Takeley Primary School (Photo: Anthony Coleman)

Creating spaces that occupants love

Architects Sarah Wigglesworth and Eleanor Brough share their key principles of good design and how they can be delivered through a collaborative and engaged design process.

RIBA’s recent report Better Spaces for Learning sets out the positive impacts that good design has on educational performance, well-being and operational costs in primary, secondary and SEND school environments. The report defines good design and draws from the largest collection of post occupancy evaluation (POE) of schools in the UK, alongside a survey of over 500 school teachers nationwide.

Sarah Wigglesworth Architects has delivered award winning school environments, including the recently completed Mellor Primary School, shortlisted for two Education Business Awards, Mossbrook Special School, Sandal Magna Primary, and Takeley Primary. Drawing on RIBA’s research, as well as our own experience, this article sets out what we believe are key principles of good design and how they can be delivered via a collaborative and engaged design process. Good design does not mean costly design. We use our skills to design places that are loved by their occupants, simple to use and economical to run and maintain.

Getting the right team
Each project is unique. The way in which it is delivered, by whom, and the level of responsibility the school has for management of the building can vary significantly. Takeley Primary School was procured by the local authority through a contractor-led framework, while at Mellor Primary School the design team and a local contractor were appointed directly by the Primary Academy’s Trustees. At both schools the head teacher had no experience of delivering a similar project and needed a committed team of staff and governors, with a range of expertise to support them through the process.

Achieving any building project takes time and perseverance. The selection of the right architect, design team and contractor is key. You will need to work together, understand each other, build trust and be able to communicate clearly and strategically throughout the project to deliver shared objectives. Personality and a common ethos of team members is pivotal to creating a good design and enjoying the process. Therefore, committing time to researching future collaborators and undertaking due diligence should be built in to the project programme. This might include looking at previously completed projects, meeting key personnel, talking to staff at schools you admire, visiting other schools and doing as much research and reflection as possible to help find the right solution for you.

Opportunities and constraints
Opportunities and constraints can take many forms, but understanding them at an early stage is essential. This will improve the chances of a successful outcome by dealing early with risky items and maximising the value of the existing setting. Constraints can have a positive outcome through simple, effective design responses, and we regard them as a stimulus for imaginative solutions.

Schools often have to remain fully operational throughout construction. This was the case at Mellor Primary where safe access to the main entrance and playgrounds at the front had to be maintained. This worked well with the School’s Forest School ethos and the aspiration for their new spaces to have enhanced links to a previously underused woodland to the rear of the School. A steeply sloping site meant a traditional (masonry) construction wasn’t viable and led the design team to develop proposals for a light weight timber building set on a simple raised deck, providing level access to the existing building with the opportunity for unique views from the classroom into the tree canopy.

Funding for Mellor Primary School’s extension came from the Academies Maintenance Fund (AMF). The AMF funding was finite, and this constraint prompted the school to form links with local suppliers, use reclaimed materials and maximise self-build elements to make the funding go further. This had the added benefit of community investment in the project. These aspirations were integrated from the outset, with the design also providing a framework for future landscaping.

Programme can be a key constraint, and our recent extension and refurbishment at Roseacres Primary School was completed within one year of our appointment. A fast track programme has challenges but this project proves that good quality teaching spaces can still be provided if you have the right team and design and construction methodology. In this case, timber panels pre-fabricated off-site were used to minimise time on site, whilst still achieving generous, high quality teaching spaces.

Defining the brief
We work closely with schools to define their detailed requirements to ensure the brief is aligned with their curriculum, their ethos and their future business plan. The areas and adjacency guidance in the Building Bulletin are shaped into a bespoke set of requirements, including the importance of how teaching spaces connect to outdoor play and learning spaces. This process takes time and thought. It is critical to allow time to work out the brief and iteratively refine it to get it right.

At Takeley Primary School, their existing building lacked small group spaces. Since generous circulation spaces are proven to improve pupil behaviour, we designed oversized corridors for their new building to provide flexible, informal group spaces and reading niches beyond the classroom. Using bespoke engagement tools, such as a ‘Takeley Board Game’ devised by SWA, we considered with the school how key spaces needed to link or be separated, which areas needed to be accessed outside of school hours, where secure lines were required and how they could be integrated with good visual surveillance.

We encourage clients to exploit opportunities for buildings to become physical learning resources. At Mossbrook Special School and Sandal Magna Primary School, finishes and services are deliberately ‘on show’, demonstrating how the building functions while creating a stimulating learning environment. At Mellor Primary School, we designed a habitat wall, which helps pupils engage with their surroundings and assists with environmental education and Forest School activities.

The efficient operation of the building is crucial, so it is important to involve caretakers and facilities managers in the development of the project brief. Our approach is to ensure that mechanical and electrical installations are simple and intuitive to use. However, maintenance and replacement costs must be factored into the school’s budget, and if there are aspirations for a specific materials or plant, the on-going maintenance and replacement cost must be considered, as these can amount to significantly more than the initial outlay.

Engaging the school community
Developing a sense of ownership among different user groups is central to our approach as an architecture practice. We do this by working closely with the school community during the design development phase. Meetings are held with staff, parents and governors, and feedback from the Pupil Parliaments and Eco-Councils also informs design decisions. All these contributions give us critical information while ensuring that the design evolution and completed building are popular with everybody and supported through a wide sense of ownership.

Often pupils themselves are actively involved in the design process. At Mellor School pupils developed their own concept drawings for the habitat wall. During construction, pupils then worked alongside teachers, parents, the local community and the SWA team to fill its spaces.

Local contractors were used wherever possible, many of whom had personal links to the school as parents, former pupils or neighbours. The construction team shared a strong sense of ownership with the wider school community, and this commitment to the project was a significant factor in the building’s success.

Alignment with business aims
A successful design project can support a school’s business objectives. At Mellor Primary School the new extension was the catalyst for a step-change in the school’s ambitions and desire to grow. It enabled Mellor Primary to become a single form entry primary Academy, making the school economically sustainable going forward. Just as importantly for Head, Jim and his team, the project has allowed the school to expand its Forest School programme and host Forest School events. The distinct elements of the extension, such as the ‘tree house’ classroom and habitat wall, have given the school recognition, which combined with separate out-of-hours access means the suite of new spaces can be hired out to generate income.

Creating sustainable environments involves a commitment from all team members, and helps schools communicate environmental, social and economic sustainability. The delivery of sustainable projects is driven by a desire to be economically sustainable in the long term, whilst using a new building to embed a knowledge of sustainable materials and construction techniques in the school curriculum. This means the community can take ownership of a project while gaining expertise in its construction.

Continuous improvement
Every school is different, and the life of any project continues well beyond the point of handover. Sadly, the monitoring of buildings is undervalued and poorly recorded. The RIBA‘s report acknowledges that Post Occupancy Evaluation is only sporadically undertaken and published in the UK.

However, the in-depth knowledge of a building in use can be invaluable in avoiding future mistakes. By analysing trends and identifying issues we can find out where good design has made a positive difference, or where proposals have not been successful or have become redundant as technology evolves. While it is a cost, we would advocate it is a well targeted one which can only help to contribute positively to the future of good school design.

Further information