It’s all about knowledge

Matt Thompson

A shift in government attitude to school design has fundamentally affected the architect’s role. A RIBA round table took stock

Jane Wade, operational manager,  Vale of Glamorgan Council.
Jane Wade, operational manager, Vale of Glamorgan Council.

‘We need to create inspirational spaces – how children feel when they walk into the space is the biggest measure’ Jane Wade, operational manager, Vale of Glamorgan Council

The cancellation of the Building Schools for the Future (BSF) programme and the launch of the Priority School Building Programme (PSBP) have significantly impacted the role of architects in school design today. In a sector where the need is so great and the consequences of getting buildings wrong is so high, the RIBA convened a round table discussion with clients to assess how architects are perceived today and what lessons can be learnt. 

According to the Local Government Association, two thirds of local authorities predict they will have more pupils than places by the beginning of the 2016 academic year. On top of that, the entire schools estate is beginning to crumble. All this was foreseen back in 2003 when Building Schools for the Future was launched to rebuild all secondary schools by 2020, heralding a golden age for architects in a sector that inspired high ideals. However, the programme was cancelled in 2010 following the James Review, which, among other things, concluded that ‘there is very little evidence that a school building that goes beyond being fit-for-purpose has the potential to drive educational transformation’. 

The BSF was replaced by the leaner, meaner Priority School Building Programme (PSBP), with capital funding rationalised into one central controlling quango – the Education Funding Agency (EFA). Concentrating on schools in most need, it will benefit 261 in the first wave of funding until 2017, while a second wave worth £2bn is due to run until 2021. A new set of standardised architectural design templates was produced, to be applied regardless of topography or context.

The legacy of the BSF still casts a long shadow on school building policy. Mairi Johnson, global head of education at Aecom and former deputy director of design at the EFA, explains how this has affected client expectations: ‘Schools clients know we are in an era of austerity and have had very poor buildings historically so they will accept a new building that is simple and low cost’. 

While clients accept that belts have to be tightened, it need not be at the cost of quality. The Vale of Glamorgan Council, for example, retains targets for both hard and soft outcomes, and still believes in consulting teachers and pupils. As Jane Wade, its operational manager, says: ‘We need to create inspirational spaces – how children feel when they walk into the space is the biggest measure.’ 

There is a fine line between quality and cost, though. Lyndsay Smith, director of education at Morgan Sindall, sums it up: ‘Architects need to understand which bits make a difference to the educational outcomes. Inspiring spaces make a difference; tiny details around a doorframe do not.’ 

Paul Morrell, the government’s former chief construction adviser, thinks that inefficiency should be driven out before contractors and clients start chipping away at design qualities thought to be beneficial. ‘We have no idea how little we can build quality for until we get waste out of the process,’ he says. 

Ayo Allu, senior design manager,  Kier Construction.
Ayo Allu, senior design manager, Kier Construction.

‘We need to educate architects regarding budget, and they need to understand more clearly what clients want’ Ayo Allu, senior design manager, Kier Construction

While waste is understood, what co- founder of the Education Foundation Ty Goddard calls the ‘design dividend’ is not. ‘If all we can offer teachers and pupils are typical boxes, we’ve failed. School environments matter.’ For him, however, this is not about grand aesthetic architecture but functional efficiency: ‘I want my daughter to be able to hear and see what the teacher is doing.’

Understanding what works is crucial for the calculation of value for money and, by extension, the value of architects. Morrell again: ‘The industry doesn’t know the value of its own products. We need to fix the absence of a feedback route. ’ Donald Farquharson, head of capital programme delivery for Kent County Council, agrees, advocating enhanced post-occupancy evaluations (POEs) that measure against A Level results, for example. For Geoff Haslam, director of Local Agenda, POEs are the only way to separate the wheat from the chaff: ‘We need a quality loop like you have in the automotive industry where they pull cars apart to see where they went wrong.’

Predictably, clients and other stakeholders have a guarded opinion of architects. Karl Limbert, head of property at the London Borough of Kingston, for example, thinks architects who add real value are those who can tackle all problems ‘rather than just focusing on architecture’. Consequently, clients are careful in their appointments. For Ayo Allu, senior design manager for Kier Construction, the right architect is one in tune with his needs: ‘We need to educate architects regarding budget, and they need to understand more clearly what clients want.’ Farquharson thinks that ‘working together is not a concept architects enjoy’, an impression shared by Goddard: ‘Architects forget to have a discussion with the client. They need to communicate solutions.’

It seems that careful listening, problem-solving, and especially reacting creatively to cost constraints are the foundation of architects’ appeal to clients. Simon Trew of architect Stride Treglown describes tight budgets as ‘the grit in the oyster’. And Michael Buchanan, education director at Galliford Try, agrees, seeing it pushing architects. However, Haslam points out that extracting value in this way is a collective responsibility: ‘the briefing and the parameters within which you ask an architect to work are key’.

Harry Scarff, property director for Cornerstone, thinks the architect’s offer must include ‘an innovative way of delivering those spaces that influence educational standards’. Lean working, standardisation and BIM are all part of the formula. Equally, client-side innovation is needed, especially in linking operational to capital expenditure. As Wade puts it: ‘Maintenance is at operational level, not strategic, which has caused us problems.’ Farquharson adds: ‘LAs are too reactive, and never have enough money to think ahead.  We need to move to a BIM profile and FM policy.’

With more contractor-clients, the position of architects in the supply chain has shifted. At Morgan Sindall and Kier Construction, for example, cost-effective energy strategies are prioritised and drive the architecture, with the result that engineers and M&E consultants are more prominent. That said, Allu identifies an opportunity for architects to take back the design manager role, although Andrew Barraclough, group design director at Wates, argues that the leadership role has gone: ‘Give up trying to be the leader, but be proactive, and keep the creativity flowing.’

The biggest challenge for architects, though, is to share knowledge. Described by Simon Foxell of the Architects Practice as a ‘professional duty’, the industry fights shy of sharing for fear of losing competitive edge. It need not be so, though, says Morrell: ‘We’re not asking people to share input data, but more outputs and outcomes.’  And this, says Goddard, ‘will better serve our clients’.



1. Learn from past experience and share knowledge for the benefit of clients and the future of educational outcomes.

2. Remove waste to protect design quality.

3. Accept cost constraints – treat them as the grit in the oyster.

4. Listen to clients’ needs, solve problems, and communicate solutions openly.

5. Work collaboratively in the design team.

6. Apply innovative practices such as standardisation, lean principles, and BIM for improved outcomes.


The RIBA’s Client Liaison Group is running a series of round table discussions to listen to and understand external perceptions of the architectural profession and the value architects bring to the project team, and ultimately to identify the tools needed to promote architectural services in these sectors successfully.  The feedback from interviews with public sector clients is included here; and 60 second clips of the one-to-one interviews are available on


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