There’s nothing intrinsically bad about standardised school designs - it’s whether they can be made to work

Philip Watson

The subject of standardising school design has been mired in controversy ever since it was brought to public attention by Sebastian James’ report into reducing the cost of school building ahead of the government’s Priority Schools Building Programme (PSBP). This controversy was brought to a head with the publication of baseline designs for schools last week. The language used by some professionals, and even the RIBA, has been unhelpful and misleading, with self-interest and prejudice skewing the debate.

Let us not forget that the Victorian London School Board designs were standardised too - and many of these are listed, cherished buildings now

With this topic, language is important. Anyone who wants to engage in this debate should first define what they mean by “standardised design”, because it potentially covers a whole range of approaches including: modular design and off-site fabrication; pattern book templates; and best practice solutions that seek to define critical elements like the best way to naturally ventilate a classroom. Consequently, the manifestations of “standardisation” are hugely varied.
Our collective psyche thinks of CLASP-type buildings in relation to standardised schools: a legacy of buildings from the sixties with leaking roofs, that are too cold in winter and overheat in summer. But let us not forget that the Victorian London School Board designs were standardised too - a pattern book of pre-designed templates - and many of these are listed, cherished buildings now. In broad terms there are three approaches to standardising design. These are:

  • Template: where the building’s form is predetermined and a client effectively buys “off plan” to a pre-designed solution. The appropriateness of this approach requires the client/end users to accept the limitations of the design to their particular needs and site.
  • Building block: where a building is created from pre-formed box volumes of space that are constructed off-site and stacked on site. These have been around for some time without ever really convincing that they have significant advantages for schools.
  • Kit of parts: this approach has nuances but essentially relies on creating rules for designers to define aspects of the building, such as structural dimensions, types of materials, and number of component parts, and some limitations on how these can be assembled. This approach potentially gives clients and designers the greatest flexibility. Many contractors were developing strategies like these during the Building School for the Future programme and most of the best designers in the education sector have worked alongside contractors subsequently to explore how applying these approaches might save capital and running costs. To my mind, this is the battleground where the PSBP will be fought.

The Education Funding Agency’s (EFA) baseline designs could be delivered using any of these methods. The advantages and disadvantages of each needs to be weighed by each client and designer when addressing a particular brief (including the budget), the site and its context. A template solution might fit a client’s requirements for a particular building, but because it has a predetermined form, it might not fit on the site or be sufficiently agile to address the surrounding context. In every case, a designer’s skill will always be required to ensure that the solution responds to climate, culture and context: my three c’s mantra for good design.

And this is the crux of the standardisation debate. Standardising components, elements, or even an entire building can never be a bad thing in itself. It is the way in which the outcomes of this approach are applied that is critical. If designs are used that are inappropriate to a client’s brief, the climate, or the context in which they sit, then they will be unsuccessful no matter how much cheaper they were to construct. And yet, the same can be said of bespoke designs.

Sadly, there are too many examples of new schools where the designers have got the basics wrong. You see, good design is good design, whether it’s standardised or not.

Philip Watson, design director and head of education at Atkins