The best schools are flexible spaces developed from a site-specific brief. Standardised layouts simply won’t work, says Richard Hyams - but standardised cost plans might …

Richard Hyams

The recent articles about the education sector all seem to focus on construction, as if this was the aspirational objective of building schools, rather than education. While I agree that contractors and designers must work together, this seems to leave out entirely one key element of the process - the school.

The problems with standardisation arise not from the principle of building flatpacks but in the lack of flexibility to respond to different educational models. If, as it seems, there is no scope to effectively consult with the school during the design, how can we establish what that school needs?

As architects working in the education sector, we have found that school buildings vary significantly in terms of brief and educational vision, and this is borne out in the finished buildings. Technological advancements and the ensuing growth of personalised learning also indicate that the education environment will be subject to great change in the times ahead, which means some flexibility must be built in. In addition, each site is different, ranging from compact inner-city locations to sprawling stretches of out-of-town land, and each presents different challenges during construction.

Another issue with standardisation is that it presumes we know the answer. As an industry, we need to move away from designing on paper and assuming it will work. We need to test our solutions through thorough post-occupancy analysis so we can learn from our mistakes and our successes. This is what the Cabe design review panel was set up for, to build a catalogue of the good and bad ideas in schools, and it is a great shame this knowledge is not being used to benefit future schools.

An amount per student plus an amount for infrastructure would provide the same level of cost certainty and avoid squeezing every solution into a specific floorplate

But I am not anti-standardisation. If the aim is to introduce a pragmatic and efficient approach to the design of school buildings, then I’m all for it. It is how we’re going about it that concerns me.

How about we look at standardisation in a different way? Let’s not have a standardised layout, and instead standardise the cost plan. An amount per student plus an amount for infrastructure would provide the same level of cost certainty and avoid squeezing every solution into a specific floorplate. It would also - a lesson from the commercial sector - ensure it is about value for money and selecting where to spend it most effectively.

This approach importantly takes into account the fact that infrastructure is an investment that pays back over the 25-year life of the building, so many future students benefit at little additional cost. Crucially, this is also the lifecycle outlook that is so important in improving efficiency over the long-term and providing the freedom to evolve as educational models change.

And once we have standardised costs per student, then by all means let’s have repetitive building components to deliver predictability on site and reduce construction costs, leaving more money available for education. But let’s have standard components generated using responsive, parametric design tools, which offer adaptable designs and encourage designers and the industry to continue to research appropriate materials and technical solutions. And let’s use BIM to support this, to help the team make informed decisions and show them to the schools in 3D, so they understand the impact of their choices.

I do fear a move away from progressive education spaces that use ICT intelligently towards corridors and boxes, but I fear more the lack of curiosity that comes with the wrong kind of standardisation and with the assumption that we’ve got it right. Architecture (using the capitalisation advisedly) is just as capable as design-and-build of producing poor educational environments. That’s not really the point. The end user is out of the loop, and that can only lead to poor resolution of the brief.

Richard Hyams is director at Astudio, Building’s Architectural Practice of the Year 2012