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AHMM’s schools A to Z

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Having spent the past eight years designing schools, Paul Monaghan presents an ABC of the lessons he has learnt on the projects

Over the past eight years we have designed eight secondary schools around the country. We have built these projects within different procurement processes, namely the Academy Programme (including Westminster Academy and Chobham Academy) and the now defunct Building Schools for the Future Programme, (including Waverley School, Birmingham, and our most recently completed school, Burntwood, in the London borough of Wandsworth).

This is an abbreviated version of Allford Hall Monaghan Morris’s The School Alphabet, which will be published next year, and which highlights some of the lessons learnt from these projects and the thinking behind our designs. It’s hard to not comment critically on what has happened over the past five years: on the whole I have tried to focus on the positives.

A is for Area Too many new school designs have highly complex massing, but simplifying the plan to reduce the surface area minimises the extent (and cost) of the envelope and gives greater clarity.

B is for Books Despite an increasing emphasis on technology, books are potent learning objects as the embodiment of knowledge in libraries and learning resource centres. In our buildings they tend to be placed at the centre of the school.

C is for Civic In the suburbs, schools are often important civic buildings, but in cities they have to work harder to signal their presence. This civic presence can often extend to the interiors, where we have often formed public rooms such as atriums or grand refectories. We must aim to move beyond the institutional and appeal to a wider community.

D is for Delight Schools have to be uplifting, so design should begin with the experience of the individual student – and aim to exceed their expectations.

E is for Elevation Elevations signal identity and reinforce civic presence. They act as viewfinders into the surrounding landscape or create an organising principle to be carried through the inside of the building.

F is for Furniture, Fixtures & Equipment Keeping the furniture simple, flexible and functional in the classrooms allows the possibility of more varied, colourful – even bespoke – pieces in shared and breakout spaces. Our strategy is to spend less in the classroom, where the furniture is essentially a backdrop to the teaching, allowing a greater spend in public spaces which benefit the whole school community.

G is for Graphics Graphics and art should carry a strong narrative, communicating what is special about a school and reinforcing its character, rather than acting as decorative set-dressing. Budget is always a constraint, so spend it where there is most impact.

H is for History If Building Schools for the Future was all about demolition in favour of the new, there is an emerging belief in retrofitting existing buildings. Either way, school design will always demand an understanding of how to get the best out of buildings and sites of many ages.

I is for Interstitial It’s often the modest, in-between spaces that are more architecturally memorable – and these interstitial zones are rich in opportunities for informal learning.

J is for Jargon The world of education is notorious for jargon. This specialist language of acronyms is essential to know, but don’t worry, it’s easy to learn and once learnt, you can easily pass as an expert!

K is for Kit of parts Tighter budgets and programmes have made off-site construction an obvious choice. Concrete – beautiful, durable and with a high thermal mass – offers endless possibilities for prefabrication, as demonstrated at Burntwood School.

L is for Light Just as in office and residential buildings, creating variation in the daylighting – and shading – of a school can have a hugely positive effect. The lighting levels in classrooms are always controlled by government legislation, so designs itself. However, the public areas and circulation spaces offer opportunities to be more playful with lighting design, which can often change the institutional nature of these areas.

M is for Muga Multi-use games areas give schools the flexibility to offer a wide variety of different sports to both students and the community. Within inner-city environments, space is often at a premium and therefore clever use of external spaces and roofs to form terraces and balconies is required.

N is for Nature With growing recognition of the positive relationship between nature and education, even small areas of outdoor space can be transformed into a landscape for learning and play. The landscape budget should not be treated as a contingency. So, when value engineering make cuts elsewhere.

O is for Office  Is it a school or is it an office? There is a lot to be said for treating schools like serviced offices, making spaces which will allow adaptation to new teaching approaches or even radically different uses.

P is for PSP Changes in policy affect all aspects of school design, and the challenge for architects is how to adapt to these changing conditions. The Priority Schools Programme, however, is simply too mean-spirited, and something needs to change. It is the product of austerity, and needs to be adjusted to become more realistic in terms of both budget and brief.

Q is for Quiet Most learning spaces need to be quiet. Acoustic strategies, particularly in lean buildings, where the material finishes are raw, should be about mitigating noise without impeding ventilation. The use of baffles or surfaces for acoustic treatment then becomes an integral characteristic of a space.

R is for Results Attainment and attendance provide the most tangible data for measuring the success of a new school but other results, such as crime figures and cost in use, may provide more telling evidence about the impact of good design. That said, all the schools we have designed have had a major uplift in their results after completion. Finding a tangible link with results and good design would be like finding the Holy Grail.

S is for Staff and Students Engaging head teachers, staff and students with the idea of architecture and development of the design can provide a strong sense of ownership in the finished building – and an understanding of how to get the best performance out of it.

T is for Timing In school design, timing is everything and it is very important not to disturb the education of students during building work. Designing the construction process is essential on complex sites, so don’t leave this to the contractor alone.

U is for Unique Contrary to what recent policy might suggest, schools are all unique, and custom touches – balanced against more standardised components and fittings – are essential to express individual identity.

V is for Vocational With many schools offering vocational courses, the specialist spaces they demand such as training rooms for bricklaying, hairdressing or even car maintenance can become important places for interaction with the local community, and transition to life beyond school.

W is for WCs Many students identify toilets as a flashpoint for bullying, and to combat this there need to be fewer hidden cul-de-sacs and better visibility. We often spend more money per square metre in these areas because they often become important social areas, too, when designed correctly.

X is for eXtended use With a well-considered site layout, pools, sports facilities and performance auditoria can become community amenities with minimal impact on the day-to-day activity of the school.

Y is for Yellow Colour is an economic way of providing character in important internal spaces. We tend to use it as an accent only or to work with artists to create special interventions.

Z is for Generation Z These are the people born this millennium and this current generation of learners is defined by digital culture and its social and ethnic diversity. It’s a challenge to build spaces that are relevant to them and strange that the generation dictating new school guidance makes no attempt to make this connection. The world of work has changed radically in the last 10 years but a new classroom still looks like an old classroom. We all need to do more research in this area.

Allford Hall Monaghan Morris’s book The School Alphabet will be published early next year by Fifth Man Publishing

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