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How to design a good school in six simple rules

Hampshire County Council on how they’ve stayed at the forefront of school design since architect Colin Stansfield Smith joined in the 70s

‘Good design must be “up front” to popularise the whole idea of building. It cannot be something that is taken for granted. Much more, it needs to be the visible shop window of an enlightened local authority, something that it can take pride in and perhaps in its more confident moments even boast about. It should infiltrate the visual standards of everything from signwriting and graphics to interior design, and a good deal inbetween. It should not be restricted to buildings, but should include spaces and environments generally, involving at the same time collaborations with artists and sculptors.’

This simple philosophy, which links good design to good local governance, was outlined by Hampshire County Council’s legendary head architect and 1991 RIBA Gold Medal winner Colin Stansfield Smith in Hampshire Architecture: 1974-1984, a book he edited in 1985. Nearly a quarter of a century has passed and Smith has long since retired from the architecture department to which he brought global acclaim with the schools he designed.

However, a new generation of county architects, under the tutelage of Bob Wallbridge and Alec Gillies, Hampshire’s joint heads of architecture, now adhere to the same philosophy, keeping it at the forefront of British school design. Two of Hampshire’s recent schemes, Lee-on-the-Solent Infant School and Pinewood Infant School featured in CABE’s primary school case study document published last month, and Pinewood picked up a RIBA Award last year.

Here, Wallbridge and Gillies provide a basic guide to the principles that underpin Hampshire’s approach to good school design: Place, Learning, Movement, Community, Environment and Tangibility.

Rule 1: Place

The success of a project lies in how well it engages with its setting. There must be a sense of belonging, but there must also be delight. For Pinewood Infant School in Farnborough, we created a tranquil courtyard as an oasis among existing trees.

Rule 2: Learning

We design flexible learning environments with input from educationalists in pedagogy linked to space planning and use. Many of our schools open on to sheltered outdoor spaces, such as Lanterns Children’s Centre, Winchester (pictured), and Old Basing Infant School, Basingstoke (also pictured).

Rule 3: Community

We try to place schools, such as PinewoodInfant School (pictured), at the heart of a community, where it can be used by the neighbourhood. In our role as landowner, we have the opportunity to develop schools that integrate into the urban setting. In this way, we can promote the co-location of services and a sense of community cohesion.

Rule 4: Movement

The spatial strategy of locating a school should be born out of the necessity to control movement. Inclusiveness and control have to be reconciled, while keeping the protection of pupils in mind. 

Rule 5: Environment

We value existing structures. For Burnham Copse Primary School (pictured), Basingstoke, walkways were added to allow first-floor access and to shade classrooms. Whiteley Primary School (pictured), Fareham, typifies our use of monopitch sections to cross-ventilate classrooms and let in light.

Rule 6: Tangibility

Both internally and externally, the layout of the building and its wider site, the materials used and the displays of children’s work all contribute to the educational experience.

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