Good school design & why it matters: 9 point checklist #RIBA #TopMarksSchool

In 2015 the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) awarded the coveted  Stirling Prize for the best new building to Burntwood School, a large comprehensive girls’ school in London. It is the UK’s most prestigious architecture prize. As Paul Monaghan, Director, Allford Hall Monaghan Morris, the winning architecture firm, said,

“Schools can and should be more than just practical, functional buildings – they need to elevate the aspirations of children, teachers and the wider community. Good school design makes a difference to the way students value themselves and their education…”

So what is “good school design”? In terms of Burntwood, the project included “great contemporary design”, “clever reuse of existing buildings” and “superb integration of artwork, landscaping and engineering” (RIBA Stirling Prize 2015).

I have the opportunity to undertake professional travel, visiting schools, universities, libraries and other places of learning in different parts of the world. I have concluded that “new” does not necessarily equate to “good design”. It is even more fascinating to visit the same school every year or two, to see how the design outworks over time.

RIBA have recently published a report “Better Spaces for Learning”. The report seeks to  influence the UK Government to review its building program, indicating that good school design has become less of a priority, centralising school building, without considering “unique local circumstances of each school building project”.  The authors seek to show how “good design can help ensure that capital funding stretches as far as possible, without storing up problems for the future.”

The data was gathered from what is believed to be “the largest analysis of Post Occupancy Evaluations of primary and secondary schools in the UK, a nation-wide poll of teachers, and numerous conversations with stakeholders involved in delivering Government-funded school buildings”. The report identifies a few key outcomes of good design:

  • Positive impact on student behaviour
  • Improved wellbeing through a sense of ownership and belonging
  • Increased staff productivity
  • Reduced maintenance costs

What are the elements of good school design? 

  1. Good quality natural light, supported by good artificial lighting.
  2. Pupil sense of ownership, with dedicated social or self-directed learning spaces and display of work or imagery pupils can identify with on the walls
  3. Simple, natural ventilation systems, with higher ceilings to absorb stale air.
  4. Thermal comfort and control over temperature. Easy to use and quick to adapt to changing uses of space.
  5. Optimum amount of colour in learning spaces to create interest but not become a distraction.
  6. An optimum level of visual interest in terms of design to display of work and provide storage solutions
  7. Flexible spaces that can be zoned for various activity areas to help facilitate learning.
  8. Good acoustics.
  9. Simple design that reduces reliance on complex mechanical systems.

There are similarities from the UK experience to the Australian context. A number of jurisdictions across our nation are in significant growth mode to meet the need of bulging classrooms. If community wellbeing, teacher productivity and student behaviour are positively impacted by good design, therefore these are worthy considerations.

@anneknock

Resource: Better Spaces for Learning #TopMarksSchool
Written and researched by Emilia Plotka
Edited by Andrew Forth & Clare Corbett
Published by: Architects (RIBA) May 2016

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