco in the earthen plaster of the library came up against the refusal of the school inspectorate, which did not want them to go on the workcamp. With the support of the commune, this project was organised in a different way, within the framework of the day-care centre, with the agreement of the parents and under the administrative cover of their insurance. Once again, it is thanks to the collective efforts of some elected representatives, the technical services, the earth-fibre company and our team that these workshops took place. But this is only part of the events that were organised. In the framework of the contract for the earth-fibre lot, we wished with the commune to set up a training site led by the association De la Matière à l’ouvrage, whose trainees created the dividing walls of the classrooms and the façades of the library. At the same time, a series of lectures on raw earth was offered in the community hall every Thursday evening and participatory workcamps were organised every Friday afternoon for the people of the commune, in particular the parents of the pupils. There were also workshops for teachers and children from the existing school on handling clay. What is interesting is the « experimental » character that quickly developed around these earthworks as part of the training. Two horses were even seen on the site to help the trainees mix the earth! Even now, after the works have been accepted, we are regularly asked to visit the site and to carry out studies or measurements by experts, particularly in building acoustics.
Geoffrey Airiau: As architects, you also had the opportunity to train alongside the raw earth mason, Samuel Dugelay, on your own site. As there is often a gap between the designer’s ideas and the reality on the ground, do you think this approach should be generalised?
What was very instructive during our participation in the implementation of earthworks was to have been able to take part in the realisation of the technical elements that we had designed beforehand. One obviously understands much better how the material reacts, its capacities and its complexity of implementation by physically handling it. It is an experience that we would like to repeat, simply to be more relevant in future projects. And then, as previously mentioned, clay is in essence a material that is conducive to collective and participatory work. However, we do not think that the architect’s vocation is to become a builder, even if the technical and human question behind the act of building is of particular concern to us. Systematising this approach as a matter of principle is perhaps not the solution to get closer to the reality of the building site. Above all, we need to show an attitude of openness and exchange with the people who build and who have a singular know-how, but also know how to question the established principles and standards. This requires a fairly precise knowledge of construction techniques, especially those that we propose to implement.