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James Review: the industry's reaction

After months of waiting and numerous leaks, the government finally published its report on the ‘time-consuming, expensive and opaque’ £55 billion Building Schools for the Future (BSF) programme last Friday (8 April)

The 104-page review (see summary, far right), drafted by Sebastian James, operations director of DSG International (formerly Dixons Stores Group), makes 16 recommendations for school building, with the aim of cutting construction costs by 30 per cent.

Responding to the document, Jude Harris, associate director at Jestico + Whiles, said: ‘It is not the profession-bashing report you might expect after [Education Secretary] Michael Gove’s recent comments. The review team has clearly spoken to architects and there is no doubt some of their findings will need architects to achieve them.’

As expected (AJ 30.09.10), the review calls for standardisation of school designs, recommending the adoption of ‘a suite of drawings and specifications’, which could be applied on a ‘wide range of projects’ and improved over time. It also demands a shake-up of the funding process, the creation of a central delivery body and a consistent departmental position on ‘fit-for-purpose’ facilities.

It is the unexpected proposal for a new, ‘highly experienced and professional’ central body to run all major capital projects and oversee a database covering the condition of the national school estate, as well as the call for standardised drawings, which have raised the most eyebrows.

Central body

Hampshire County Council architect Richard Gooden, the former vice-chairman of CABE’s Schools Design Panel, said the move would ‘replicate what was one of the critical problems with BSF, namely, a lack of confidence in local government, resulting in central control through diktat’.

He added: ‘My experience of BSF, both on the client and delivery side, suggests that the re-invention of a central Partnerships for Schools (PfS)-like body will only result in equally unwieldy new procedures.’

Andrew Rabeneck, a member of CABE’s Schools Design Panel, agreed there was no need for a new PfS. But he added: ‘This is a plea for a return to a technically competent Department of Education, which was, ironically, lost from the post-Harold Wilson era onwards.’

The centralisation of power has also thrown open a debate about how the programme fits in with the coalition’s drive for devolution of power to local groups.

Jonathan Hines, director of Architype Architects, said: ‘In a total contradiction of the government’s ‘localism’ agenda, we have perhaps finally discovered what the Big Society is actually all about…big centralised government dispensing standard solutions through a “small number of national contracts”.

‘Yet, where is the evidence that centralised state bureaucracies have ever managed to procure anything efficiently? One size does not fit all and design quality does matter.’

Caroline Mayes of Stride Treglown added: ‘James’ view of the schools estate as a large company, to be managed in a top-down, dictatorial fashion, may be a difficult pill to swallow for Michael Gove’s new army of academy principals, who were promised “new freedoms”.’

Standardised drawings

The RIBA reacted quickly to the much-anticipated but still contentious proposal to introduce a standardised approach to drawings and specifications, branding them ‘over-simplistic’.

According to James, the ad-hoc design of schools under BSF had led to ‘many knock-on problems’, including high costs, varying quality and the ‘need for every school to pass through an arduous cycle of checks and balances’.

The proposed standards would cover layout and dimensions and how materials and components will be fixed together.

Roger FitzGerald, a partner at ADP, said: ‘Architects have to demonstrate that good design is much more than window-dressing standardised drawings, which is the way this is heading.

‘There is a complete logic to much of the analysis, but future generations won’t thank us for creating a world in which everything is exactly the same. Architects have to prove good school design has an extra ingredient that makes a school special and unique. Children need to be able to identify with their school: it needs to be memorable.’

Lester Korzilius, director at Ellis Williams Architects, said: ‘Review members Sebastian James and Kevin Grace work for Dixons and Tesco respectively, and it would appear the commodity-based “aisle 3 for Maths and aisle 7 for Humanities” approach underscores their thinking.

‘It seems to me the review members don’t fully appreciate the complexities of a modern secondary school brief and the difficulties of accommodating these on often difficult sites with restrictive planning regimes.’

Meanwhile Kevin Cooper, head of Archial’s education sector group, believes the report conveys a sense of history repeating itself.

He said: ‘The approach of standardising the kit of parts is relevant and doesn’t mean the buildings must or should be identical. The danger is that an assumption is made by the profession equating standard design with the worst of the CLASP buildings, and that standard design is bad design.

‘This could end as a self-fulfilling prophecy. A standardised approach will only result in bad design if architects don’t rise to the challenge and leave the field open to others, less experienced in the particular demands of school design.’

More welcome were the review’s proposals to ‘continuously improve’ on these design pattern-books, drawing on feedback on how schemes fare.

Peter Buchan, chief executive of Ryder Architecture, said: ‘It is significant that the report emphasises the importance of rigorous and consistent post-occupancy evaluation and the need for continuous improvement, something we have advocated as a practice for years, with varying degrees of success.’

CABE’s role

The report criticises CABE’s Schools Design Panel and its 10 design criteria for failing to lift standards, saying there was little evidence of improvement following CABE’s input.

Ken Shuttleworth of Make and a member of the panel, denied the claims. He said: ‘The 10 design criteria and the minimum design standards made a huge difference to school design. They were taken very seriously by designers and pushed the quality of school environments to much higher levels. I don’t believe the idea of setting standards was the problem but it was a lengthy process, with the competitive process running too far into the design process, meaning schools were designed three times over to a very late stage and then two [designs] were thrown away.’

Omissions

There are two notable omissions from the wide-ranging report, namely how to deal with retrofitting the existing stock and the environmental agenda. Harris said: ‘Given the number of refurbishment schemes likely to come forward, it is disappointing that the review neglects to address this area.’

Hines said: ‘James completely dismisses the relevance of sustainability to school buildings and relegates ‘energy’ to four minor paragraphs, focused on energy supply deals to reduce costs, not consumption.’

The document will now be considered by ministers and policy-makers, who will draw up plans for capital investment and funding. Their proposals will go out to consultation later this year.

JAMES REVIEW: THE VERDICT ON BSF IN SUMMARY

1. An overly complex and devolved funding process. This rewarded the most adept at winning bids rather than those most in need. Little tracking of how money was spent saw ‘wide variations’ in results based on the same money invested in similar projects

2. A ‘hostile’ regulatory and planning environment. Every project had to ‘run the regulatory gauntlet’

3. Bespoke school designs. Mistakes or successes could not be learned from or applied elsewhere

4. ‘Weak’ central mechanisms and a lack of client expertise locally. This provided little opportunity to improve building methods. Partnerships for Schools did not have enough authority to make this happen effectively either

5. The lack of quality data on the condition of the national school estate. This hampered the fair allocation of funds

JAMES REVIEW: recommendations

1. Design schools based on a set of standardised drawings and specifications, incorporating the ‘latest thinking on educational requirements’ which can be updated to allow for ‘continuous learning to improve quality and reduce cost’

2. Remove ambiguity about capital expenditure and create enough ‘fit for purpose’ school places to meet the needs of every child

3. Set up a central database holding data on pupil places and the condition of the country’s school estate to allow the fair allocation of funding

4. Create a new central body as part of a ‘reskilled’ Department for Education. This ‘single, strong, expert, intelligent client’ would be responsible for both the design and implementation of larger projects, and would ‘deliver a building not money’

5. An obligation on ‘responsible bodies’ to maintain school buildings to an agreed standard

Other comments:

Andrew Southey, director, Halliday Clark Architects: ‘The complexity of the procurement process necessitated a lot of ‘advisers’ to guide the Local Authority, which inevitably cost more money.
‘There will be a fine balance to be had between creating individual buildings to suit the requirements of the school, and the ‘standardisation’ of design that is advocated in the report.  Understandably, there is a backlash against the iconic school building featuring spaces that accommodate a radical teaching method, especially when reports that some of these schools are failing hit the media.
There is room for standardisation (MMC & offsite procurement), but equally for interrogation of existing premises to make best use of buildings that may have a future use. 
‘However at the crux of it is getting a robust brief from the ‘Responsible Body’ (Client).  A lot of time is wasted in revisiting briefs that have been hurried through to get funding ring fenced, which again adds to programme and costs.  The Campsmount exemplar has a lot to learn from, particularly in minimising the cost risk to the competing contractors in the PITT & ITT processes.
The proposals for the planning framework seem to be at odds with the decentralising of responsibilities to the councils.  The Planning process is getting harder to tackle, with decisions being at the whim of local members, sometimes with agendas that differ from the bigger picture intent of the application.’

Lee Bennett, Head of Schools at Sheppard Robson: ‘Pre-fabricated systems can provide benefits and part of our job is to consider disruption to the school throughout new build activity. It is here, when building in phases and in close proximity to existing facilities, that clean modular systems can help, flat-pack structural timber systems are being deployed by Sheppard Robson at Waingels College – a BSF funded school in Wokingham.  
‘The James Review, however, appears to endorse modular classrooms. This would prove limiting and offer only a crude spatial palette, inhibiting the potential to re-evaluate and advance the defining element of most schools. To wrestle architecture from the constraints of BB98 guidelines is tough and it is the very building block of the school, the classroom, that demands most effort. 
‘Post-war schools production should teach us a lesson; standardised buildings may not provide the most useful and robust legacy - the report is CLASPing at straws.’

Aidan Ridyard of Broadway Malyan: The James Review recommendations include a lot of common sense. Times have changed and in a new age of austerity, we new to find ways to lead as a profession rather than merely reiterate a poorly argued lament for a lost golden age. Make no bones about it; BSF produced a lot of very poor design, which some find easy to hide, behind some high profile success stories from Pathfinder schools and the academies programme. At the peak of the process, we all knew of designers who couldn’t even tell you where the school they were working on was, let alone what that location had brought to the design process.We need to get realistic about the scale of the task ahead of us as a profession, and work smarter, rather than try to protect our perceived positions.
‘James’ key design message is that we need mechanisms to find effective ways of learning from mistakes (or successes), which makes perfect sense. How often did we see poor design strategies replicated across a whole LEP, because it was expedient or cheaper to do so? A standardisation of design should at the very least give us a base line for quality from which to build upwards. The key here is to ensure there is a model for constant improvement, which James is ostensibly championing, rather than an application of a single solution, which many may fear.
If we don’t find a way to make a re-invented solution work, others will, and we know better than most how to use a regulatory system to inspire great designs. After all, what are the Building Bulletins, but a very large and generally pretty good set of designs and specifications.’


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