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BSF: Why refurbishment should not be seen 'as too much hard work'

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Ahead of tomorrow’s AJ Conference: Building Schools for the Future - The Architect’s Perspective, Roger Hawkins explains why we should be making the most of existing school buildings

With forecast cuts in public spending it is likely that the Building Schools for the Future (BSF) programme will need to consider more refurbishment and less new builds. According to Partnership for Schools (PfS), major rebuilding and remodelling projects (at least three schools) will have started in every Local Authority by 2016. But can they afford new buildings? Perhaps this is not such a bad thing.

It can appear easier to adopt a ‘clean slate’ approach and build a standard solution on the school playing field, while demolishing the existing buildings and removing the maintenance problem in the process. But such an approach may move the school away from its natural ‘front door’ and its links with the wider community, placing the school behind the new playing fields rather than in front where it used to be. CABE’s recent findings about the quality of new school buildings suggest these buildings may be deficient in other ways. A lack of character and identity, or even basics such as daylight and fresh air, have been observed – well short of the inspirational environments envisaged by BSF.

Re-using existing buildings has less obvious benefits. While conversion is often identified as being more expensive, this could be because the design team and clients try to force an existing building into the straightjacket of their image of a new building. More flexibility to accommodate best-fit rather than strict adherence to BB98 would allow more buildings to be retained. The construction industry, however, prefers to build afresh to avoid risk issues associated with re-using existing buildings. By carrying out detailed surveys and using modern technology to obtain accurate 3D modelling of existing structures these concerns can be identified earlier.

So called ‘second-hand’ space can be cheaper and with careful thought and application, you can get more for your money. What is important is to challenge entrenched attitudes that a refurbishment project is too much hard work. It may be the best option. Using the shell or parts of the existing building has benefits in structuring the design and consultation process. With a refurbishment everyone understands there are limits defined by the existing building. A closer link is maintained with the building’s context while the existing structure can establish a massing on a site or legal rights that may not be available for a new structure.

Conversions are also inherently more sustainable. The cost, disruption and time spent in demolishing what may be a usable structure has to be carefully weighed against the perceived benefits of a simpler, less risky process of new build. Recent research at the University of Bath into embodied energy and carbon in construction materials has highlighted an energy ‘payback’ period of seven to 12 years with new ‘zero-carbon’ housing, with the suggestion that it could be three times as much in commercial buildings where steel and concrete have been more extensively used. It is likely that planning authorities will insist that the refurbishment of an existing building is analysed in detail before a new scheme is considered.

Hawkins\Brown have demonstrated how creative re-use of existing buildings within the education sector can be accomplished. Yavneh College, Borehamwood (pictured right) is an entirely new 4FE secondary school created on the site of a redundant 1930s school. The project, phased over four years, will cost £20 million and is only achievable by re-using the existing buildings. The creation of an internal street between new and old gives the school a dynamism hard to achieve in a new building on a similar budget.

Roger Hawkins is one of the founding partners of Hawkins\Brown

The AJ Conference: Building Schools for the Future - The Architect’s Perspective starts tomorrow, 24 September.Click hereto register

This will be followed by a Post-conference workshop

BSF Drawing Board: A designer’s guide to BSF
Friday 25 September 2009, London
This interactive workshop is for architects and designers and is led by Michál Cohen, director, Walters & Cohen.
Delegates will have the opportunity to design a school from a given brief, and critique designs and receive feedback within the group
Improve your knowledge of the BSF procurement route and enhance your design skills

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Readers' comments (1)

  • hear, hear!

    the BSF may come mean to education what Beeching means to railways, if the critical approach advised by Hawkins is NOT adopted.

    A flagrant waste of resources.

    The bodies set up by councils to undertake BSF see success as getting government money and spending it. There is little more logic than that.

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