Britain’s New Baseline School Design Sacrifices Style for Savings

Department of Education’s Baseline Design; Courtesy of Education Funding Agency

Britain’s Education Secretary Michael Gove and the Department for Education have released blueprints for the baseline design for schools that they believe “demonstrate good practice that can be achieved within [a] set cost and area allowances.” The government’s goal is to reduce the cost of new school buildings from the previous £21m to less than £14m each for the replacement of 261 of the most run-down in the country.

These new schools, however, will be 15% smaller than the ones designed originally under the Building Schools for the Future (BSF) program, potentially compromising important spaces such as corridors, assembly halls, canteens and atriums. Many teachers have expressed concern for these changes, as they could lead to congestion, bad behavior among students and would “undermine attempts to maximize the value for money of school buildings by making them available for community functions after hours.”

Architects and the architecture community at large are also worried about the design implications of such a standardized school building prototype – how will it interact with the existing school buildings and how could restricted design affect Britain’s educational system?

More after the break…

One of the new templates released by the government reads: “A standardized approach should be taken, with the aim of creating simple designs that have the potential to be replicated on a number of sites. This may be achieved by using standardized dimensions for similar types of spaces that are integrated into an efficient planning and structural grid.”

There are ways of making standardized yet good designs, as The Guardian’s Oliver Wainwright explains in his article on Oscar Niemeyer’s homogenized yet great school blueprints in Brazil. However, many of the new limitations on British schools are not conducive to this and are, frankly, a little ridiculous: no folding internal partitions to subdivide classrooms, no roof terraces that can be used as play areas, no glazed walls or translucent plastic roofs and, perhaps the most extreme, no curves. It’s as if government officials decided to list off and prohibit every architectural element they believed to be costly instead of seeing the design as flexible within a pre-determined budget and without considering each element’s social and educational implications.

The government has made it clear that money is what is at stake here, and they are doing what they can to send a clear message to architects that this program will be a no-frills operation. Gove even told a conference on free schools last year that they would not be hiring ”any award-winning architects to design [the blueprint] because no one in this room is here to make architects richer.”

Many architects, such as Peter Clegg of Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios, feel that the government’s attitude shows an “extreme lack of trust in the architectural and construction professions to deliver schools to budget.” It’s also unclear if it’ll even be possible to apply the prototype to every single situation, as the blueprint claims. Clegg also believes that it’s best to just go the traditional route and evaluate existing schools on a case-by-case basis and then decide where to invest a limited amount of money.

Perry Beeches academy, Birmingham / Norman Foster © Alamy via The Guardian

These blueprints also bring up the question of how important a building is to a student’s education. Most can agree that an innovative, state-of-the-art design doesn’t inherently make a school perform well, as with the case of Perry Beeches academy in Birmingham, one of the worst-performing schools in 2007 with one of the priciest designs. But while some believe that the teachers and curriculum are the only things Britain should be focusing on, others have confidence that the learning environment plays a very vital role.

Will these new blueprints stifle not only students but also smart, effective designs and designers that are concerned with more than just saving money? Isn’t it possible to cut down costs without cutting out case-specific architectural choices that will improve and even revolutionize education? Where is the bigger picture and why are Gove and his team excluding those who could arguably best handle the problem?

References: The Guardian (123), The Centre for School DesignRIBABritish Department for Education

Cite: Porada, Barbara. "Britain’s New Baseline School Design Sacrifices Style for Savings" 26 Mar 2013. ArchDaily. Accessed 19 Dec 2014. <http://www.archdaily.com/?p=350527>