Be functional, not faddish, and keep it simple

New school buildings are a difficult brief: they must be flexible, functional, welcoming and poised for change. Educators can meet that challenge if they start with a checklist of do’s and don’ts, says Craig Smailes

Schools are, by their nature, subject to changing needs. Populations change, educational methods evolve and technology continues to alter the way in which education is delivered. Perhaps most pressingly, schools must accommodate the increasing demand for places.

The pressure is currently strongest in the primary sector, but this will inevitably feed through into secondary schools. London boroughs alone are facing a shortage of 118,000 primary and secondary school places up until 2016-17.

The challenge is now clear: developers and educators must create school spaces that are flexible, functional, welcoming and, above all, poised for change.

So how should the school leaders charged with creating a new school building go about designing one? Research in this area can sometimes seem complex, but there are some known issues and questions that should be approached from the outset. Do this, and the end product is likely to be much better.

1. Be functional, not faddish Keep it simple. Far from being boring, a standardised design can enhance the flexibility of space within a school, opening up possibilities for different configurations and settings. Although bespoke designs can be eye-catching – a theatrical staircase entering a central atrium – ultimately it can restrict the way in which valuable space is used. Design for learning environments should be functional, not faddish, so you should be wary of reflecting the tastes of individuals within the school.

2. Make it mobile The integration of technology in school buildings has evolved from isolated desktops, to networked desktops, and now to wireless devices, freeing schools from the need to hard-wire equipment. As mobile technology becomes a pervasive learning tool, designers should ensure that wi-fi is available in all areas. Furniture should be mobile, too. Long gone are the days of static desks, nailed to the floor. New teaching methods require dynamic spaces that can be easily adapted on a day-to-day basis depending on the learning requirements. A “classroom” can be a theatre for one lesson or debating hall for the next.

3. Build in centrally controlled systems Well-managed environmental conditions such as temperature, humidity and light are critical to optimal learning. As such they should be managed as part of a centralised building management function. Not only does this create a sense of a cohesive school environment, facilitating pupil and teacher movement throughout the school without the need to “reacclimatise”, it can ultimately help to manage and reduce operational costs.

4. Raise a glass The orientation of a school should always be used as a starting point for a building’s redevelopment as this makes possible passive environmental control rather than relying on mechanical and electrical systems. As well as being a visually inspiring material, glass in school buildings can help to maximise natural daylight, creating a sense of openness and transparency, and bringing together the outdoor and indoor environments. Glass is also energy efficient; specially treated low-emissivity glass can reduce heat loss and enhance acoustic control.

5. The big question: to be or not to be, modular Off-site construction could provide the answer to easing the current pressure for school places. While many school estates are creaking at the seams, modular construction can provide a functional, flexible and cost-effective solution to ease that pressure and accommodate future demand.

6. Make it fit for life Once they have handed the school building over, developers can provide facilities management that will ensure that it remains well maintained and operational for years to come.

Ultimately you need a facility that is a joy to occupy and that enriches pupil learning while contributing to improving academic results and attendance levels.


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  1. Sarah

    I totally agree that school buildings need to be functional, flexible and adaptable. They also need to be safe, able to be used by the community and designed to encourage easy supervision and good behaviour. Many teachers would disagree about centrally controlled systems preferring to be able to adjust heating, lighting and ventilation themselves depending on the weather and the activity going on in their class. Controls need to be simple. Too much glass can be a problem for heat gain – this has been seen with many of the BSF buildings where additional mechanical cooling has had to be retrofitted. I would say that most heads would prefer to have choice over how the building is maintained, most find the contraints and costs of PFI unwelcome and would prefer to employ their own FM services rather than being tied in to long running contracts for all hard and soft FM services. Modular construction can indeed save time on site and sometimes money, but not always as it can depend on whether standard designs can be used and whether there are abnormals or planning constraints that push the constructions costs up. Sometimes traditional build is a better solution. There is a lot to be said for simple design – many of the recent fads are already past their sell by dates. For example a lot of new schools were designed with teaching spaces with no walls and doors. Walk round those same schools a year or so later and you will find builders installing walls because teaching was impossible without the ability to manage noise and distraction. Craig’s final point is the crux of the matter though – having spaces which enrich learning (let’s forget about exam results please and focus on what education is really about – preparing young people for adulthood, not just work!) No mention is made of the importance of outside space in the article and I would contend that’s equally important, although sadly being compromised by the drive to put schools onto all manner of unsuitable sites.