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Competition - enter now! Design a school from a store with Department 4 Education

Jan-Carlos Kucharek

The department store has seen its popularity decline, but schools are still needed. Could one become the other? This competition challenges you to imagine how it could be done

Cedric Price. Fun Palace: interior perspective 1960-64. Pink and green pencil on reprographic copy 26.67 x 40.4cm.
Cedric Price. Fun Palace: interior perspective 1960-64. Pink and green pencil on reprographic copy 26.67 x 40.4cm. Credit: Cedric Price Fonds / Canadian Centre for Architecture

While not a modern concept in itself, the department store is bound into modernism’s consciousness; the high-volume consumer goods sold in them link directly to the pure, unconflicted notions of craft, utility and mass-production first propagated by the Bauhaus in 1919. Architects Erich Mendelsohn in Germany and Britain's William Crabtree later helped give contemporary expression to these stores – emulated by European and US architects, creating a globally recognised aesthetic.

Recent history has been less kind to them, the global pandemic accelerating changes to customers’ shopping habits already affected by the exponential rise of online retailing. That has had a marked effect on urban centres, with traditional anchor stores that contributed to the life of our high streets, such as Debenhams, closing down for good. Even UK stalwart John Lewis has felt the strain, with stores closing in Birmingham, Sheffield, Aberdeen, Swindon and Peterborough. It is even weighing up its Partnership constitution to help it raise the capital it needs to restructure its business, with housing and leisure mooted for town centre sites. But estate development brings its own issues, seen in the planning battle between SAVE Britain’s Heritage and retailer M&S over demolition of its Art Deco, Oxford St store to re-develop the site. It’s not just about old or new, but demolish versus re-use- in this case 40,000t of embodied carbon.

West Fraser, in its ninth RIBAJ design competition, is asking you to wade into the discussion. With department stores' siting and deep plans offering amazing opportunities for re-use, consider that potential in our ‘Department 4 Education’ challenge. We want you to address ever-rising demands for new secondary schools for growing communities, and sublimate that need with the sustainable concept of re-purposing sizeable city-centre department stores. Top of the class wins £2500 – so heads down and get to work!

Enter now


M&S’ Art Deco Oxford Street store in London.
M&S’ Art Deco Oxford Street store in London. Credit: Matthew Andrews for SAVE Britain’s Heritage

The brief

Choose any UK department store, redundant or not, and show us how it might be turned into a small secondary school for 750 pupils with an average class size of 30. Inspired by the likes of Cedric Price and Joan Littlewood’s 1960 Fun Palace perhaps, how can the plan form accommodate new educational uses? How could the complex programme and adjacencies of classrooms, labs, refectory, library and school hall play out within the deep plan? Could you knock through floor plates or repurpose the atrium – and what about roof level? Will it fit in a playground or even a playing field? And how does the new programme manifest outside? The Victorian schoolhouse was intrinsic to the city fabric – how might it be again? Using SterlingOSB Zero as one of the main components in your intervention, show us how your design generates an exciting 21st century re-imagining of a 20th century building type.

While we know the SterlingOSB Zero will be used in conjunction with other materials, consider its nature to ensure propositions reflect its materials capabilities where it is specified. SterlingOSB Zero used externally should be adequately protected with a suitable cladding material and insulation; this may also apply to internal finishes.


Chaired by the RIBA Journal, judges will look for imaginative and successful responses to the competition brief that also makes best use of SterlingOSB Zero in its specific context. Pre-fabrication or CNC fabrication to create novel forms will be considered. While other materials may form an integral part of any proposition, it is expected the design will make good use of SterlingOSB Zero.

In this ideas competition, the winning proposal will be the one that the judges consider unites the programme for a school and its attendant spaces with the volume, floor plate and site context of the chosen department store in the most exciting and imaginative way. Blue-sky thinking to interpreting the brief is welcomed – if carried out with conviction!


The panel will be chaired by Jan-Carlos Kucharek, deputy editor of the RIBA Journal, and David Connacher, marketing manager, West Fraser UK.  


Entries should be received no later then 14:00 UK time on Monday 3 July 2023.


Schocken department store, Stuttgart. Eric Mendelsohn, 1928.
Schocken department store, Stuttgart. Eric Mendelsohn, 1928. Credit: Bryan & Norman Westwood / RIBA Collections

To enter   

Go to
Entries must include the following, laid out on no more than two A3 sheets, supplied electronically as pdfs and uploaded to the official entry website.

• Plans and sections explaining the nature of the school intervention.
• 3D axonometric or internal perspectives conveying the nature of the school project at key positions in the building.
• Any supplementary images, such as schematics of structure or programme, that would best convey your proposition.
• An explanation of no more than 500 words describing the choice of department store and the core ideas regarding the design concept, its siting, layout and internal configuration.

Enter now


The judges’ decision is final

• First prize £2500, three commended prizes of £500
• No correspondence will be entered into by the organisers or judges regarding entries or winners.
• Shortlisted entries will be notified in writing.
• Shortlisted entries will be invited to the winners’ announcement and prize-giving event on 21 September 2023.
• Email any questions to



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