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Carol Lees: "This year’s election means school funders need to be even more creative in how they invest in their estates"

End of year review: Hawkins\Brown

Carol Lees, Partner at Hawkins\Brown gives us the lowdown on 2015

Posted by Stephanie Broad | December 15, 2015 | People, policy, politics, money

What has been the most interesting development or project for you this year?

HawkinsBrown’s involvement with the #GreatSchools campaign in collaboration with the Architects Journal, which we launched in March this year, has allowed us to meet and talk with lots of other people involved with the process of delivering schools, including other architects, contractors, clients and educationalists. The campaign arose from an awareness of the momentum around the school building programme, and the urgency to create school places for pupils. We were keen to raise our hands to say ‘don’t push us out’, as architects have a lot to offer the school conundrum. 

Have you seen any new techniques, materials or cost-saving methods, from home or abroad?

Free schools are a relatively new type of school introduced by the current government. Groups of people can get together and put forward a case to open a school if they feel there is a need. Unfortunately, they are becoming synonymous with being a cheap way of providing schools, which are squeezed into inappropriate accommodation. 

The original model came from Sweden. We went on a study trip to look at one in Helsingborg, Sweden. The building was a converted office which had a central atrium with offices around the outside over a number of floors. The central atrium was converted into the heart of the school with colourful fixed furniture providing multiple uses as; reception to the school, canteen, teaching space break out space and independent learning areas. The offices were converted into classrooms which overlooked the atrium. It was a really successful conversion and provided fantastic teaching space for not much money.

UTC Cambridge interior image courtesy of Hawkins/Brown

What challenges exist for building great educational establishments?

Building schools in this economic climate is a challenge. The way education buildings are commissioned is generally cost lead. Architects’ services are often described as a ‘supply chain component’ implying the most basic of service, when actually we should be leading the way. 

We’d like to see a change in procurement to increase the architects role – design intelligence input – value base solutions rather than generic ones that can be costly and scrimp on quality. Every school needs a masterplan and framework to work within. They are as likely to be given £20k as £3m, and they need to know what to do with this money no matter how big or small.

How has the outcome of this year’s general election affected school building activity? 

Whatever your political view, it is apparent we have now entered a period of political stability. Successions of Governments have tinkered with education policy and there is an urgent need to create more school provision, but the process is being impaired by short-termism and a one-size-fits-all approach driven by cost and not long-term value.

With public sector austerity there are obvious concerns about a lack of maintenance. A recent survey identified that 42% of school buildings over ten years old, were graded ‘poor to satisfactory’ and in need of repair. Added to this the London press have recently highlighted the shortage of 35,000 places by 2020. Two-thirds of local authorities expect to be oversubscribed by the beginning of the next academic year.

This year’s election means school funders need to be even more creative in how they invest in their estates. 

What is your top tip for schools, colleges and universities to look after their buildings? 

Brand new solutions to replace aging building stock within education estates is expensive; often the answer doesn’t lie in starting again but in taking a long term approach. We need to be asking, how are they using their existing premises? Are they being efficient? This is where architects come in. Taking a strategic approach through the careful adaption of existing buildings; mixing old with new; being creative; thinking critically and strategically – it’s what we are good at.   

Our top tip is simple. Move away from short term ‘quick fix’ solutions. Let design in and we will end up with better buildings, better value for overall capital cost and better education outcomes. 

What does the future look like for construction in education?

There is an optimism around school building which wasn’t there a couple of years ago.

No single school is the same as the next. Where perhaps this has become particularly apparent to us is where we are working for Southwark across six primary schools in parallel. We have worked hard with each headteacher and school community to ensure our designs reflect the strengths, uniqueness and priorities of each school.

However, what is also obvious is that fundamentally all schools consist of the same elements - classrooms, smaller rooms, specialist rooms, administration space, a hall/dining space, staff areas etc.  We must utilise standard components –internal doors, sanitary fittings, windows etc. – to make the future maintenance of schools as straightforward and economic as possible. 

Want more insight into education construction in 2015? Take a look at our roundtable feature.

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