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Making the case for #greatschools

An opportunity exists for an architect-led lobbying effort to promote good design, delivered at low cost, an expert roundtable concluded

A stronger voice, combining the aspirations of teachers, architects and funding authorities, is needed to boost design quality in new and refurbished schools.

This was the conclusion of leading architects, clients and other experts, who met to debate the #GREATSCHOOLS campaign, launched by the AJ in partnership with Hawkins\Brown. 

Foremost among the panel’s recommendations was a new wave of lobbying targeted at politicians showcasing examples of best practice from all players in the sector. Architects would lead the initiative by mobilising the full range of stakeholder experience to highlight the practical lessons of good school design, it was sugested.

Improved funding for the Priority School Building Programme (PSBP) and early stage strategic masterplanning to maximise existing architectural assets were among the key aims. Greater input from end-users at the brief stage and mandatory post-occupancy evaluations of all new schools were also called for.

#Great Schools round table

Educationalist Sharon Wright of consultant Creative Wit opened the debate by calling for a stronger evidence base for good design: ‘We’ve been doing BSF and other school build projects for 10 years now and we should know what difference that investment is making.’

Aecom global education sector lead Mairi Johnson – who previously oversaw design standards at the Education Funding Agency – and Alex  Warnock-Smith of Urban Projects Bureau agreed.

Johnson argued that the overwhelming focus on measurable numerical data meant an enormous body of positive anecdotal evidence was often overlooked. She said: ‘Over the past 10 years I’ve spoken with many educationalists and it seems to me a new environment improves confidence. We’ve always thought that was a difficult statistic to gather, so it was not a question we ever asked previously.’

Responding to a call by Warnock-Smith for an alternative qualitative standard for gathering evidence, Hawkins\Brown partner Roger Hawkins suggested PSBP copy the higher education sector where rigorous post-occupancy evaluations (POEs) are a funding requirement.

He said: ‘They haven’t got any money to give away but what they do is audit and review projects to see what lessons have been learnt and then disseminate that information by having a standardized POE approach.’ 

According to Southwark Council’s head of regeneration Bruce Glockling, evidence supporting ‘highly inspiring’, architect-led design processes over PSBP’s ‘mechanical’ focus on delivering classrooms is urgently needed. 

He said: ‘It’s vital that we challenge schools to think outside the box because, if you’re investing that amount of money, you need to consider what is successful elsewhere.’

You involve teaching staff and pupils in a process of iteration

Hawkins\Brown partner Carol Lees agreed and argued increased funding was crucial to allow architects more time to help teachers draw up an appropriate brief for their school at the start of a project. Working with six separate primary schools in Southwark, Lees described the complex ‘juggling act’ needed to balance each head teacher’s specific requirements against the local authority’s demand for longer-term flexibility. She said: ‘As architects, we need to be able to use our experience to help with that.’

‘PSBP needs more capital funding,’ added Glockling. ‘In Southwark we do what we can to supplement the budget – giving the freedom for architects to listen to the schools – because we think it’s going to produce a longer-term, better outcome for the individual schools.’

Hawkins argued that primary schools – thanks to their ‘domestic scale’ – resulted in more such best practice examples than larger secondary schools projects, which are often mired by political wrangling. Unfortunately, such approaches to delivering successful environments in the long term are often poorly disseminated, due to a wider lack of resources within the sector, he said.

‘Hitting the finishing line is exhausting,’ added Hawkins, who explained that architects don’t always reflect on the immediate lessons of projects because they have ‘run out of the steam needed to maintain that enthusiasm’.

Furthermore, early intervention is often hampered by PSBP’s contractor-led procurement process, which denies architects the opportunity to meet teachers or consider improvements to existing buildings early on.

‘It all comes down to who controls the purse strings,’ Hawkins continued. ‘If central government is very top-down, its difficult to have the close relationship we need.’

Warnock-Smith suggested enlightened clients could modify the process and work with smaller firms on feasibility studies before applying for PSBP funding.

But Hawkins argued that architects should remain on projects through to completion, adding: ‘Architects need to be trusted by government to have a role in procurement and to have a role in making decisions about buildings.’

Architects need to be trusted by government to have a role in procurement

Common criticisms of PSBP’s standard kit of parts include a lack of flexible teaching space, insufficient circulation and an inability to respond to local contexts which leaves some schemes struggling to win planning.

Panellists disagreed on whether ‘sheds’ and ‘boxes’ were appropriate words to describe what could be – in some situations – very efficient and well-designed teaching spaces.

Nevertheless, they agreed that expensive architecture – such as Zaha Hadid’s Stirling Prize-wining £36 million Evelyn Grace Academy – was not a universal solution. Johnson summed up the mood: ‘It doesn’t necessarily cost any more money to design properly and we are too hung up on exemplars,’ she said. ‘We just need the budget which allows us to deliver appropriate schools in their locations.’

One sensible solution, according to Hawkins, is a ‘thin skin’ approach, where more money is spent on the interior environment than on the building’s architectural form.

#Great Schools round table

Sidestepping modular building solutions, Warnock-Smith also advocated a standardised approach, focusing on quality space and the methodology of design. He said: ‘You involve teaching staff and pupils in a process of iteration. It’s a standard approach but the results are not standard design solutions.’

Looking ahead, the experts concluded that architects need to spearhead a new wave of lobbying with a consistent message to politicians about the value of good schools design. ‘

We are too passive as a sector and instead we should be out there shouting,’ said Wright. Commenting on the incoming new parliament, she added: ‘It feels nobody is listening, but actually we have a great opportunity. There’s a new agenda and we need to be forthright about what we want to happen as part of that.’

RIBA sustainable development policy officer Emilia Plotka added: ‘We need to build our case in a language that will appeal to politicians, speaking of cost effectiveness, outcomes for pupils and teachers – they’re the big missing pieces that we need to deliver.’ 

Despite architects’ marginal influence in the post-BSF world, participants agreed that new lobbying would have to go beyond grassroots antagonism and embrace institutions and bodies closer to government.

Hawkins explained: ‘It needs the grassroots with teachers and pupils pushing demands for better quality. But it also needs a champion at the top who can orchestrate and articulate this argument.’ 

Plotka added: ‘We need to work with bodies like the EFA. They will be quite open to our suggestions if they can achieve better value for money.’

She continued: ‘We can’t treat this as an antagonising act against the top, because really it’s all about working together.’

On a positive note, Warnock-Smith argued architects were uniquely placed to bring together the many players with expertise in good schools design.

He said: ‘We need to communicate to politicians that we, as architects, are able to work with all of these different stakeholders and mobilise them into a stronger and more harmonious voice.’

Delegates

  • Bruce Glockling head of regeneration, Southwark Council
  • Roger Hawkins partner, Hawkins\Brown
  • Will Hurst, (chair) deputy editor, The Architects’ Journal
  • Mairi Johnson global education sector lead, Aecom
  • Carol Lees partner, Hawkins\Brown
  • Emilia Plotka sustainable development policy officer, RIBA
  • Alex Warnock-Smith founding director, Urban Projects Bureau
  • Sharon Wright educational consultant, Creative Wit

Readers' comments (1)

  • Standardised approach required, modular can be graceful. What good is a wonderful school if the internal environment does not aid learning, so many schools both old and new fail to provide this currently. We need to get more creative with improving existing schools, improving the internal spaces can benefit greatly from architectural influence, but how many people re-visit to understand the impact and improve their understanding of these environments. Unfortunately the stupidness displayed during BSF has cost dearly, both for architects, and most importantly kids and staff.

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