Having been involved in the environmental design of schools for over 15 years, I have seen the sector emerge from old style PFI projects and adding extensions to clapped out buildings, through the first glossy academies of the early 2000s and BSF projects, and on to the cash straitened times in which we now live. Like many people, I am concerned that the policies of the current government may drive us back to the bad old days. I am also struggling to work out how the policy of devolving education and curricula to a variety of types of providers – including individual and grouped Academies and Free Schools – in premises which range from purpose built schools to refurbished police stations can fit with a move to standardise the layouts of the schools themselves.
The reaction of the market to the limited cash is patchy. Some schemes are still of a reasonable quality, but others are very poor and do not represent good value, and may in turn be replaced sooner than should be the case. The flexibility of many designs to allow different learning methods is limited and the narrow corridors which are now reappearing may increase schools’ management requirements if circulation issues are not to result in conflicts and flashpoints. It is notable that some of the framework contractors are not bidding for the projects, as they perceive that the available funding will not allow them to deliver a product of an appropriate standard. Many reputable designers are also turning their backs on the market for the foreseeable future. Maybe this is what Michael Gove wanted?
However, while many of the Academy and BSF school buildings completed under the last government were of an excellent standard and did a lot to allow education to develop, there are also quite a few which have significant issues. The procurement routes were expensive and wasteful (as many of us designers complained at the time!). In many instances the schools were fashioned around the ideas of a head teacher, who often left shortly after (or sometimes before) the building was completed, resulting in a bespoke solution which may not suit the new leadership. Some common problems are technical; poor ventilation and summertime overheating occur over and over
again; the lack of awareness of the basics of sound environmental design in some designs beggars belief, and does nothing for our reputation as an industry which is capable of producing some of the finest designs anywhere in the world. An example of a more subtle issue is how the circulation of students around the building can change as the curriculum and timetabling of a school evolve over the years.
There is no doubt that, if done well, standardisation of some aspects of the design of a school can deliver improvements (or at least avoid crass design errors), particularly where these deal with aspects of technical performance such as ventilation and daylighting. This may in turn streamline the design process by allowing architects and contractors to develop design responses to a known set of environmental solutions. Contractors are allowed to develop their own design solutions, which many of them have been doing for some time but with the Baseline designs providing a fall-back position.
Branding all standardisation as flat-pack does not help the debate, and let’s not forget that prefabrication can often deliver improvements in construction quality and programme. However, putting all schools into a straitjacket, and allowing (for instance) no space for alternative ways of operating is in no one’s interest – particularly as the Schools are being encouraged to plough their own pedagogical furrows and develop new ways of operating.
Further confusion is also being generated by the two main funding and procurement models; firstly, the design and build Academies, where many contractors are experiencing trouble delivering even a basic provision for the available funding, which was drastically reduced following the James review, and secondly the forthcoming Priority Schools which will be procured through a PFI route where the Baseline designs include a technical specification which is significantly more onerous than the current crop of Academies is delivering. It is not clear whether the available funding is adequate for the enhanced specification, or why there should be two different levels of provision in any case.
The design and procurement of school buildings via both of these routes is policed primarily by a panel of technical advisors. Speaking from experience on both sides of the fence, I have seen that this role is becoming seriously undervalued and increasingly underfunded with the result that poor designs are already slipping through the net. Material produced by CABE and PfS before 2010 was very useful in assisting with the assessment of design quality – yet this is rarely used even as a reference point for technical advisors.
Lastly, the industry is only now waking up to the issue of how we engage with building occupants once they have moved in and ensure that they are equipped with the skills to make the most of their assets. Our research has shown that where managers and teachers are aware
of how buildings operate, they can reduce energy costs significantly (often by tens of thousands of pounds per annum) and produce spaces that are comfortable all year round but we need to help them get to this position. This was a key aspect of the Zero Carbon Schools Task Force which we assisted with under the last government. Naturally, with a new government, a lot of the good work which contributed to this has now been conveniently forgotten…
So what does this mean in simple terms:
· Standardised layouts may be counterproductive if they allow no flexibility for different learning methods
· How can standardised buildings deliver education in a diverse educational system where providers are encouraged to innovate and work in different ways?
· Standardising technical aspects of design can avoid some of the mistakes of the past
· Baseline designs are just that - they are not compulsory but form the basis of the funding model which will only allow limited scope for doing things differently
· Prefabrication isn’t necessarily bad – as long as you get it right
· We shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater – there was much good work done through the boom times and we are in danger of forgetting what went well (as well as what went badly!).
Dr Mike Entwisle is Education Sector Director at multidisciplinary engineering consultancy Buro Happold. He was a member of the DCSF Zero Carbon Schools Task Force and assisted with drafting the CABE Schools Design Review criteria for the last government, and has more recently assisted government with Post Occupancy reviews of school design and operation and contributed to an schools engineering design guide for CIBSE
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