Schools are given a lot of hard knocks by their users. Barbour Index and Scott Brownrigg explain how to specify buildings that can take it without blubbing

there are many, many schools in this country that were specified to a poor standard and consequently looked shabby within three years of opening. This is testament to the fact that many specifiers of educational buildings fail to strike a balance between excessive cost and premature failure. Every specifier has to squeeze the last drop of value out of every material used. Most of the time, however, this is not achieved by using the material with the cheapest capital cost.

Resilience over the lifetime of the building is crucial if the project has been procured using PFI. The best way to assess durability is to go and look at projects completed five to 10 years ago: this will give a vivid illustration of where wear and failure takes place.

1. Interior finishes

Children are highly abrasive, and the interior finishes of any school take a lot of punishment. Interior finishes should be divided into low, medium and high-level zones depending on their proximity to the school’s occupants. The low zone is in contact with them at all times, the medium zone sometimes has contact and the high zone almost never. The specifier can then consider the specification in terms of the attributes needed in each zone but should pay particular attention to the lower zone. This consists of the floor, the skirting, the lower section of walls, screens, doors and windows.

Floors and skirtings

The floor must provide good slip resistance, allow for spills and scuffing and be available in vibrant colours. Vinyl is frequently specified. However, although it is durable, it tends to show any deviations in the substrate and has questionable environmental credentials. Rubber and linoleum are more resilient and more sustainable. The skirtings should be

scuff-proof and provide protection – PVCu and rubber are the most durable materials. Wherever possible, avoid the use of mdf as this product does not have a good history: in particular, it is prone to chunks breaking off, making it a maintenance problem.

Lower walls

The lower walls are the most vulnerable. Boards with high densities or substrates are best. Thankfully, the range of products in this area has increased in recent years. Gypsum and composite boards can take a variety of finishes and are also available in tile format. Jointing must be considered carefully as the boards’ dense make-up makes them rigid, and cracking at the joints could be a problem. Ensure that the backing, be it masonry or studs, is stable and relatively inflexible.

Doors and windows

Windows, sills and above all doors should be carefully considered as any shortcomings in the specification will soon result in damage. Go for a heavy commercial grade and ensure that doors and windows are securely fixed to the frame. Hang doors using high-quality hinges with integral bearings. Solid hardwood sections for main lobby doors are recommended. Frames, architraves and window boards can be in mdf as these are in a location less susceptible to damage. These should be prefinished and fixed firmly to the substrate without intermediate joints. Ironmongery and closers need to be of the top commercial grade. Ironmongery should be self-finished and preferably in stainless steel as any finish will be subject to abuse.

Glass at this lower level must always be toughened and if it is doubling up as a barrier should be laminated as well to ensure compliance with Part N of the Building Regulations, British Standard 6202, which specifies performance standards for glazing, and BS 6180, the code of practice for protective barriers.

The middle zone

Many designs have a dado or protection rail around the walls. However, these may not be necessary and the specification can usually be changed to something less robust. Corridors and stairs are the exception to this rule.

The higher zone

The upper walls, windows and ceilings can be finished with ordinary commercial grade products. The specifier should also consider acoustic issues, and how this zone can add visual emphasis to the overall scheme.

2. Fire

Fire continues to be a major concern in educational buildings. As schools are now subject to Building Regulations, the specifier should confirm that the fire strategy is compatible with the specification. Bear in mind that the maximum size for a fire compartment is 800 m2. The trend towards large circulation and atrium spaces means careful consideration should also be given to escape routes and smoke venting. Use fully certified materials to seal fire compartments and ensure these are detailed in the specification.

All common areas should have a limited fire load so specify non-combustible materials and finishes. Ensure materials have a fire performance rating of at least Class B, and preferably A, to BS EN 13501. This is a more accurate measure of performance than the older, BS 476.

3. Cleaning

Cleaning must be incorporated into the original design. Avoid using materials with crevices, as these will be difficult to clean and will ultimately result in failure. Materials that have a better cleaning profile are usually more expensive but should prove more economic over the lifetime of the building.

Ensure that cleaning teams are briefed with a full understanding of the cleaning requirements; this will prevent the hiring of unnecessarily expensive cleaning and ensure that finishes are not damaged.