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#Great Schools: Thinking long term

Long term thinking is the key to schools successfully managing their estates, says Lorna Ryan of Hawkins\Brown and Urban Projects Bureau’s Alex Warnock-Smith

The current political and economic climate means all new schools will be academies or free schools with increasing independence to manage their own assets. Schools and education providers must therefore make most of the resources they have to plan ahead and to prepare for future challenges. In the procurement of new schools, the refurbishment of existing buildings and the development of campuses, architects are the key professionals to lead this process. 

Feasibility studies

A detailed feasibility study is an essential design stage in which architectural thinking can help reveal financial and qualitative values and risks, setting in place the structure and DNA of a project. It is at feasibility stage that the ‘brief’ of the school building is developed, along with options for the form and spatial organisation, allowing the education provider or group of staff and students to plan how best to spend their money.

At a higher level, the feasibility study allows the project funder to assess different forms of procurement, financing models, construction systems and approaches to a site in an integrated manner. Pros and cons of different approaches regarding cost, time and quality can be considered before committing to a particular route. Recent school buildings that have undertaken a detailed feasibility study have often achieved better-quality buildings in less time and for less money.

Spatial strategies 

Many of the problems facing schools relate to a lack of strategic thinking and long-term vision. Through decades of changes in policy and transformations in funding, school buildings have become decrepit and campuses have become fragmented.

Teachers and school administrators lack the skills or knowledge to know how to manage their campuses and deal with the myriad issues they face. A spatial strategy would critically analyse the organisation of a campus and building conditions to identify areas for future development and growth.

It would set out short, medium and long-term strategies for change; keep abreast of innovations in learning and technology, and incorporate financial planning, funding applications and fundraising strategies.

Central to the challenge is the perception that a one-off capital payment from the government to build or improve a facility is the beginning and end of the project (and will solve all the problems of the school estate in one go). It is an attitude that needs to change.

A school building project is never finished – it must be able to constantly grow; to support changing teaching methods – not to mention the ongoing maintenance required to ensure the estate is fit for purpose for future generations. With large capital investment unlikely for the majority of our schools, many decisions will centre on what to do with relatively small sums of money. A masterplan will enable schools to focus spending to maximise resources.

Campus as a resource

‘I suspect it will become increasingly necessary to investigate how local needs could be used to attract investment. Greater consideration of such potential may need to be given at the due diligence stage when considering a project.’

Mark Ducker, executive principal of the Step Academy Trust

In many ways, a school’s estate is an economic territory as much as a physical territory, requiring economic and financial planning as well as physical organisation. It can be a financial burden if badly managed, or a resource if well-planned.

Schools need to be more entrepreneurial in managing their estates to generate alternative funding and revenue streams, through subletting their buildings or selling land for development, for example.

This shift in attitude indicates a need to understand a campus, or a site, as a dynamic territory and a resource that needs managing with flexibility and skill, whatever the politics. When we consider inner cities, we see significantly developed areas, escalating land prices and huge market pressure to build more homes and schools. What we don’t see are fully accessible large sites to allow cost-effective new school buildings to be erected.

How then can we ensure schools and their funders are getting the best value for their estates? How do schools ensure they are making best use of space? And, most importantly, who provides this advice? It is known that there is a deficit in both family homes and in education places. Perhaps funding schools through cross-subsidy from housing could be a model, which could provide a viable commercial response to both.

Adaptation and refurbishment

The solution to a school’s problem does not necessarily lie in the design of a new building or facility. Adapting and upgrading existing buildings can be a more cost-effective solution than constructing new buildings, especially in lean economic times.

Small changes and interventions can often bring about large benefits. In the example of Charles Dickens School, highlighted in Future Schools – Innovative Design for Existing and New Buildings, co-authored by Sharon Wright, the school head faced the problem of how to retain staff with minimal means. Something as simple as redecorating the staff room was a successful way to boost staff morale and transform the school atmosphere. With the pressure to be competitive in the sixth form sector, rebranding existing spaces to appeal to sixth formers can be a more cost-effective and immediate way of attracting students. The alternative, a longer-term investment in new-build specialist sixth form facilities, is beyond the resources of many schools.

Sharing resources

Schools tend to consider themselves in isolation. When there is a shortfall in space, can schools help each other and share facilities? In an ideal world every school would have amazing science facilities, art rooms and sports facilities in addition to the classrooms and teaching space they already have. Sharing facilities among a number of schools could be the answer in some instances, depending on location – inner cities seem logical where they are in close proximity to one another. Architects are well placed to review the larger area and explore the idea of specialist ‘hub’ blocks (eg science, art, or sport) used by a number of schools. This would promote more access to a variety of facilities, and in turn free up space on each school site for more classrooms or play space. It also means school grounds can provide much-needed community space and an opportunity to generate alternative revenue.

Territory and identity

For many schools, movement and access around and within buildings is key to how they timetable lessons and organise classes and group activities. Movement and access are also important aspects in the way a school relates to its surrounding context and community, and schools are increasingly in the position of having to balance considerations of security alongside ideals of transparency and openness to all.

A disparate campus is not only difficult to manage and lead, it can also fragment teachers, students and subjects. In designing the kind of education a school aims to deliver, a campus that supports cross-fertilisation between subjects through clusters of excellence, for example, is a model that might enhance the educational experience, increase competitiveness and attract higher levels of funding.

Components

In examining the big picture, it can be easy to overlook how future planning can work at a micro level. The total cost of a project is largely made up of the sum of each building component. It is well known that savings can be made through the use of standard or easily reproduced components. However, the overall project value can be further increased through the way in which these components are put together. Take for example the façade of Burntwood School by AHMM, where specially designed concrete panels were precast off-site to save time and reduce construction costs.

Through design-focused use of standard components, the strengths, uniqueness and priorities of each school can be expressed and, in addition to cutting the project costs, ongoing maintenance costs can also be reduced. The use of the same components – internal doors, sanitary fittings, windows – would ensure the future maintenance of these schools is as straightforward and economical as possible.

The value of spatial thinking

As a profession, architects have a duty as professionals to safeguard and promote the wellbeing and prosperity of society through the design and organisation of the built environment. Architects have the skills and professional remit to consider a variety of different and often contradictory factors and to synthesise them into workable, sustainable and flexible spatial solutions.

Architects’ skill sets stretch way beyond questions of aesthetics and style and the delivery of buildings. They include applying expertise to funding, planning, procurement and management – the multiplicity of considerations that affect and shape the spatial environment – and making sense of them in order to advise on the most appropriate course of action.

This article first appeared in the #Great Schools publication sponsored by Hawkins\Brown

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