That was the question posed to a special NLA Think Tank group of experts and practitioners who gathered at the offices of NBBJ.
Shepheard Epstein Hunter director Ann Lakshmanan said that budget was the single biggest issue facing those who design and produce schools, and that with tight budgets it was difficult to develop space standards that allow for future flexibility, with a push towards lower end specification that may mean they are only effective for 10-15 years.
Procurement routes often also come into this, with further value engineering required for cost savings with a D&B approach, for example, and ‘competitive funding’ can come from the client too. ‘If there’s a grant available our clients are coming to us saying “actually, can you do six feasibilities in two weeks so we can bid for this money?’”. And if we are designing to tighter standards, are we storing up issues for the future? And if fees are being driven down so much, then surely a drop-off in quality will happen too?
London specifically has problems with sites – many are small or oddly shaped. They might have listed neighbours, or are by roads which may affect air quality. ‘All of this does not lend itself to the standardised approach we are being pushed towards’. Sometimes work with developers allows new funding avenues, but residential returns on mixed use schemes can affect quality, and clients have a ‘lag’ between whether they need a school. and the reality – one authority has stopped secondary schools because they no longer need the places. ‘We are in a period in which we are strongly affected by our economic environment’, she said.
Jayne Bird, partner at Nicholas Hare Architects, said that ‘working with the Priority School Building Programme is extremely challenging’. The six-week timescale for responding to the control option leaves little room for innovation. ‘The timescales are tight and fees are low’, she said. ‘These limit the opportunity to refine and develop the design. The process relies upon the architect and contractor understanding the DfE specifications and being familiar with the process’. ‘We are still producing great schools’, but it is difficult to get the ‘delight’ and ‘wiggle room’ on projects. ‘It is the effective, interactive spaces that make life at school really enjoyable’, said Bird. And internally and externally there’s plenty of room for improvement. ‘It’s tough’.
Jestico + Whiles’s Heinz Richardson agreed, saying that the race to the bottom was regrettable, especially since the profession had built up such skill and passion and commitment to the sector. Thus, the situation with squeezed budgets and programmes was ‘really disheartening’. ‘We’re building an estate that I think in less than 30 years’ time we will be revisiting’, Richardson said. ‘We literally get to choose the colour of the render sometimes’. By contrast, the work done during the Academy programme had showed how the profession has the passion and skills, but the process now – including the ‘brutal’ position working for contractors – had to be changed, with more joined-up thinking at the front end.
Having more time would be the key innovation, said Rachel Shaw, director at ArchitecturePLB, to deliver the best value from sites. It takes time to engage with sites, understand schools and how they want to deliver their curriculum. ‘You need time to have the conversations, and in a six week, very little face to face engagement period, you don’t get the time to reach those best value solutions’, she said. But, said Bird, the six-week schedule of accommodation was ‘absolutely rigid’, and ‘standard set of rules’ prevented innovative modification.
The time question was also apposite for Cllr Andrew Wood, Secretary, Isle of Dogs Neighbourhood Planning Forum, with some of the schools in his patch having been the subject of debate for years and then suddenly crammed into a very short period of design time. In the last 10 years the population of Tower Hamlets has increased by 38% but the school age population has only lifted by 11%, with a drop in birth rates and changing demographics. So school place planning in Tower Hamlets was an ‘art’ not a science, he said. For a school financially it is much better to be full than 80% full, meaning for local authorities it was better to have fewer full schools than slightly empty ones. ‘We’re in this crazy situation in Tower Hamlets where we actually have to close between six and seven primary schools in the west’, said Wood, ‘but then we have to build five or six new primary schools in the east of the borough because that is where all the new development is happening.’ But if they are not full, perhaps they can be used for something else, he suggested, in recognition that they may not be schools for their whole lives so could be designed with a more multi-purpose flavour.
In Ealing, moreover, primary schools have ‘plateaued’, even if secondary schools are still on the up and expected to be so for another three to four years, said Laurence Field, Programme Manager - Children’s Services, Ealing Council.
On occasion there have been sites that were due to be acquired for new schools, but then have not progressed, said Lara Newman, chief executive of LocatED when the ‘need’ numbers fell away. ‘That has happened in London and also in other parts of the country’, she said. ‘It’s really difficult because of the uncertainty and unpredictability that everyone is experiencing at the moment; the DfE relies on local authorities for its local pupil data’.
Similarly, every school is also concerned about going bankrupt, said Argent senior projects director Alex Woolmore, through having a new school that they cannot fill or manage.
But good schools can be positive drivers for residential, Woolmore added, citing the King’s Cross Academy which Argent sponsored and was brought forward almost two years early, a principle which the developer is aiming to repeat with a primary school at Brent Cross.
‘People will buy into an area with a good school’, she said. At King’s Cross, Argent was free to build in a bespoke staircase that exemplifies the moments of joy that can so often be value engineered out of such projects.
Perception and planning are changing in this regard too, and if we could only connect all the passion to create great schools with developers saying: “this is a route to value”, we would be getting somewhere, said Fred Pilbrow of Pilbrow and Partners. The developer needs to be in charge of the process, however, suggested Wood – or at least more involved than they are at present.
Local authorities could allocate specific sites for high quality mixed use or even Green Belt sites for schools, suggested Jamie Sullivan, Associate, Iceni Projects, with the opportunity to attract Section 106 or CIL funds if linked to housing growth. But there is little in the way of proactive planning for schools, said Mike Straw, Director, Planning, RPS CgMs, and government itself is ‘very weak’, with the NPPF ‘a bit silent’ on schools. There is often a disconnect’ between the local planning authority and the education authority, and Green Belt also has a role to play, he suggested. ‘It’s planning positively for schools’. Maybe the housebuilders have to work more positively in partnership with the education authorities. Indeed, the education sector perhaps needs a closer relationship with the private sector more generally, said Lee Mainwaring, Design Director, Architecture Initiative. ‘In simplistic terms; developers need to think more about integrating education as part of place-making initiatives to enrich their offer’, he said. ‘Schools can significantly benefit from the additional funds in a difficult financial market’. But there was perhaps also a heavy negative undertone over procurement that needs to be addressed with proactive solutions, with stakeholders needing to just think differently to deliver high quality exemplar schools as part of mixed use developments.
In Demark, said Per Arnold Special Advisor, VELUX Group, architects are struggling with similar things like budgets and planning, albeit at a smaller scale. But there is more recognition on the need to spend money on children’s education, he said, and although the UK had always been in the forefront of daylight requirements it was worth restating how many studies show how good daylight conditions and air quality drive academic success. Even circulation and layout improvements can help improve standards, said Richardson, and we are perhaps not focusing enough at pedagogic outcomes, innovation and the types of schools we are delivering, with educators now more ‘out of the loop’. Denmark also scores on its work with reusing existing buildings, said Shaw, which again requires time spent upfront getting to the right conclusions over spending money.
The group also discussed modular construction’s place in the delivery of schools and the view from chief planner Steve Quartermain that the government should be setting high design standards in school delivery.
The next free school round will be about improving schools in areas of social mobility outside of London, said Newman. LocatED and the DfE are also focussing on the existing school estate, where there is capital locked in poorly configured and often ‘sprawling’ single-storey schools. These could be rationalised to include housing, release capital for reinvestment in the schools and support local authorities to meet housing targets. But there is another disconnect between the GLA’s enthusiasm for a project for a replacement school and residential units including affordable in White City and the ‘massive challenge’ with local authorities such as, in this case, Hammersmith and Fulham. Perhaps in the future schools could get some of their funding from the CIL, suggested Straw, but the general problem in local authorities is their siloed nature, said Wood, with individual departments lacking a general overview.
Finally, however, there was time for one more thought: clearly there is more work going on in creating housing with schools than is perhaps often thought, which it was suggested should be the subject of further dissemination and a future exhibition.
By David Taylor, Editor, New London Quarterly