'I know what you're thinking, ' Max Fawcett suddenly says in the middle of the phone conversation, 'Big Brother'.
He's right. There is something Orwellian about the electronic access system the BDP project architect is installing in the Grace Academy building in Solihull. It involves a collaboration between door manufacturer Leaderflush, architectural ironmonger IzÚ and electronic-controls company Salto. It will also involve every pupil and teacher carrying a proximity card to open and close the school's 200 keyless doors. It is a card which will also be used for ID, for cashless payment for school lunch, for borrowing books from the school library and, maybe sometime in the future, for paying for incidentals such as photocopying.
The idea ultimately comes from the client's project manager Jonathan Coyles.
He says: 'We had to look at it in terms of the whole life of the building, in terms of pupils' behaviour and how to invest [best] in security.' This is not about Big Brother, he argues; rather it is about taking the swipe-card-based peoplemanagement systems you find in any big office building and extending them to passive behaviour management in schools. 'The critical thing is that there's nothing new here, ' he says. 'All we are doing is taking it out into a different environment.' That is correct enough, as Salto has installed proximity-card doors in a number of existing schools - and it is working on a massive programme to install them in all terminals at Heathrow.
At Grace Academy only the perimeter doors will have hard-wired card readers. This means that when a pupil enters the school using a card, their details are noted and any status changes relating to that pupil are encoded there and then on the card. So, for example, a new sixth former is given access to the sixth-form library while their access to the fifth-form common room is revoked.
A proximity card was chosen over a swipe card (Salto makes both types) because kids are habitually inclined to stuff chewing gum into the swipe slot on the door.
Coyles makes the point that the school-lunch extension of the card's function is virtuous.
Cashless catering, as it is called, makes it less easy for bullies to identify which kids get free school meals. In large urban secondary schools, newspaper horror stories suggest, there is probably a case for being able to identify whether a child actually is a pupil and who they are. Although book borrowing could be managed electronically, school libraries use a barcode system, so it will be simpler to print barcodes on the card.
In view of the EU's determination to fingerprint all school children, the ID card function is probably the most controversial. And Salto also has a biometric reader in its catalogue. But the use of proximity cards to lock and unlock doors is the most technologically intruiging.
The doors by themselves are interesting enough, not least because this will be their first outing. They are made by Leaderflush Shapland and are based on MDF doors, seen in a Gigon & Guyer gallery in Zurich by Dave Bradshaw, long-time Leaderflush technical whiz and now Leaderflush consultant and co-director of architectural ironmonger IzÚ. Subsequent to his Zurich sighting, Bradshaw came across through-coloured MDF at a timber-trade fair. Putting the two together, he came up with the idea of through-coloured MDF doors. He says: 'It's a great material, especially for schools which get knocked around a lot. Throughcolouring means they don't look so bad quite so soon.'
Leaderflush liked the idea and so did Max Fawcett, then starting the specification for Grace Academy. Given the composition of MDF, it is not entirely surprising that the current colour range is restricted to primary colours and black. Fawcett chose red for Grace Academy, and production has started on the doors, which have a conventional MDF structural frame plus a flaxboard (or particleboard) core sandwiched between two 6mm red through-coloured MDF panels.
The two vertical edges are lipped with 6mm maple strips.
Leaderflush has recently won a contract for more throughcoloured MDF doors, so this bit of British enterprise looks set to take off.
Fawcett says: 'When you're a specifier, if you can find a company which can do the door and ironmongery in one package that's an advantage.
The thing about Dave Bradshaw is that you get good advice about door technology - and you have a single-point source for information. It was also through him that we found out about the Salto system' - which is the electronics at the heart of the keyless doors.
What pupils at Grace Academy will see on their red MDF doors is a small roundcornered metal rectangle a few centimetres above an elegant stainless-steel handle. This is the IzÚ Education handle. IzÚ's other director is architect Eddie Heathcote who, with a different hat on, is the Financial Times' architectural correspondent.
He is modest about the handle, which is a solid stainless-steel bar, bent to shape in a press tool, given an end treatment for attachment to the spindle and buffed up. 'It's a beautiful material', he says, 'industrial and really great for schools where the longevity of doors and handles is a big problem.'
He points out that the Salto proximity-card system is much more flexible and much more economical than hardwired solutions. He says, 'It's battery powered, [three AAA batteries, good for 50,000 operations] and you basically plonk it on the door. This sort of thinking is often developed by electronics engineers who get carried away by the electronic possibilities. But Salto's people have produced sophisticated electronics which reect real-time constraints.'