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How BSF is changing architecture

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Catalyst Education’s framework is a thrilling example of profitable collaboration

More from: Primary interests

If our Designing for Education special this week proves anything, it’s that there’s still a lot of work to be won in the education sector, and not just for practices with bags of experience building schools.

In our feature on the Primary Capital Programme, responsible for delivering hundreds of primary schools over the next five years, Walters and Cohen partner Michál Cohen says that even practices with no prior experience have a good chance of getting involved, just on the basis of a prior relationship with the local authority.

What is even more inspiring about this week’s coverage, however, is learning how a range of consultants are working together under Catalyst Education – the team that won the bid to design and deliver 89 schools in Birmingham, Britain’s largest ever Building Schools for the Future (BSF) project.

This mixed team of consultants – including the client, local government and experienced and less-experienced architects such as FAT, Archial, Alsop and DSDHA – is abandoning sectarian, competitive ways and collaborating wholeheartedly across all 89 schemes to design and deliver these schools.

According to its members, Catalyst Education’s design process encourages ‘competitive debate’ and ‘harsh feedback’, all in a bid to create designs that ‘improve the learning outcomes of children’. Architects work across all the projects, so nothing is precious or imbued with singularity.

Catalyst Education’s frank three-hour roundtable discussion reveals a team devoid of ego, genuinely co-operative and hell-bent on putting education and the quality of the learning environment first – even to the point of scrapping one school design entirely and starting all over again.

The framework also has an innovative buddy system to enable inexperienced architects to join the team, partnering less-experienced practices with seasoned ones.

Could this be a new paradigm in education design? For all the failures of BSF, and not withstanding current criticism of PFI (Private Finance Initiative), I can’t help but think Birmingham’s schools will be better off under Catalyst Education – although I may have to wait until 2011, when the first phase is completed, to know for sure.


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