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Could schools capitalise on property assets more creatively?

Niall Farmer, from Construction Solutions, discusses alterations that can be made to existing buildings to increase capacity and improve functionality

Posted by Julian Owen | June 21, 2018 | Bricks & mortar

Across many of the UK’s cities there is an urgent need to create additional school places, thanks to an increasing birth rate and population growth. Moreover, mooted changes to the curriculum and the need for more flexible teaching spaces means school accommodation must be suitable for preparing today’s students for the jobs of tomorrow. More pupils means more ancillary spaces too, including dining areas, toilet facilities, admin areas, circulation spaces – all told, a whole new way of looking at the school campus and considering what it can deliver.

A completely new building or a traditional extension may not always be possible, so what are the alternatives? By adopting strategies used in the commercial office sector to maximise the useable space on the existing building footprint, schools can create capacity and update the learning environment within their existing buildings.

Reconfiguring space

Many school buildings were designed with large atria, reflecting a focus on open space, natural light and visibility of students as they move around the building. Although these spaces are architecturally appealing, they occupy a large amount of redundant space that could be redesigned as useable teaching, admin and ancillary accommodation. By infilling the atrium with new reinforced concrete slabs and partition walls, a school can gain extra accommodation on each floor.

This tactic can make a big difference to useable space, but it’s not without its challenges. The loss of an atrium may involve challenges with reconfiguring the circulation routes, and it will certainly change natural light penetration into the building. The severity of these obstacles will vary depending on the size, design and aspect of the building, but they are never insurmountable. Light can be retained with the use of light wells, for example, or by introducing a new central stair core with a roof light.

Not all inefficient use of space is as obvious as atria, however. Many schools can be reconfigured to create a more space-efficient layout simply by altering the size of rooms and utilising redundant capacity to create new facilities. Changing the layout to fit contemporary requirements and teaching practices can free up space, and close consideration of circulation routes or the introduction of a one-way system can also help optimise available space.

Similarly, reconfiguring the building’s cores can help to deliver a more space-efficient remodelled interior. Infilling existing lift shafts or stair cores and moving them to open up the floorplate, creating a more space-efficient layout, is a common tactic. However, it requires a specialist approach. Temporary works must be expertly designed to support the structure while the cores are removed, and new steelwork must be precisely aligned with the existing structure to ensure connections are accurate and robust.

Extending the options

A traditional extension to the existing building is often the simplest approach to increasing available space, but confined sites, logistical considerations or planning restrictions can all negate this option. Instead, schools may choose to excavate a new basement or build additional storeys above ground to provide increased square footage.

A key advantage of a basement extension is that it will not usually require planning permission. However, excavation may require complex temporary works and the structure may need to be bolstered. Operationally, schools also face the challenge of lighting a basement - depending on the topography of the site, it is unlikely to have much natural light.

Conversely, the construction of additional storeys can add both light and space. However, there may be planning restrictions on building up, due to the local roofline or proximity of neighbouring properties. The additional structural loading of new storeys will also require a significant amount of work to strengthen the existing building, including the erection of temporary works prior to any demolition, and structural alterations to support the weight of new floors.

Extended lifespan

It is unlikely that a meaningful school remodelling project will be as straightforward as knocking down or putting up a few partition walls. However, unless a school building is listed, there are varied options for increasing the useable space on its footprint and, with the help of a structural refurbishment specialist, this approach can extend the life of an existing building.

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