School architecture should also consider alternative spaces for learning, such as playgrounds, corridors and stairs, says 2020 RIBAJ Rising Star and Feilden Fowles associate Ingrid Petit
Can you draw a memory from your educational experience? It is a simple question but the answers can be illuminating. For three years, Edmund Fowles and I led a unit on education building design at London Metropolitan University and we started with this very question. It prompted contrasting responses from students. Some only remembered dark classrooms with barely any windows or views out; others reminisced about the myriad alternative spaces that provided opportunities for indirect learning: playgrounds, recesses between buildings, a garden workshop…
The answers to this simple question provide valuable insights into how learning happens beyond the main programmed space of the classroom, nurturing curiosity and fostering interdependent learning. As such, we believe these areas should receive the same care in design – an idea backed by numerous educationalists. This first principle formed part of a series of key ideas we tested both with our students and in practice: relationship with the outdoors, adaptability and robustness, relation to context and ‘civicness’.
In parallel, the unit critically reviewed the Baseline Designs for Schools, which arose from the Priority Schools Building Programme introduced by Michael Gove as education secretary in 2010. The proposed standardised plans starkly contrasted with the ideas discussed, ost ancillary spaces, such as breakout areas, being drastically minimised, and corridors, or other circulation zones, pushed deep into the plan without windows. This ‘guide’ also advocated for buildings to be standardised in a way that design would no longer respond to context, daylight or views out – a point that the unit used to react against.
The unit visited the Apollo School in Amsterdam, designed by Herman Hertzberger, which displayed a range of spaces to encourage activities outside of the classroom, divergent to the early analysis of the baseline designs. These included a small recess in the circulation providing room for a desk passively surveyed from the classroom, and a larger assembly space with wide steps for seats to encourage group activities, plays and other forms of active learning. We began to interrogate the reasons behind the success of these spaces, asking, for example, whether a desk in a corridor would always be this successful or if the adjacencies and quality of the particular space were key.
Being involved in Education Funding Agency projects, Feilden Fowles had to find strategies to do more and actively challenge the rules outlined in the baseline guidance with the hope that giving the right amount of attention to these ‘other spaces’ would transform areas beyond the classroom. On each project, we took on board radical French essayist George Perec’s challenge: 'We need to learn to live more on staircases. But how?' Accordingly, our designs started exploring the relationship not only between circulation spaces and classrooms, the vertical distribution of activities, but also the connection with the outdoors.
One of the very constrained projects we undertook was with Ralph Allen School in Bath. We moved the circulation zones to the exterior, reducing costs but keeping sufficient funds to make staircases and outdoor balconies into joyful moments where activities can take place. These open spaces contribute to connecting the buildings with the newly created courtyards between them – another small design move recognising the importance of the outdoors in education and wellbeing.
During our three years teaching the unit on education design, Feilden Fowles secured a commission for a new six-classroom block at Pinewood School in Wiltshire. The school's motto was 'Learning as an adventure' and the job was an opportunity to push our thinking further and connect practice with teaching. Once again, the design started with the circulation space, enlarged to create a centralised 'learning street' culminating in a wide assembly area – an addition to the original brief. Small pocket spaces adjoining this provide additional seating and nooks away from the classrooms. These were developed in close collaboration not only with teachers and school representatives but also with pupils, including younger ones who will be the future building users.
The street receives ample daylight from continuous clerestory glazing as well as from the large lower-level windows looking out towards the landscape from the pocket spaces. To accommodate this generosity within the available budget, we had carefully plan the construction methodology while not conceding on the quality of specified finishes, being aware of how important material tactility and forging links to the outdoors are for fostering inclusive and learning-conducive spaces.
We took care to ensure the design could cope with the fast-changing teaching and learning styles – such as the increasing use of digital technology or potential increase in class sizes. Walls between the paired classrooms are non-structural as are the lockers/ display walls between classrooms and street, providing the radical potential to enable an open-plan learning set-up, as seen in many schools in Finland. Material choices, daylight and views out were even more meticulously planned to ensure that the 'bones' of the building would accommodate future potentials.
Following completion, it was a pleasure to see the spaces finally in use and praised by both teachers and pupils. The pocket spaces are extensively inhabited during breaks for reading or computer learning, while the street itself is a vibrant zone for encounter and impromptu interactions. It has something of the 'social promenade' advocated by Grafton Architects at its Stirling Prize-winning Kingston University Town House building, where the wide open staircase encourages organic learning and conversations outside of the conventional learning spaces. It seems these incidental and nuanced moments, not recognised by the Baseline Designs for Schools, are the make-or-break elements in school design today.
With schools recently making headlines again due to the number that are in urgent need of repairs, and education featuring in the 2022 Queen’s Speech, I hope that architects can take a more active part in future education design guidance, despite challenging government budgets, so that better facilities and learning environments are incorporated into design policy as standard, and not just isolated ‘best practice’ projects. The inspiring education designs developed by our cohort of London Met students indicate that there is an abundance of creative ideas regarding education design with which architects can serve society.
Ingrid Petit is an associate at Feilden Fowles and a Rising Star alumni.
RIBAJ Rising Stars 2022’s edition is now open for entries and nominations.