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Designing better education from the ground up

Catherine Mulley, Director at Pozzoni Architecture, looks at how good building design can positively impact the wellbeing of all who use it

Posted by Julian Owen | October 02, 2018 | Bricks & mortar

There has recently been a lot of focus in the property and architecture sectors on the relationship between office design, wellbeing and productivity - but what about the impact of design in education?

In the same way that a dark and dingy office can have a negative impact on workers’ performance, poorly-designed school buildings can have a detrimental effect on the way pupils learn and retain information.

This article seeks to shed light on the ways in which education environments can be moulded to boost attention spans, increase productivity and improve grades. It will also explore how, in the special education needs (SEN) sector, designing with wellbeing in mind is particularly vital.

The rise of office wellbeing

In property and architecture, we’ve heard a great deal about the impact our working environments can have on productivity, as well as mental and physical health. Many employees, and their employers, have woken up to the fact that where you work really can change the way you work, and 'workplace wellbeing' is a phrase that is on the up.

Introducing greenery, letting in more light and creating breakout spaces to lure workers from their desks are just some of the wellness-led design features being implemented in the corporate world, and they are becoming increasingly commonplace.

While it’s undoubtedly a positive that employers and employees alike are embracing wellbeing and understanding the role design can play, other sectors have been less quick to catch on.

Education needs attention

Back in 2016, the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) released a damning study on the state of UK school buildings, and the impact that design can have on the way that children learn and absorb information, their mental wellbeing and the overall school experience.

The report highlighted that a poor school building can make all the difference to a child’s education. In fact, it found that well-designed education environments directly result in better pupil productivity and behaviour. And poorly-designed schools aren’t just affecting children - the report also revealed that one in five teachers had considered leaving due to their working environment, while one in 20 had actually left.

Although illuminating, this report was released back in 2016; since then, we’ve heard little debate in terms of the need for better-designed schools. If the marriage of wellbeing and design has become such a mainstream topic in the corporate world, why has education missed out?

The power of architecture in education

Dark and dingy classrooms will be uninspiring to the most attentive of pupils, as well as their teachers. Natural light needs to be considered with great importance during the design process, making room for large windows and open spaces wherever possible. The Education Funding Agency (EFA) recently reissued its Facilities Output Specification (FOS), with the upgraded requirements including further improvements to the level of daylighting in classrooms and education spaces, reflecting the significance of the issue.

Many of the schools we’ve designed, such as Blessed Thomas Holford Catholic College in Altrincham, have floor-to-ceiling glass facades, flooding the entire building in natural light and creating a sense of energy. School and university interiors should be colourful places that engage and inspire.

With office workers spending hours at their desk, which reduces the flow of nutrients to the brain and affects alertness, many businesses have introduced things such as breakout spaces and standing desks, in order to get staff moving more. With students also sitting down for much of the day, education buildings should look to include alternative learning spaces, which encourage mobility. Of course, a change in environment is also beneficial for attention spans and creativity.

Just last month, new figures showed that the number of anti-depressants prescribed to children had risen by 15% in England. Mental health issues in younger people are becoming increasingly common and, by ensuring that the school environment is a place where children feel safe, comfortable and inspired, architecture may be able to help alleviate stress triggers.

Designing for special education needs

Our work in education has given us an understanding of how design can improve the learning experience, for both teachers and students, and it’s a subject that we feel passionate about.

With SEN projects, it’s particularly important that every element of design is shaped around the pupil and their wellbeing. Following our experience working on the National Autistic Society’s Church Lawton School, we developed a design guide for school buildings for children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

When it comes to designing for mental wellbeing in SEN schools, there are many elements to consider. It’s important, for example, to avoid open-plan, mixed-use spaces, in order to reduce anxiety and stress in those with ASD. Calming environments can be created by paying close attention to the acoustics of a building, ensuring that sound does not travel and loud noises are dampened.

Of course, these are just a few examples of what we look to include in this type of specialist build, and ensuring student wellbeing comes down to the finest of details. But workplace wellbeing, whether physical or mental, should be considered in all built environments for all sectors, from offices and schools, to industrial spaces and healthcare facilities.

The wellbeing of those using these buildings also needs support and consideration from the top; from business owners and headteachers and governing bodies. But architecture has a pivotal role to play in how our minds and bodies respond to our surroundings and, with education and the school experience such a key part of life, it’s a sector in which good design is paramount.

Catherine Mulley is Director at Pozzoni Architecture and Head of the practice’s education team.

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