Cookie cutter architecture?

Monday 08 Oct 2012

As education design is limited in the UK, we consider the rise of the flat-pack building

Last week, the UK government released plans for standardised education facilities. The three concepts for ‘baseline’ boxes can be found here, with full reports on what architects will and will not be able to include in their educational institution proposals on the UK government website.

Massive budget cuts in the sector have seen the Building Schools for the Future programme axed and a very limited number of projects - those in dire need of help - given attention in economical fashion however this latest stage has raised concerns nationwide.

Angela Brady, President of the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) spoke out last week, to draw attention to the problems with such ‘cookie cutter’ concepts, saying: “In these times of austerity of course we need to cut our cloth on all spending, however the Government’s proposals for the design and construction of future schools are far too restrictive with too much focus on short term savings.”

WAN asked Maria Nesdale, Regional Practice Area Leader for Education at Gensler and David Cole, Founding Partner of non-profit organisation Building Trust International, for their comments on last week’s announcement:

Maria Nesdale, Gensler

“It is a challenging time for any sector dependant on public investment and that includes the education sector. The dire state of public finances has meant spending and investment priorities are limited. However, is a roll out of a series of standardised school models the best solution for our young minds? Like it or not, learning styles are changing and a one size fits all solution is going to put a stranglehold on collaboration and personalisation.

“We need to invest in our young minds to help the UK economy compete on a global scale. Some pundits even question the role of architects in creating appropriate learning environments. This, however, only stands on the idea that good design must be expensive. On the contrary, efficiency and to some extent standardisation does not have to mean minimisation of the learning experience, but when factors such as ‘health and safety’ and ‘standardisation’ are the key design principles the outcome is one dimensional.

“After an inspirational summer of sport it is disappointing to read that external works have been omitted from the baseline design proposals. We hope that the proposals will further investigate the legacy we should be providing for the next generation.

“It is difficult to identify the correlation between building and attainment. Yet few would be willing to stand up and say that a bad learning environment is conducive to it either. Like with any programme of investment we need to be mindful that we are creating the right type of environments for our students, not just ones that are standardised and efficient.”

David Cole, Building Trust International

"Modern school design should respond to the rapidly changing trends that effect how teaching is delivered. Learning environments need to be flexible and responsive to change. The move to include more prefabricated elements and standardisation within school design could save materials and time, reducing costs and minimising the environmental impact.

“However, I am wary that the slightly onerous prescriptive design guidelines from the Government are likely to stifle the chance for forward thinking and further development in progressive design in an environment where we should be encouraging it."

In a similar vein, there is a distinctive rise in interest in the prefabricated house. Last week, Financial Times columnist John Hitchcox penned a thought-provoking piece about the blossoming of the prefab building, comparing the concept to the Swedish furniture company Ikea. “It’s significant because, once upon a time, you’d have been laughed out of town for suggesting people would buy flat-packed furniture,” he muses. “But whole homes created in such a way could be part of the future solution to a global problem.”

The number of column inches dedicated to prefab buildings has skyrocketed on WAN over the last year, with The Broad Group’s T30, tectoniques’ DI-VA House and Tilla Theus’ Gipfelrestaurant Weisshorn as prime examples. Prefab is not only limited to entire packages; we’ve also seen an increase in prefabricated facades, with exemplary projects such as Opus 5’s Music School Louviers, Delugan Meissl Associated Architects’ Eye Film Institute and molo/d&dt Arch/Frank la Rivere Architects Inc.’s collaborative scheme for Nebuta House.

For clients looking for speedy construction in economically-challenged times, prefab buildings are certainly a smart choice. The T30, a five-star hotel in Hunan Province, China rose to its 30-storey height in just 15 days with Zhang Yue of The Broad Group stating: “We need to speed up our environmental thinking. We need buildings like this all over China. In 2013 we will build 20 buildings a month and by 2014, we’ll be up to 50 buildings. China is 20-40 times more polluted than Europe and that’s hurting our health and will offset economic benefits of our growth.”

The long-term effects of standardising school design remain to be seen but what is undeniable is the burgeoning market for entirely prefabricated buildings. Hitchcox concludes his article with the suggestion that we should all ‘remind ourselves just how great ignoring progress looks’, but there seems little chance the industry will follow his lead.

Sian Disson
News Editor

Key Facts:

Education Residential

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