Public sector focus: Q&A


School designers give their views on the realities of having to work with today’s pared-back budgets.


FX

Compiled by Pamela Buxton

With a government determined to shrink the public sector, these are challenging times for designers working in this area on facilities such as schools and healthcare buildings. In this supplement, school designers discuss the reality of working with today's pruned-back budgets and consider what scope this leaves to create decent learning environments.

Alder Hey Children's Healthpark architect Benedict Zucchi of BDP discusses the changing nature of hospitals and talks about the extra motivation that such projects give. And as our project round-up shows, there's no shortage of innovative solutions in this sector, from a therapeutically designed children's hospital in Glasgow to a compact new primary school on the former 2012 London Olympics site.

Michál Cohen, Director of London-based practice Walters and Cohen

Michál Cohen

What is the biggest challenge you face when designing public-sector schools?
We are doing Basic Needs in the public sector and are not involved in the Priority School Building Programme (PSBP). The greatest challenges we find are often to do with schedule: everything needs to be done yesterday. The budget is also a challenge as the market is changing and it is difficult to play catch up.

Has it proved possible to design inspirational spaces with post-Building Schools for the Future budgets?
We are designing extensions to schools funded by Basic Needs allocations in Barking & Dagenham, Newham and Havering and these are really positive projects. But we haven't been asked to become involved in PSBP work -- I'm not sure we can add value to it as it's all standardised. Standardised buildings can be robust and cost-effective, but you can't cut the budget so much that no one is interested in building it and no one is interested in designing it.

You need inspirational clients who are prepared to do something different, really good architects who understand the learning process, and proper engagement (which doesn't appear to happen in the PSBP) -- then you can design to limited budgets and areas.

Are the days of big atriums and generous multipurpose corridors gone forever?
Under the current Priority School Building Programme, yes, but I have no doubt that it will change at some stage.

Is more standardisation the answer?
Standardisation doesn't have to be a dirty word, but you can't use it across the whole school building. There's no reason why the classrooms, toilets and halls -- which are about 70 per cent of a school -- can't be standardised. But the bits that glue these together, which are very site specific, shouldn't be. You need to bring joy into public buildings through beautiful light, careful detailing and the right environmental conditions -- the things that feel harmonious and right and make the difference between OK and good buildings.

Good clients, good architects and a good amount of time to engage is the answer, and can result in buildings that are unique and bespoke. Standardisation on a large scale is not the way to get the best learning environments, as a one-size-fits-all approach may be acceptable, but not uplifting.

Are we in a positive era of school design or going backwards?
The Michael Gove era dismissed the relevance of design quality in the design process, and with it the importance of having an uplifting environment. When the BSF programme was stopped so many of the most deprived children were let down and I remember thinking that I didn't want to be in this country. What does it say to our young citizens that we don't care if they're in leaky buildings that freeze in winter and boil in summer, with toilets that you would do your best to avoid?

I believe so passionately in getting the right people involved in the design process and the value of proper engagement with schools and local authorities. Our office will always try and find a way of creating proper engagement and inspirational school buildings that are not profligate. We strive to make them mean something to the local environment and communities that they serve.

Where do you see school design going in the next five years?
PSBP only worked for new schools. So, now it's about additions -- this is difficult to do with a standardised approach. It will be interesting to see how the Education Funding Agency procures these.

What one thing would you like to change about government school design policy?
It is very hard to isolate one thing as I believe a general shift in perspective is needed to allow people time to think about their environment. It's about valuing good design and the people who are working and learning in these buildings.

 

Meryl Townley, Partner at van Heyningen and Haward_Architects (vHH)

Meryl Townley

What is the biggest challenge you face when designing public-sector schools?
Decisions driven by cost and not value. vHH works hard to demonstrate and advocate how good design is about value and making schools actually support their local community and learners with buildings, IT, ethos and curriculum all considered holistically.

Has it proved possible to design inspirational spaces with post BSF-budgets?
vHH has designed inspirational spaces on a low budget but we are at the tipping point when costs are so low that they disadvantage future cohorts of students and something has to give: durability or sustainability or space standards or inspirational spaces.

One headteacher told vHH that he needed internal places to be inspirational -- if necessary at the expense of the external materials and appearance.

Breakout teaching space at vHH’s George Carey Primary School for Barking and Dagenham Council
Breakout teaching space at vHH's George Carey Primary School for Barking and Dagenham Council

Are the days of big atriums and generous multipurpose corridors gone forever?
Yes, although these design features were sometimes ubiquitous and not directly meeting the educational brief. vHH designs still incorporates elements of design that enhances each school's brief and facilitates teachers and students in their education, but the space to do this is increasingly limited.

Is more standardisation the answer?
In terms of vHH's design philosophy of 'long life loose fit' some elements of standardisation can reduce costs and provide the school with a standardised maintenance schedule. However, the procurement needs to support this, as does intelligent input from design architects to get the best out of every site.

Are we in a positive era of school design or going backwards?
At best, we're at a standstill in terms of innovation. And we're going backwards in terms of the profession's ability to engage with state-funded schools and deliver solutions that realise best value for the taxpayer - rather than just lowest capital cost.

Learning resource centre atrium at Bow School in Tower Hamlets, also by vHH
Learning resource centre atrium at Bow School in Tower Hamlets, also by vHH

Where do you see school design going in the next five years?
vHH has been working on education projects for more than 30 years and in this time has designed to meet a changing education pedagogy. However, the current budget and procurement process does not allow for a developing education pedagogy in the next five years.

Instead it is limited to minimum fit-for-purpose accommodation that barely meets a basic curriculum. vHH predicts a backlash when the detrimental impact on young people of poor build standards, inflexibility and lowest-common-denominator approach becomes clear. Government agencies such as the Education Funding Agency are just repeating past mistakes. But we hope intelligence and generosity is not gone forever.

What one thing would you like to change about government school design policy?
Change the brief to the EFA to mandate that it must procure sites, design and construction to deliver best value lifecycle cost rather than lowest capital cost.

This would lead to proper due diligence on procurement of sites, architects engaging meaningfully with educators and their communities, and contractors able to construct buildings with low running costs to last for more than 30 years.

 

Brian Vermeulen, Co-founder of Cottrell & Vermeulen Architecture

Brian Vermeulen

What is the biggest challenge you face when designing public-sector schools?
Trying to achieve the client's aspirations with the budgets available.

Has it proved possible to design inspirational spaces with post BSF-budgets?
Yes, but it is difficult as budgets are low. However, sometimes there is other money available.

Sacred Heart Secondary School, Camberwell,London
Sacred Heart Secondary School, Camberwell, London

Are the days of big atriums and generous multipurpose corridors gone forever?
I think spaces that can have a flexible use and programme are still very useful in schools and whenever possible we try to include these in our design. This is easier in the private sector as schools see the benefit. But this is much harder to achieve in the public sector and all depends on the client. However, they haven't necessarily gone forever -- these things tend to go in cycles.

Is more standardisation the answer?
Not in my opinion. I haven't come across it working well.

Are we in a positive era of school design or going backwards?
There's something of a two-tiered system at the moment. In my experience, if you're in an area that's undergoing investment and regeneration there's a lot of potential for investment in school from sources such as Section 106 agreements. But schools in other regions are really struggling - it becomes a lottery, and there's a real lack of equality.

Where do you see school design going in the next five years?
They'll be more of the same two-tiered system. There will be fewer well-designed schools. The private sector is happy putting up good-quality school buildings. So are some local authorities that see the value of investing in school design. Areas of regeneration in London also help -- where private investment can enhance the budget. But, generally the system to design schools has a very limited ambition and is hard to challenge.

The extension at the Lyndhurst Primary School, Southwark, London
The extension at the Lyndhurst Primary School, Southwark, London

What one thing would you like to change about government school design policy?
More money is the easy answer. I also think a lot of the challenging attitudes to school design and regulations that we experience are to do with a shortage of money; if there was more funding, those attitudes would fall away. There is a current belief that design costs more money.

This has led to a school procurement system that is generally too fast, and that discourages innovation and new ideas. Good schools are made from understanding the needs of the school, the site and the community. These thing don't cost, but they do need an investment of time.








Progressive Media International Limited. Registered Office: 40-42 Hatton Garden, London, EC1N 8EB, UK.Copyright 2022, All rights reserved.