Procuring new schools in Wales is, for the most part, a relatively straightforward but nevertheless imperfect process, says Stride Treglown’s Simon Trew
It’s less prescriptive, less resource hungry and usually less time pressured than the punishing Education Funding Agency (EFA) tendering mechanisms in England. The contractor frameworks available to Welsh local authorities offer surprising flexibility for appointing design and build teams. Such choice, however, brings with it a huge variation in how opportunities are offered to the market. Single-stage, two-stage and traditional tenders jostle for position, often accompanied by designs with varying degrees of coherence. A single design commission from inception to handover is a rare thing to be cherished.
Despite this flexibility, Vale of Glamorgan Council’s steely determination to explore the viability of template schools meant that, as far as it was concerned, the existing Welsh contractor frameworks would not cast a wide enough net. Forgoing these established frameworks for an OJEU procurement route was a brave move but it allowed the council to test the market robustly and include prefab suppliers as well as traditional teams with more innovative template solutions.
With contractor ISG, Stride Treglown had already delivered three model schools for a major housing developer in England to satisfy Section 106 obligations. Having evolved a standard typology for primary schools across seven sites before that, we and ISG both had an appetite to develop the model for the Welsh market. The Agilis primary school template would be a compact, cost-effective BREEAM Excellent school that was simple to construct, run and maintain.
Delivering not one, but three model schools for the Vale of Glamorgan in quick succession was therefore an unexpected but welcome challenge. The first of these schools, Ysgol Gymraeg Nant Talwg, a single-form entry primary in Barry, opened last year, with Ysgol Gymraeg Dewi Sant and Oakfield Primary completed this September.
Successfully delivering model schools with a longstanding contractor partner is as much about exploiting shared experience to reduce risk as it is about reusing standard layouts. All designers have a carefully curated kit of parts accumulated from past projects, which they routinely and legitimately recycle – a neat jamb detail, a perfect classroom. All contractors have preferred suppliers and components. Bring that together and, even on the most challenging site where a standard model won’t fit, the same underlying kit of parts can still be reconfigured to provide a convincing solution.
‘A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.’ Steve Jobs
The model school approach requires a collective shift in mindset from clients, end-users and designers. Clients must accept a building they have made little contribution to, end-users must recognise there are limited opportunities for them to engage during fleeting consultations. Architects must resist the urge to revert to type and evangelise about bespoke design.
Counterintuitively on our projects, presenting teachers early on with a near-finished design was not a fait accompli but a relief for them; after all, a blank sheet of paper can be a terrifying prospect. Having key design decisions already made and endorsed by the education authority brought an unexpected simplicity and brevity to the process. While the floor plan was fixed for the most part, we could accommodate requests for alternative finishes inside and out, and make minor plan adjustments. Pupils worked with a local artist to design stained glass for the heart space clerestory windows. All this engendered a sense of ownership and engagement; enough, at least, to overcome any reservations about using a template.
Presenting teachers with a near-finished design was not a fait accompli but a relief for them
We will undertake post-occupancy evaluations when the time is right but, at face value, early signs are that the projects, and indeed the process, have been a success. Our client is happy; the Welsh government is satisfied that best value has been doggedly pursued; and, importantly of course, the pupils are settled in a flexible, accommodating learning environment.
During the recent RIBA for Clients schools forum, we discussed with education clients how our role as a designer was changing. There was a clear acknowledgement of the difficulties local authorities and delivery teams face during an often-fraught procurement process against a backdrop of diminished budgets. Our challenge is to cling on to our integrity as champions of a built environment that is responsive, contextual and engaging. Nevertheless, the message from clients was clear: ‘Cost-effective school solutions are the new norm, Mr Designer, so stop complaining and get on with it.’
In architectural circles, the debate about the legitimacy of template designs will inevitably rumble on, and in the meantime clients will find ways to deliver what they need regardless. They understand better than anyone that risk is expensive. Reduce that risk by allowing contractors to build something familiar and the battle for best value is almost won. The Welsh government clearly approves; our client is now their new project director for 21st-century schools.
Simon Trew is divisional director at Stride Treglown