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Industry reaction: Smaller schools risk ‘pressure-cooking’ students

Architects have given a mixed-reaction to the government’s standardised schools proposals, with some claiming smaller buildings could hamper education

RIBA president Angela Brady said: ‘Our students, teachers, and local communities deserve great schools - environments that are beneficial to the best quality teaching and learning. In these times of austerity of course we need to cut our cloth on all spending, however the Government’s proposals for the design and construction of future schools are far too restrictive with too much focus on short term savings.
‘Improvements must be made to the proposals to make sure that the schools we build now will suit the future generations of children that will learn in them, and deliver what the community needs in the longer term.’

Paul Monaghan of AHMM said: ‘We spend our lives doing buildings that look more expensive than they are. I don’t see this as the end of civilization as we know it. Architects are going to have to be very clever and understand the brief.

I don’t see this as the end of civilization

‘If they are starting to build again lets grab it.’

Robert Evans of Evans Vettori said: ‘When designing school projects we look for ways of collecting the space allocated for circulation, into a central social space.‘This is then used for ‘breakout’ learning, community events, exhibitions and, most importantly, as a meeting place. These spaces help give a school its identity and ‘heart’. The loss of such gathering spaces will surely have a detrimental effect on the social life of schools.’

Former CABE chief executive Richard Simmons said: ‘CABE’s schools design review always tried to encourage efficient use of space but that included adequate circulation and recreational space. Young people report that bullying and circulation between lessons are problems where corridors are inadequate or restaurants are too small, so it would be a false economy to shrink them too far.’ 

Former RIBA president Sunand Prasad of Penoyre & Prasad said: ‘We support and are engaging in re-thinking how big schools need to be and how to build them more cheaply and efficiently. But what I want to know is: if it is such a criminal waste of money to invest in great school environments, how come private schools think it worthwhile?’

Ben Marston, associate director and co-lead of the education studio at Jestico + Whiles, said: ‘It is refreshing, indeed in some ways extraordinary, to see the designs are not as austere as was rumoured they would be.

The designs are not as austere as was rumoured they would be

They appear to have benefitted from the year of development work that the EFA has invested in them, considering space, light and environmental performance. They contain many admirable features such as decent width circulation, open layouts, natural ventilation and daylight which should mean that they deliver decent school buildings. It is also good to see that a separate hall and dining space has been included, as on recent EFA briefs these have sometimes been combined in the pursuit of area efficiency with inevitable operational issues for the school. 

‘The designs also include features that we have latterly been prohibited from using due to cost concerns such as triple-height dining halls, rooflights, ventilation voids in circulation, generous internal and external glazing, secure ventilation grilles, proper solar shading, built-in lockers and single-sided circulation. The designs are extraordinary in that they appear to include all these features, at a dramatically lower cost than has previously been achievable.

‘In fact the designs bear a remarkable similarity to some of our own recent work, and this is hugely affirming given the ongoing disdain with which government continues to treat our profession.’

Jonathan Herbert, managing director of baseline prototype designers Bond Bryan Architects said: ‘The [Education Funding Agency] were keen to explore what could be achieved within current space and cost standards; so the designs focus on what’s most important.  They are an interpretation of the brief and space programme and therefore are a useful guide.  Responding to different physical contexts and different construction techniques means that the architect remains a key player.  Baseline designs are, as the name implies, a starting point.

‘The quality of the learning environment is the priority for the designs; good day-lighting, excellent acoustics and naturally ventilated teaching spaces.

‘The 15 per cent space reduction has been applied to schools designs for many months; this means less opportunity for dedicated break-out spaces alongside the regular classrooms.  Efficiency is the key; we’ve concentrated on placing tall spaces like dining right at the heart of the buildings so they can be used flexibly throughout the day.’

Robin Nicholson of Edward Nicholson Architects said: ‘It should be no surprise but it is tragic that the Tories want schools to be built to ensure the working class and the poor stay where they are;  we know narrow corridors lead to bullying so these sub-standard schools will require more and more privatised policing by their good friends G4S. 

Narrow corridors lead to bullying…these sub-standard schools will require more privatised policing

Targeting architects is profoundly cynical although it has to be said that awarding the Stirling Prize to Zaha Hadid’s Lambeth Academy last year was a touch naive.  Of course the only big fees are those earned by the lawyers and management consultants who work for both sides in PFI contracts which is why Paul Morrell identified significant savings that should be made through smarter procurement and not through building poorly designed schools.

‘We have wasted two years when we could have reviewed the dreaded BSF schools and the rest of the estate as James review suggested; then we would learn from actual experience of what works and what does not and where the design was over the top.  The real challenge is how to make our existing schools work much better and consume less energy through good careful design.’

British Council for School Environments chief executive Nusrat Faizullah said: ‘New standards on light, temperature and ventilation, based on post-occupancy evaluation of school buildings are welcome. We know these factors have an impact on teaching and learning.

A shrinkage in space means less flexibility

‘The key question remains – will these designs ensure new school buildings are fit for purpose? Let’s not forget that great buildings inspire people. They dictate how teachers teach and children learn. A shrinkage in space means less flexibility for those that use them, inhibiting innovation. Decent spaces mean more room to learn new and broader skills.

‘Creativity, innovation and smart design can help mitigate space problems, but larger class sizes and smaller classrooms or teaching areas are not a good mix. Wider corridors and large general use spaces help with circulation, limit bullying and create options for use by teachers, children and local communities. We also have concerns about disabled children in mainstream schools, and ensuring their needs are met.

‘In any application of the guidance, there must be a mechanism to incorporate the views of users, including children and young people.

‘And crucially, we must have robust systems in place to monitor how well new school buildings function – otherwise we’re in danger of not learning from the failures of the Building Schools for the Future Programme.’

BAM Design director Steve Loughe said: ‘While we share some of the concerns over the proposed reductions in area, it does not necessarily mean the end of well-designed schools or a reliance on flat-pack, standardised solutions.  We’ve developed good affordable designs within the new space limits which provide excellent teaching and learning facilities based on traditional construction methods which allow clients to have a big input into the design of their buildings.

‘Although it is unlikely the next round of school buildings will appear on the Stirling Prize shortlist, ironically, when budgets are cut, we find this is when the best  architects can really contribute through excellent collaboration between designers and constructors to provide real value for the client.’

Amir Ramezani, director at Avanti Architects, said: ‘We’d prefer to consider the delivery of new schools in a more holistic way rather than focusing entirely on area.  However there are ways in which area can be managed and for schools to get smaller without losing quality. We’d like to see a procurement system which allows flexibility in design to tackle each school’s vision in a more bespoke way and which ensures the creativity of architects is used to balance requirements and control quality.’

Lee Bennett of Sheppard Robson said: ‘We shouldn’t be pressure-cooking pupils in schools that don’t provide any breathing space or relief and as architects we may have to think about external circulation to classrooms - that is not measured as net area. Area is a soft target, better to examine some of the over-bearing edicts of the BB93 acoustic requirements, releasing costs to plough into area.’

He added: ‘We have to shout louder and champion the value of design in the face of scathing accusations here of flagrancy and self-aggrandisement - we inherit budgets, we don’t invent them, we adopt the procurement programme, we don’t create it. As areas are reduced and standard solutions

are promoted we have to react with what we do best - design a way out of the problem, but this can only go so far, there will be a tipping point….the TESChool ?’

He added: ‘BSF was a top-heavy process and any streamlining directing funding to the build is welcome. A degree of standardisation could work. It’s about considering when it is appropriate to deploy it and how to tailor components to fit the context - Victorian Board Schools are a glorious example of this.’

GSS Architecture partner Tom Lyons said: ‘The coalition’s model for the School Building Programme is one of delivering appropriate quality learning environments in an efficient and cost effective way, through a reduction in overall floor area and a degree of anticipated standardisation of some elements of a school.

‘It should also be recognised that the whole learning experience, and therefore the environments in which learning takes place, has been changing dramatically for quite some time, and that the opportunity to deliver more efficient and cost effective solutions lies more in developing creative and flexible schools, which can respond better to change, address current learning/teaching techniques and, by their nature, can be more efficient in floor area and buildability, therefore reducing costs both initially and in the future.

‘The skills of an experienced architect in the education field, who understands the current and emerging learning climate, working collaboratively with the whole construction delivery team from the outset, will deliver more efficient cost effective schools, but also ones which respond to the learners of today and are able to adapt to future developments in education without wholesale re-ordering or re-building.’

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