An interview with Peter Clegg: austere lessons in education

Monday 02 Feb 2015

Peter Clegg, co-founder and senior partner of London and Bath-based Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios, speaks to us about the opposing pull between innovation and austerity in architecture for education.

Peter established FCB Studios with the late Richard Feilden back in 1978, with a focus on community architecture and a deep commitment to social and humanistic values.

Although the practice’s remit has now diversified greatly, it boasts a long and illustrious specialisation in the education sector. Peter himself still works primarily in the fields of education and culture.

Through the Richard Feilden Foundation, a charitable trust set up in memory of the respected architect to promote architecture in education in Africa, FCB Studios has also been involved in the creation of a number of community schools there.

And if we think we have it tough in the UK and other European countries where austerity is biting, what he tells us about the financial challenges faced by schools in countries like Uganda is, quite frankly, jaw-dropping in comparison…

You have described the last ten years as being ‘a rollercoaster ride’ for anyone involved in school design in the UK. As a rough average, how much have budgets contracted over this period?

It depends where you are in the country, but I would say they’ve been reduced by about 30%. We are now building outside London for about £1,200 per square metre.

In recent years, architects such as yourselves have been taking into account new environmental factors such as ventilation, acoustics, energy efficiency and incorporating flexibility into learning spaces. Given that we’re in a time of austerity now, how are architects managing to continue encompassing these factors within tighter budgets? Or are they?

The whole transformational agenda around the Building Schools for the Future initiative demanded we look at all kinds of improvements in the design of schools. Some of these have stuck: we are now as a profession and a client group much more aware of the importance of acoustics in creating a good school environment. And we understand the problems of ventilation.

But many of the really interesting ideas that began to emerge around ten years ago, like creating greater variety and more flexibility in the school environment, are really difficult to achieve with the drastic budget reductions we have seen recently.

What more recent innovations might be of help?

Many contractors are developing their own solutions to reducing costs by standardisation, and that’s maybe the most interesting thing to emerge from the new austerity.

We are working on a bundle of schools with Keir where we have agreed a very pragmatic but elegant solution to daylighting and ventilation in classrooms, for instance.

We also did a very successful large Academy with Keir and the London Diocesan School Board, which used cross-laminate timber (CLT) very successfully and enabled the building to be delivered much more quickly than originally anticipated. However, the overall savings weren’t great enough for them to roll it out in future schools.

Have priorities in the typical brief from clients changed since finances have been squeezed, and if so, how?

The brief is constrained by the Education Funding Agency and their funding allowances. So we have lost the extra 10% that was added to the standard space allowances to enable schools to become anything more than just double-loaded corridors with minimum size classrooms each side.

There are a few exceptions. The specialist university technical colleges have a little more freedom and we are just completing a specialist creative arts school in Plymouth, sponsored by the School of Art where we are also transforming the educational facilities. So for those who are following their own specialist curriculum there is still room for innovation.

FCB Studios has also been involved in the design of schools overseas. Albeit these are not State-funded schools, are you still experiencing anything similar with them? What sort of constraints do you have to work within in a country like Uganda, for example, where your projects include the Bunyonyi Community School?

This is a particular project we have been working on for the last six years, gradually building the capacity of a small rural vocational school in south-western Uganda. The design and building work is entirely funded through our charitable trust, the Richard Feilden Foundation.

It puts into perspective what we struggle with in this country when in rural Uganda, for instance, two thirds of the expenses of a school are the food required for staff and children, and if you do need new buildings then a single bag of cement is equivalent in cost to 3 months of a teacher’s salary.

That’s a sobering statistic. Coming back to UK schools now, have the classrooms themselves changed, and how do you think those changes are affecting learning and student performance?

The classrooms are still the same overall area but some of the changes we made during the ten years of experimentation have stuck. So we now - as a matter of course - incorporate glazing between the corridors and classrooms, both to increase transparency and communality, and add life to the corridor spaces. Floor to ceiling heights are a little greater than they were 10 years ago and we try to achieve exposed thermal capacity of concrete ceiling soffits with acoustic rafts to increase absorptivity.

And on a more personal level, schools have been one of your specialisations since you co-founded FCB Studios with the late Richard Feilden in 1978. What do you enjoy most about designing for this sector?

Education is the lifeblood of any society and if we can in a small way contribute to the quality and creativity of the educational provision, it is a very gratifying way to use our skills. Our post-occupancy research has shown that children are really motivated by the quality of spaces, details and finishes in their schools, and we owe it to them to provide them with the most stimulating environment we can afford. But, we also have to recognise that the demands on those spaces are likely to change radically over the next few years.

When did the practice get its first brief for a school? Can you tell us a bit about it, and how did you come to get so involved in this sector?

The first schools we designed were for the Rudolf Steiner community more than 30 years ago. The care they showed over the quality of the environment and the spiritual development of the children has, I hope, stayed with us as a practice.

Do you have a personal favourite among all the schools you yourself have worked on – either in the UK or overseas?

I think Chelsea Academy is probably one of the most successful. It showed how much could be achieved with very careful planning on the tightest and most constrained of urban sites. And I am very proud of what we have achieved at the Lake Bunyonyi school in Uganda -again with very modest means and a huge amount of voluntary help and enthusiasm.

And lastly, what would your advice to anyone who is just starting out in architecture and wanting to specialise in designing for schools?

Listen to creative and enthusiastic teachers - and to the children.

By Gail Taylor

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