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London’s schools: How do we build enough places?

NLA conference shares resonating trends in school design

Last year I attended an NLA conference on Emerging Trends in School Design which captured the downtrodden spirit of the school building architectural community at the time. Four years on from the coalition government scrapping New Labour’s Building Schools for the Future programme, the emerging trend appeared to be that the quality of school design in the UK was regressing and the only option was to look abroad for inspiration.

Nearly two years later, the mood seems to have shifted (thankfully!) and a more positive discussion is evolving, despite the lack of funding and government support. 

This year’s NLA conference entitled ‘London’s schools: How do we build enough spaces’ was called in response to the predicted shortfall of 35,000 school places by 2020 in the capital, with an estimated 60,000 primary pupils predicted to miss out on a place within three years due to a lack of capacity. The dilemma is not limited to London - in April of this year the BBC reported that two in five council areas in the country will not have enough primary school places for children by September 2016.

It is clear that in order to meet the scale of the demand, more funding from central government is needed. However, there are some promising ideas coming to the fore from the school building community. Architects are leading the way in finding cost-efficient, low energy solutions without compromising quality and delight in the spatial environment.

The debate was animated and three main strands of enquiry emerged from the discussion. Two of the strategies presented design thinking that our schools team at Cullinans have tested recently in our projects. 

Claire Barton of Haverstock architects extolled the virtues of retrofitting London’s Victorian Board Schools to bring them up to date with current needs whilst rediscovering the wonderful qualities of these well-made existing buildings. The improvement of existing school buildings is certainly a hot topic for school design at the moment, following AHMM’s Burntwood School’s recent Stirling Prize winning effort – a noble reminder of the legacy left by the BSF programme. This theme was explored by our team on a much tighter budget at Rosendale Primary School, which creatively re-thinks the school’s maintenance budget in order to deliver beautiful learning spaces through the gradual refurbishment of an existing Victorian school building.

A refurbished classroom at Rosendale Primary School in south London

In terms of innovation in new build projects, the discussion centred around prefabricated CLT timber structures and their exciting potential for delivering high quality buildings with a rapid construction phase. Feilden Clegg Bradley’s exemplary William Perkin CofE High School was presented by various members of the team, including Gavin White of Ramboll who demonstrated that CLT is a cost neutral low carbon construction method for schools (fast build phase and limited waste offered by off-site fabrication outweighs increased material cost), whilst Associate Head Teacher Keir Smith relayed the pupils’ response to their new environment, quoting: ‘The wood, light and carpets give it a homely feel’ and ‘The building makes me feel calm as it is well planned’.

Cullinan Studio recently collaborated with Stewart Milne (timber-frame house builders) to deliver Holy Cross Primary School, a prefabricated timber school in Swindon where like-minded design principles around timber schools were tested. The project was delivered on time and on budget whilst delivering best practice spatial and environmental standards. A kit of parts was developed with Stewart Milne that can be adapted to suit a variety of sites conditions and school requirements. This type of methodology could lead to a better future for new build schools in the UK.

Holy Cross Primary School in Swindon

The third conversation centred around mixed use housing and school schemes such as the recently completed Kings Cross Academy and Frank Barnes School for Deaf Children by David Morley Architects that sites a school at the base of a 47m tall residential tower. Although seemingly promising as an idea to help tackle the shortfall of school places, as it stands currently this model seems to be flawed in terms of its procurement. Ross Harvey’s presentation of the Beekman Tower in New York was met with a degree of scepticism by the audience who questioned the quality of the internal spaces. The general feeling was that housing developers do not have the delivery of good school spaces at the top of their agendas rather it may be seen as a tick-box exercise in meeting Local Authority requirements.  But could there be a revised version of this model which keeps the LA involved as client whilst the housing developer delivers the building?

All in all it was an informative and engaging debate and reaffirming that our Cullinans school design thinking is resonating with current trends in the architectural community.

The presentations by the keynote speakers at this year’s NLA conference can be downloaded from the NLA website.

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