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Architects need to listen says Ark's Katie Oliver

Katie Oliver, project manager at ARK Schools, explains the charity’s approach to improving school environments and educational standards

What schemes are you working on?

We have eight building projects, several of which are renovations, and have four more in the pipeline. Most of these are in London but they include a new school in Birmingham and a £9m part rebuild, part refurbishment in Portsmouth.

How have the last few years been and how do you see the future?

We’ve not been as badly affected as some and we’re optimistic we can continue to secure capital to upgrade our buildings. We’re delighted to have one school in the Priority Schools Building Programme and many others have secured local authority funding.

How has the recession affected you?

Relatively lightly, partly as the schools in the ARK network were in such urgent need of repair that core programme elements have survived several rounds of budget cuts and value engineering.

What do you want from architects and how do you tailor educational environments to meet the needs of communities?

We need architects to be practical, realistic and focus on our needs, rather than their perception of our needs. Listening carefully, asking about the thinking and the detail behind the brief and being responsive are crucial. Moving 1,000 young people around the building every 45 minutes, puts huge demands on a building and architects must be willing to compromise to ensure it is affordable, efficient, durable and attractive. We try to design education environments to focus on the elements of the school that really matter to pupils and staff: classrooms. We also strive to ensure maintenance routines and life-cycle are manageable by school staff and within the school budget.

How do you find your architects?

The architects we work with have normally won the bid alongside the contractor through the national academies framework or with the LEP. We have our own framework of client design advisers too.

Do you expect new school completions and renovation projects in the capital to surpass pre-recession levels in the coming decade?

With the demographic bulge and poor condition of a large swathe of the schools estate, it’s likely that school building projects will continue, albeit in a different form. Education providers, designers and construction companies will need to collaborate creatively to ensure these projects remain value for money and fit for purpose.

Which of your projects is your favourite and why?

We’ve worked on iconic buildings, such as the Zaha Hadid-designed Evelyn Grace Academy, Brixton, and on small new build primary schools and refurbishments – but I don’t have any favourites.

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