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Webinar: school design must make the grade

How do you build schools that aid learning, wellbeing and community? PiP’s webinar expands on theory and practice, and considers exactly what a school is

At a time when the UK government and Ofsted seem intent on reducing complex educational scenarios to simplistic one-word assessments, and amplifying STEM subjects over creative arts, architects must resist the drive towards over-simplification in the design of school buildings. Indeed, begins chair Jan Carlos Kucharek, such policies, with their reductivist, quantitative, value-for-money based criteria, risk turning students into ‘bots being processed through pedagogical spaces’. This runs contrary to the philosophies of educationalists such as Maria Montessori, Rudolf Steiner and Loris Malaguzzi, who believed that school should offer holistic and individual development for the child to develop as a person. He draws attention to André Jaque’s recent Reggio Emilia-inspired school in the outskirts of Madrid – an excellent example of architecture embracing a child’s imagination: one of its pupils described it as a ‘robot made of butter’. This is not a factory, but a ‘multiverse’.

‘A school isn’t a building... it is a community of learners,’ says Sharon Wright, senior associate at the-learning-crowd – who with Helen Taylor, director of practice Scott Brownrigg, has co-authored Community Schools: Designing for sustainability, wellbeing and inclusion (RIBA Books). Their focus is bottom-up change, empowering clients and design teams to take control of the agenda to make schools that are centred on community, wellbeing, collaboration and other future-looking aspects that go beyond the curriculum. Scotland’s Learning Estate Strategy, with its 10 key principles (including joined up learning, community engagement, outdoor learning, and sustainable and inclusive economic growth) drew praise; schools are local employers which sit at the heart of the community and spaces should give agency to pupils and engender a sense of belonging, they argue.

Hackney New Primary School’s exterior circulation creates a charming intimacy for the larger housing development.
Hackney New Primary School’s exterior circulation creates a charming intimacy for the larger housing development. Credit: Nick Kane

Taylor talks us through case studies including Scott Brownrigg’s Three Rivers Academy in Surrey, praised for its transparency and sense of security; Melopee School, Ghent, by XDGA architects, a multi-storey educational space acting as a visible community hub in a developing port; and Silver Birch in Argyll and Bute, a school invested in outdoor learning and creating positive spaces where ‘children and their families experience nature, push boundaries and experience risk – which is often difficult for schools to manage.

Fundamentally, the authors want their clients to ‘see school buildings as something they can have a relationship with, that can change, and that can be used as a resource’. They want them to be active building users rather than passive occupiers, and then the rest will follow.

Ben Hancock, managing director of sponsor Oscar Acoustics, outlines the importance of sound insulation in learning environments, pointing out that several high profile educational projects used acoustic finishes of high grade recycled paper and renewable plant based fibres. Poor quality sound is stressful and makes words inaudible for those with hearing loss, while unintelligible lessons affect student behaviour. But products such as SonaSpray counter reverberation. Sprayed or trowelled at varying thicknesses, it can drastically improve the sound quality of a space.

Next Noel Cash, associate director and project architect at Henley Halebrown, discusses Hackney New Primary School and 333 Kingsland Road, a hybrid scheme of 68 apartments and a 350 pupil primary school, occupying a constrained site to break environmental norms. The residential block funded the school, and the two entities co-exist harmoniously to enjoy an enhanced sense of community.

The school wraps around the residential building on two floors but maintains privacy thanks to the oblique angles at which flats are positioned and the strategic use of canopies and balconies. A colonnade provides shelter and communicates a civic presence, while the hall and courtyard offer community space at weekends. There are also no corridors – access to classrooms is via galleries, and stairs are all external yet covered. A sensory allotment garden sits on the roof space. Clerestory windows, north lights, canopies, shading, MVHR and other sustainable ventilation strategies create a calm and cool environment, making for a climate-resistant building, comfortable even in a heatwave.

The 2022 RIBA National Award Winner, Forth Valley College, Falkirk Campus, forms the basis of a presentation by associate director at Reiach and Hall Architects, Mark Dawson. The site, on the outskirts of Falkirk, also enjoys expansive views, so the arrangement of the campus creates a presence to the south at the entrance to the town, while to the north, the first part of a ‘green link’ joins the western Helix Project with Victoria Park to the east. On the southern side, maximised glazing animates the facades, facilitating communication with the street.

Reiach and Hall’s Forth Valley College Falkirk Campus concentrates on openness and transparency, both Credit: Keith Hunter
Niall McLaughlin Architects’ 2022 Stirling Prize-winning New Library for Magdalene College, Cambridge. Credit: Nick Kane

Sports facilities and trainee beauty salons are open to the community here, and dining spaces likewise. Specialist workshops, for subjects such as welding and bricklaying, sit further back within the campus, and are given a separate identity and industrial character with anodised aluminium and windscreen panel products. Elsewhere, the alluvial landscape to the north of the site is expressed in a ‘sedimentary’ materiality of handmade brick. Heating and cooling is through geothermal energy. The school is, unusually, barrier free – as a further education college it serves a local community with a curriculum based on local business need, so this collaboration was manifested in the architecture from the outset.

On the topic of aluminium facades, UK technical director of Kawneer, Gary Ledger, discusses how educational design can be optimised through the early stage specification of correct product types; Kawneer makes high performance, robust curtain walls, windows, doors and shading . Security, safety and durability are essential for schools, and his talk covers how to specify optimally, to limit waste and achieve the highest-performing outcome within a budget.
Tim Allen-Booth, associate at Niall McLaughlin Architects, delivers the final presentation on the design of the Stirling Prize winning New Library at Magdalene College, Cambridge. The role of libraries has changed in the digital age, but the brief from the college was for students to be able to put aside distraction.

Public space outside the Forth Valley College Falkirk campus
Public space outside the Forth Valley College Falkirk campus Credit: Tricia Malley & Ross Gillespie

This tied in with the idea of monastic seclusion on which the college was founded by Benedictine monks in the 1470s. Inspired in part by the painting of St Jerome in his Study by Antonello de Messina, the practice used this basic unit – the scholar and their desk – to create a tartan-grid like plan of intimate dimensions.

There is an ‘oscillation of major and minor components’ says Allen-Booth. Partly inspired by Herman Hertzberger’s plans; reading rooms are divided by passageways and bookcases which accommodate over 1km of bookshelves. Twelve roof lanterns act as node points within the grid, and, combined with the rhythmical forms of the roof, the whole creates a volumetric complexity that is revealed only by walking through the building itself. Bay windows and the repetitive pattern of gables and chimneys of Elizabethan buildings contributed to the references while handmade red brick with a thick mortar joint links the materiality to other buildings on the site. 

The level of contextual research that characterises all the projects discussed today is testimony to the importance of architectural education. ‘Education is something we all hold dear,’ says Kucharek, rounding off. ‘The education of those who come after us, especially as designers, relies on us having facilitated as much as possible’.

Sponsored by: Oscar Acoustics and Kawneer



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