Craig Frost, Corporate Business Director at AkzoNobel, explores the complexities of specification and planning to meet schools' evolving building needs.
The needs of the education sector have undergone a complete transformation in recent years. Schools are increasingly being used for purposes beyond education and outside school hours, while changes in the way children are taught during lessons are driving a need for spaces with greater flexibility.
At the same time, though, as a result of the Government's on-going austerity programme, education specifiers have to contend with reduced budgets. As such, it can be a real battle to design and maintain buildings that meet schools' ever-changing requirements.
This was the subject of a recent 'Leading in Specification' panel discussion, organised by Dulux Trade. The panel brought together architects from firms IBI Group, and Architype and ArchiHaus; and a headteacher from St Clement Danes School to debate how to create an educational environment that is fit for the needs of today’s teaching practices.
One of the key questions raised during the debate was how to ensure that schools are fit for 24 hour use without increasing maintenance costs. Over the last ten years, school buildings have become a much more valuable asset to the local community, being used as a venue for charity and sports group meetings, and even serving as temporary places of worship.
All this means that school buildings are now occupied throughout the day and at weekends, instead of just within school hours, leading to increased traffic and wear and tear, potentially impacting on maintenance requirements. As such, it is clear that more attention needs to be paid to the wider usage of school buildings during their design to ensure the layout, the construction materials, and even the paints used in the decoration are suitable.
One thing that many involved in the panel debate agreed on was the role played by robust construction materials in keeping costs to a minimum. Choosing budget paints, for example, may make economic sense in the short-term, but may require frequent work to keep the finish looking fresh, impacting on upkeep costs. Selecting a more durable coating, on the other hand, will help to extend maintenance cycles, reducing the pressure on school budgets.
The quality of the school's interior can also affect the educational experience and performance of pupils. During the debate, panel members discussed how a worn, tired classroom can leave pupils disengaged from their lessons, especially in tough inner-city schools. A well-maintained, attractive learning environment, on the other hand, can help them feel valued, encouraging them to work harder.
Everyone on the panel felt that, by considering the usage of the school building and its durability needs at the design stage, though, specifiers can make sure they select the most robust paints and other construction materials for use in the locations most vulnerable to wear and tear. This can help reduce the maintenance needs of the buildings over the long term, ensuring they are fit for 24 hour use without hitting schools' pockets.
But how can the people making the decisions regarding material specification be made more aware of the building's changing usage needs? And how can they ensure that the materials they select are the most appropriate for the school’s specific requirements?
The priority when it comes to selecting materials for education spaces remains cost, with the upper spend limit for schools set at just £1,300 per square metre. However, many on the panel were concerned that other factors, such as aesthetics and environmental issues, are being sacrificed to stay within this tight budget and minimise maintenance needs.
The Government has intervened with regards to environmental performance, with proposals for new building regulations to provide a suitable working and learning environment for teachers and pupils, while streamlining upkeep requirements for schools. But it is also important for specifiers to consider the positive impact of interior aesthetics on pupils' learning outcomes.
One architectural expert highlighted the role of colour in creating an educational environment that supports pupils’ academic performance. He cited a study that found pupils achieved better exam results in blue-painted classrooms, as well as in spaces with higher levels of natural light. Decorative schemes making use of more ‘neutral’ tones have also been found to have a calming effect on children in pupil referral units, helping to improve their behaviour.
At the same time, it is important for specifiers to take into account the hygiene requirements of the finished school. With so many people congregated in a small space, and with young children being so tactile for example, it can be very easy for germs to spread. Many schools have aggressive cleaning regimes to address this issue, but unless this is factored into the initial specification, it is possible that paint finishes on walls and ceilings could be damaged, affecting the aesthetics of the space and resulting in additional maintenance costs.
However, specifiers can address this issue by selecting solutions, such as anti-bacterial coatings for use on wall surfaces in toilets and in corridors. These can help keep bacterial growth to a minimum, which can help reduce the spread of infection and lower the building's cleaning requirements, cutting costs long-term.
The experts on the panel agreed that a lot can be done to support the specification of materials more suited to the schools' environment by giving teachers themselves greater input into product selection. By talking to the people who will be using and looking after the building day-to-day at the very beginning of the project, specifiers can ensure they take into account their particular needs so that the school provides an optimum learning environment at minimum cost.
A recent overhaul in the national curriculum has led to a major change in what and how children are taught. One architectural expert compared their experience in Wales, where the primary school curriculum promotes flexible, individualised learning, with that in England, where pupils are taught using a more traditional desk-based approach.
All this is putting pressure on specifiers to design schools capable of supporting new, more varied teaching methods, with larger, more open spaces that allow pupils to learn together and individually.
A number of ways of achieving this increased flexibility were suggested by the panel. One expert spoke about the use of colour on walls and floors to create 'zones' for specific types of teaching, helping to break up the space without losing the room for group activities, while another described the use of accent colours to create focal walls to draw pupils’ attention and encourage them to concentrate on the teacher and the lesson.
However, in order for these decorative schemes to be considered by schools and specifiers, both need to be aware of the effect of colour on pupils and learning. It is crucial for information to be available to both teachers and specifiers to ensure they make the right decision on paints and other materials.
The on-going issue of budget restrictions is putting pressure on specifiers to meet the immense changes that have affected the education sector in recent years, but it is crucial that they do so to create schools that are responsive to students and teachers' evolving needs.
As was emphasised throughout the debate, the best way to achieve this is to factor the unique requirements of the building into project plans at the design stage. By communicating with teachers and building users, specifiers will be able to understand all the end uses of the structure they are designing, ensuring they develop school interiors that are fit for education well into the future.