The Open Academy

At 9,000m² Norfolk County Council’s new £20m, 950 pupil, Open Academy in Norwich is currently the largest solid timber panel building in the UK.

Tags: Education

About this project

At 9,000m² Norfolk County Council’s new £20m, 950 pupil, Open Academy in Norwich is currently the largest solid timber panel building in the UK.

The Project

A benchmark exercise in structural laminated softwood, the building celebrates this achievement in its architecture, as well as reaping environmental benefits.

Architects Sheppard Robson answered the Academy’s vision of a vibrant, attractive and stimulating learning environment; one that would compliment its ‘open’ community. The main wing is of three storeys and houses classrooms built around a central ‘forum’ - a multi-functional social and learning space. The oval plan works in three concentric bands: the outer band housing the main teaching accommodation, with greatest potential for natural daylight and ventilation; the second providing the ancillary spaces such as storerooms and offices; and the innermost band acting as the primary circulation, stacked as open balconies around the central forum.

The Open Academy was originally planned as traditional concrete construction, but engineers Ramboll were brought on board midway through the tender process to review a laminated timber solution. With its oval footprint and large classroom spans the building was a challenge to design in timber but the engineers were able to develop a structural solution.

The Open Academy showcases modern methods of construction: with pre-cut windows, doors and service openings, the panels were erected by just 10 people in 18 weeks. The 4 court sports hall was built and weathertight in only 4 days. The reduced programme on site allowed quicker access to follow-on trades and saved the contractor both time and money.

The Open Academy illustrates that timber design can be both a financially viable and sustainable proposal. Using figures from the University of Bath, Ramboll calculated the carbon footprint of the Open Academy to be approximately half that of a comparable steel or concrete structure. Furthermore, the 3,500m3 of timber used represents the sequestration of approximately 2,700t of CO2. This amount of carbon storage indicates that the building in fact has a ‘negative’ carbon footprint, thereby offsetting the building’s operational carbon for a period of 10 years.

Interior and exterior finishes express and celebrate the extensive use of timber. Western red cedar boards clad the upper floors of the rotund main building, while internally the laminated timber is left exposed where practical – this includes the stairwells, balcony balustrades and classroom soffits. Elsewhere the Sports Hall, clad externally in brick, becomes a box of exposed softwood internally. Notable design features have also been expressed in wood, such as the main feature staircase and the sliding, slatted oak screen that closes off the main reception desk at night.

Crowning the central forum is an example of complex timber engineering. A gently curving roof encloses the central torus, formed from laminated timber panels that are supported by twelve canted glulam arches. Circular rooflights punch through the timber soffit to animate the heart of the Academy.

  • Shortlisted for The Wood Awards 'Structural' Award 2011

Source: The Wood Awards

Key contacts


Sheppard Robson

Structural Engineer


Main Contractor/Builder

Kier Eastern


Angila Shop Fitting

Timber Supplier


Back to Case Studies

Submit a case study

Share your timber projects with us and we will feature them on this site and via our newsletter.

Submit case study

Get the Wood for Good Newsletter