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On-demand webinar: Education buildings & school architecture

Ruth Slavid

On 24 November 2020 RIBAJ and PiP were joined by a group of architects and experts to discuss a range of education projects and how their design has been affected by a rapidly changing world

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In a year in which education has been severely disrupted for many, it was heartening to learn at the RIBAJ PiP seminar on education buildings just how much thought is going into the design of facilities. This is fundamental design - not just a way to make buildings nicer and more efficient, but a response to the needs of students of all ages in a world that is changing rapidly. 

If you missed the webinar, catch up with the video here. Case studies and speakers at the event included:

Broomlands Primary School, Kelso Scotland Paul Stallan, partner, Stallan-Brand architects

Tufnell Park Primary School, north London: A fully modular building Claire Barton, partner, Haverstock architects

Teaching and Learning Building, University of Nottingham David Patterson, partner, Make architects

Eleanor Palmer Primary School, north London Anthony Boulanger and Yeoryia Manolopoulou, founding partners, AY Architects

Keynote presentations included:

How can technical advances be used in the design of education buildings? Ron Bakker, architect and founding partner, PLP Architecture and author of Smart Buildings: Technology and the design of the built environment

How to enhance fire safety on the facades of high-rise and high-risk buildings with vertical facade breather membranes Euroclass A2 Allan Hurdle, technical consultant, Stamisol UK

The pandemic is just one of the challenges that learning is facing. Architect Make, for example, has been looking at the future of education buildings, and particularly of higher education, pulling its research together in a dedicated document. At the webinar, David Patterson, partner at the practice, describes how it had put its ideas into practice at the new Teaching and Learning Building for the University of Nottingham. This building, the sixth that the practice has designed for the university, reflects the institution’s ambition to put students at the heart of its activities.

Sitting near the centre of the campus and not affiliated to any department, the building has entrances that were placed carefully to intersect the directions from which people would approach. The formal teaching areas are surrounded by lots of flexible space. ‘We spent a lot of time with user groups,’ Patterson says. ‘What really came out was the fact that teachers and students wanted space that they could adapt and modify to their needs.’

This adaptability is important for all age groups. Paul Stallan, a partner at Stallan-Brand architects, talks about two projects in Scotland, one primary and the other secondary. While Education Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellence aims to put students at the centre of learning, school design does not always reflect this, Stallan says. His practice is looking radically at design. He first describes its Broomlands Primary School, closely connected to outside and with cantilevering roofs for shelter.  

But, says Stallan, ‘primary is quite easy. It is spatially quite fun for an architect.’ The real challenge, he says, comes at secondary level and especially in creating a school that eases the transition from primary to secondary. He demonstrates this through the practice’s design for Jedburgh Intergenerational Learning Campus. There, he says, ‘We have resisted the government typologies’, instead creating a range of different spaces and also reaching out to the wider community.

It was the method of building that was the focus of the presentation by Claire Barton, partner at Haverstock. She explains the design and making process of Tufnell Park Primary School in north London, working with contractor Morgan Sindall. She concludes, ‘We are for offsite. It is high quality and robust and it can be bespoke.’ Fears that it was over-repetitive are not necessarily grounded, she says. But, long term, this approach to construction is likely to diminish the role of the architect.

A project that was definitely bespoke and, in fact, unique, was just up the road in Kentish Town. Anthony Boulanger of AY Architects explains his practice’s design at Eleanor Palmer Primary School of a dedicated science building. Built up against an existing boundary wall, the space for experimentation was, Boulanger believes, the first such project in a primary school in the UK. ‘We wanted to focus curiosity - to create a wonder room,’ Boulanger says.

 The design is simple and light-filled, with a store room that doubles as a dark room. The exposed timber structure with its triangular roof elements not only contributes to the light and well ventilated nature of the building, but also functions as a teaching aid. There is plenty of room for displaying work to the rest of the school and even a full-size astronaut’s helmet facing the street - a reminder of the live conversation with an astronaut on the International Space Station that kicked off the entire project.

Safety is critical for school buildings and Allan Hurdle, technical consultant at Stamisol UK, outlines one element of this. He explains the importance of facade breather membranes having a Euroclass A2 classification. This, he says, is the only class of breather membrane that is fire-resistant. And, he argues, ‘Approved Document B should be changed so that only A2 is allowed’.

A more global view of education came from the first speaker. Ron Bakker, a founding partner at PLP Architecture, has recently written ‘Smart Buildings: Technology and the design of the built environment’ for RIBA Publishing. This does not cover education buildings in particular, but many of the buildings that the practice has designed have an educational element. And, Bakker argues, the same principles apply. Buildings need a range of spaces and to recognise also the different characteristics of the people who use them. Technology enables flexibility and gives users control over their spaces - but it is not, he says, the technology that the users appreciate so much as the spaces and uses that they make possible.

This was a timely reminder that we are all learning, or should be learning, all our lives and also that the people who use learning buildings are the same people who will be entering the world of work. Just as the spaces in those buildings need to be more flexible and more integrated with the external physical world and the wider community, so buildings for education, for work and for leisure all have features in common.

See the Delegate Pack [PDF]

This event was sponsored by Kingspan and Serge Ferrari 

Ruth Slavid is an architectural writer, editor and consultant

With thanks to our sponsors