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Guest blog: the challenges for and of the future of school design by David Hills

The challenges for and of the future of school design - between technology and nature

In this guest blog, founding director of the architectural firm DSDHA, David Hills, considers the challenges for and of the future of school design.

The previous Labour Government undertook a significant programme of investment in the school estate. This was a real game changer because it created a lot of excitement around architecture. Not only did it promote the idea that well-designed learning environments can have a significant impact on learning, but it also recognised the potential for well-designed schools to revitalise their neighbourhoods by injecting life into their local communities.

Empowered and inspired by this set of ideas, head teachers started to lead the transformation of school buildings across the country. They devised a forward-looking approach to school design which allowed for the specifics of each individual learning environment. The ambition was to treat each project as an opportunity to grow knowledge and rethink the way in which education could be delivered.

Christ's College

At the time DSDHA were very fortunate to be involved in the design of Christ's College in Guildford, which was turned around to accommodate a special needs school and create a new educational campus at the heart of the local community. With this project we challenged a series of preconceptions around sustainability, which is usually intended as a set of measures which do not 'harm the environment'. We responded to these concerns by reducing the building's energy consumption, but also by creating a comfortable internal environment for students and teachers. This expanded the concept of 'sustainability' to encompass the effects that the building has on its inhabitants, rather than solely on the endangered nature outside. We did so by prototyping a new ventilation and heat recovery system which recycles the heat produced by the inhabitants of the building, but which was incorporated "invisibly" in the building fabric.

Davenies School

We have also recently completed Davenies School in Beaconsfield. The library, hall and classrooms were all rebuilt in order to improve access to the verdant outdoor surroundings. Through a process of 'visual editing', the design shifted the focus from the building itself towards the students' pedagogical activities and their connection to nature, while a series of terraces and break out spaces offer themselves as alternative outdoor learning areas, where the children can play freely, learning with their whole bodies and not just their minds.

Looking ahead

With these projects we have started a series of reflections which we believe should drive the design of learning environments in the years to come. The challenge for architecture is trying to balance the contemporary focus on technology, as a primary educational tool, with the need to re-engage with the natural environment. How can we address the lack of awareness of our surroundings typical of our age? How can we demand attention and prompt, even the youngest, to lift their eyes from their screens and engage with the environment around them to stimulate a more creative sense of learning?

This is equally valid in a metropolis like London where the opportunity to slow down time, or to enjoy nature as a point of reflection, can be embedded into school designs, giving a sense of well-being to staff as much as to students. Schools should be places where pupils want to study, but also where the most motivated teachers want to work, and where creative thinking has a place alongside meeting benchmarks of achievement.

David Hills is one of the founding directors of the architectural firm DSDHA. He has been responsible for a range of education projects, including RIBA Stirling Prize nominated Christ's College in Guildford.