Austerity & Innovation

14 March 2014

Blackpool humanities college


The last ten years have been a rollercoaster ride for anyone involved in school design in the UK. The extraordinarily ambitious target set by the second Labour government to rebuild the entire schools estate over fifteen years led to radical innovative thinking not only in the design of schools but the pedagogy they were designed for. Rethinking schools led to rethinking education; questioning curricula, class sizes, school hours and the impact of IT. The crucial issue of the identity of the school, defined by its internal and external architecture led to experimentation with architectural form, but more significantly a number of environmental issues were investigated leading to a revised, and inevitably more expensive, standard school brief. As we now begin to feel the impact of the age of austerity it is worth remembering what we learned during that earlier period of innovation.

Ventilation Ten years ago the regulations on ventilation in classrooms allowed for as little as 3 litres /second of fresh air per child, (grown-ups in offices were required to have 10) leading to recorded measurement of toxic concentrations of CO2. The decision to treat children the same as adults has led to much greater understanding of both mechanical and natural ventilation systems in classrooms.

Acoustics We have become a lot more aware of the acoustical environment in our schools, both in terms of noise disruption from outdoor sources but also from room to room as well as the value of internal absorption and the significance of classroom acoustics. New regulations led to dramatic improvements but derogation now provides a way of lowering standards back to what they used to be ten years ago.

Energy Efficiency Ambitious targets were set for all new schools to be carbon-neutral by 2016, and a zero-carbon task force was set up to investigate how this could be done. Most new schools were required to have at least 10% of their energy from on-site renewables. Provision was made for detailed monitoring and even year-on-year improvement in schools performance. However, the data is largely languishing unheeded as there are no public sector resources to analyse and learn from it but it is evident that the insatiable demand for more IT completely outstrips the low-energy design approach that characterises many of our recent schools.

Flexibility We learned how to build flexibility into our buildings.  Higher floor-to-ceiling heights and flat concrete soffits meant that partitions could go anywhere and buildings could be adapted over time rather than ending up needing to be demolished as happened to so much of our inheritance from that last school building boom in the 1960s. We also explored creating larger spaces with retractable partitions encouraging a variety of team teaching styles. Once again, cost cuts have intervened to make our schools more rigid and less adaptable, with short term and standardised solutions.

Space Standards Most significant of all perhaps was the realisation in 2004 that space standards, particularly in circulation, led to overcrowded corridors and stairs which resulted in more instances of bullying. This, coupled  with the desire to make use of corridor spaces, led to a redefinition of the boundaries of what were regarded as teaching and learning spaces, an interest in social learning that was paralleled in Higher Education. Regression to the narrow, double-loaded corridor is the saddest of all the changes brought about by the New Austerity in school design. Education is once again confined to what goes on behind classroom doors.

Cost Savings But the New Austerity has also been a learning process. It has made us focus on crucial cost measurements such as floor to wall ratios and, in our practice, has led to an interest in “big box” solutions where envelope costs are minimised. Planning tends to focus around atria as a way of capturing internal multi-purpose circulation space and reducing external wall area. One such scheme we have recently completed at Blackpool focuses around two atria within one compact square volume, adding to the range of internal spaces which create a heart to a school that was previously laid out as a network of lengthy corridors.

And a development in the prefabrication of buildings can also bring savings. At William Perkin Church of England School in Ealing it was the contractor who suggested building using cross-laminated timber. It saved months on the construction timetable and tonnes of carbon in the construction process. As architects we may not be able to control the unregulated IT loads, but at least by building in solid timber we can sequester carbon in our buildings with long-lasting impact.

As a profession in the UK we have been through an extraordinary learning process, along with our partners in the world of education. We have also produced an amazing and diverse generation of new school buildings. We need to record and celebrate this and share the learning. It may be another 50 years before we are allowed to go through a similar process.

Peter Clegg