The government wants school architecture to inspire and stimulate young minds. Building looks at nine trailblazing projects that have tapped into children's imaginations and created very grown-up designs
The British education system is being dragged squealing into the information age, as Tony Blair's government strives to groom the British workforce of the present to meet the knowledge-based economy of the future. Its strategy for achieving this is to pour money into the system and to provoke radical changes in the educational process – not least in building design. Capital investment in school buildings alone is spiralling from £683m in 1996/7 to £3.8bn this financial year and is set to rise to £5.1bn in 2005/6.

The state's approaches to the education system varies widely. Teachers complain that central control is turning the national curriculum into an examination treadmill. In the design of school buildings, by contrast, the shackles are being deliberately removed – for the time being, at least. In its TeacherNet website, the Department for Education and Skills promotes the provision of educational facilities that serve the local community. And, it adds: "There isn't a design blueprint for achieving this; a variety of models will emerge."

The Schools Building and Design Unit of the DfES is, as a matter of policy, trying to stimulate innovative designs for schools. The first step is the "Classrooms of the Future" initiative. In August 2000, the department invited local education authorities to put forward innovatory building projects to win grants totalling £10m; 12 local authorities planning a total of 27 pilot projects were selected. A completion date of April 2003 was set, although in the event this deadline was met by only two schools in Milton Keynes, whose new classrooms were prefabricated off-site.

Below, Building presents a selection of classrooms of the future from the 27 pilot projects originally selected by the SBDU.

A quick flick through the projects confirms that a variety of design approaches have been taken. A few classrooms, as in Milton Keynes and Telford & Wrekin, are based on standardised modules prefabricated off-site. Many projects concentrate on sustainable construction for low-energy consumption, durability and minimal impact on the environment. Others strive to break the mould with wilful, freeform shapes and unconventional materials, egged on by the initiative's stated aim of "challenging current thinking about school building design".

Yet throughout this disparate collection of designs, the SBDU stresses common drivers. The first is that the architecture should play a part in stimulating children to achieve more. Keeping up with rapid developments in information and communications technology is no less vital. Widening the catchment audience of schools to embrace children with special needs and the community at large is being increasingly stressed. And schools minister and department design champion David Miliband writes in the introduction to the DfES book Classrooms of the Future – Innovative Designs for Schools, published earlier this year: "Flexibility is key, because whatever visions of education we design our buildings around, we can be sure that they will need to perform in a very different way in few years' time."

As would be expected, many teachers and educationalists were consulted in the process of designing classrooms of the future. In several projects, the pupils were asked to contribute their ideas to the designs. They suggested that school buildings should avoid square shapes and straight lines, have walls and roofs that open up to the outside, be as being environment-friendly as possible by using solar and wind power. Many of their refreshing ideas are reflected in the architects' designs, as can be seen in the schemes on these and the following pages.

Alien insect in Kensington & Chelsea

A colossal mutant insect is pupating in a west London school playground. As if sheathed in membranous wings, its head is made of hoops of ETFE foil and its abdomen is a smooth, bright-blue shell that cantilevers over the ovipositor. If the outlandish structure at St Francis of Assisi Primary School in Notting Hill looks like science fiction, its rationale is science fact. “I wanted our classroom of the future to be an observatory,” says Paul Rincon, the school’s headteacher. “It is dedicated to the origins of the universe and the possibilities of space exploration.” Both the building itself and the learning that will go on in it are “all about being innovative”, says Rincon. As well as a high-powered telescope housed in a rotating rooftop dome, the building contains a chemistry laboratory and a mini-biosphere in the ETFE-clad conservatory, where pupils can learn from living plants and animals. Rincon’s ambition is to allow each pupil to work at a wireless electronic tablet in a classroom linked by video conferencing directly to astronauts in space and like-minded schools across the globe. The futuristic design, by Studio E Architects, combines high and low-tech elements. The ETFE roof, which Rincon admits makes the space below “unbearably hot”, will eventually be shaded by curved panels of photovoltaic cells. The curvilinear blue shell was constructed much like a boat hull. Thin boards of plywood and orientated-strand board were glue-laminated together and moulded to double-curved shapes. The panels were then screwed to a framework of curved ribs, and layers of resin and fibreglass were applied to give a glossy blue impervious finish. Headmaster Rincon plans to move into his classroom of the future next month. Whether in the insect-like form of the building or the space age explorations that are planned for its pupils, it scores highly on the innovation test. Project team Client Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea
Architect Studio E Architects
Structural engineer Techniker
Services engineer Max Fordham & Partners
Quantity surveyor MPA Quantity Surveyors
Main contractor Balfour Beatty Construction
Timber shell subcontractor Cowley Structural Timberwork

Outside the box in Bedfordshire

Three of Sergison Bates Architects’ polygonal school annexes are reaching completion in Bedfordshire this month. The geometrically challenging extensions are intended to provide adaptable, high-quality teaching spaces that “nurture new relationships in learning and teaching”. Burgoyne Middle School in Potton, pictured here, demonstrates the buildings’ unorthodox forms, roofs planted with mosses and sedums, and prominent rooflights that scoop generous helpings of daylight into the classrooms below. Leading-edge sustainable construction makes use of prefabricated timber panel construction, untreated timber cladding, underfloor heating, passive stack ventilation and solar roof panels. The three classrooms have been developed by Bedfordshire council, in collaboration with the Science Museum, with Arup as services engineer, Greig-Ling Consulting Engineers as structural engineer and Smith Turner Associates as quantity surveyor. T&E Neville is main contractor.

A sense of wonder in Cornwall

In Cornwall, a revolutionary “education through space” centre is being built to encourage pupils to learn about astral exploration. The county council’s architecture department has attempted to imbue the £1.2m building at Camborne School and Community College in Redruth with “an air of mystery, delight, fascination and wonder” that will “enable learners to suspend reality and immerse themselves in the activity of the moment”. The building was initially designed as three strong, curvilinear forms that were inspired by Cornish prehistoric settlements while embodying NASA’s doctrine that planetary colonies should live off the land, rather than phoning Indian restaurants on Earth and asking them to deliver. Unfortunately, private sponsorship failed to materialise and the forms were drastically value-engineered into a more prosaic cluster of timber-framed drums. The centre, which will be linked to a dedicated telescope in Hawaii, will contain a space-mission control centre and a simulated Martian landscape. The council is negotiating a second-stage tender with contractor Midas, with the intention of starting on site next month.

A vehicle for teaching in Camden

A fully mobile classroom, being planned by Camden council in north London, will be “a literal and metaphorical vehicle” for electronic learning. The idea is that the classroom, fully fitted out and brimming with the latest electronic teaching aids, can be transported on the back of a lorry from school to school for a term at a time. The module has been designed, appropriately, as a piece of automative engineering by Gollifer Langston Architects, which has a vision that it should be “striking, innovative, durable, futuristic, provocative and stimulating”. Two half cylinders will be delivered by articulated lorry to site, where they will be jacked apart to expand the internal space and to create a continuous rooflight along the ridge. Or at least they would be, if the project is ever put in to practice. It is currently in abeyance while the council grapples with budgeting problems and shifting educational priorities. The structural engineer on the project is Michael Hadi & Associates and the quantity surveyor is Boydens.

Giant mice in Richmond

At Richmond in south-west London, “high-quality, beautiful and inspirational spaces where children and adults will want to learn” are going to be inserted into three pods that resemble enormous computer mice. The design, by avant-garde architect Future Systems, envisages pods sitting above the ground on concrete pads. They would get daylight and fresh air through circular rooflights and floor vents, and have a window wall opening on to a timber terrace. Inside, a large teaching space will be lined by fixed seating and display panels. A service area of toilets, coats and storage will be tucked out of sight behind a large electronic teaching wall. The developer is Richmond council, with Techniker as structural engineer, BDSP as services engineer and Faithful & Gould as quantity surveyor. The project is being re-tendered as the original contractor went into liquidation last year.

Living prefabs in Telford

For two classroom blocks in Telford, Shropshire, prefabricated modular construction has been adapted to incorporate a range of leading-edge electronic teaching aids and green features. By prefabricating the timber-framed modules at its York factory, contractor Yorkon promised to halve the construction programme and improve quality – although in the event, both projects will be two months late when they reach completion next week. The design, by Integer and its architectural arm, Cole Thompson Associates, breaks the boxy mould of modular buildings by adding a monopitch roof above clerestory windows and running a window wall along the other side. Rainscreen cladding at Wrockwardine Wood Junior School (pictured) is cedar boarding; at the Lord Silkin School it is steel mesh and will be covered in creepers. Sustainable features include a living sedum roof fitted with photovoltaic cells, a conservatory and a wind turbine. The two classrooms were developed by Telford & Wrekin council, with BWP as services engineer.

Module gorgeousness at Milton Keynes

Of the 27 Classrooms of the Future projects sponsored by the DfES, only two were completed by last month’s deadline. In fact, the classroom annexes to two schools in Milton Keynes were handed over as long ago as last September and occupied by children and teachers in October. Needless to say, the speedy construction of the buildings was achieved by off-site prefabrication. For the block of four classrooms at the Caroline Haslett Combined School (pictured) nine timber-framed volumetric modules measuring up to 14.4 × 3.6 m were manufactured in Nottingham by the AV Group. The contractor then assembled and fitted them out on site in a 13-week contract, much of which was during the school’s summer holiday. Though the new block features none of the futuristic flourishes of the other designs, it has given the school “lovely classrooms that are fit for purpose at last”, in the words of headteacher Paul Hussey. The main school was built for 360 pupils 14 years ago, but the population of Britain’s largest new town is still expanding and pupil numbers have risen to 520. Many of these children had to be taught in substandard mobile units overlooking the rear playground. Although also prefabricated, the new block bears little resemblance to the mobiles it replaces. As designed by the architecture department of the local council, it sports smooth green Eternit high-pressure laminate cladding and large double-glazed windows in anodised aluminium frames. “The sheer size of space is just gorgeous,” says Hussey about his 56 m2 classrooms. The block also comes with a novel environmental control system. It is fitted with underfloor heating coils that can be switched to chilled water in summer. Fresh air drawn through low-level windows is cooled as it passes over the floor and then, as it eventually warms, it exits through the central roof lights. A curved, projecting eave, which was designed to shade the south facade, and which is described by Hussey as “stunning”, had to be dropped to keep the project within budget. But the star attribute of the new block in Hussey’s estimation is its internal flexibility. The two central classrooms are separated by a partition that can be removed to combine the two spaces. “It’s like having another school hall,” says Hussey. “We use it as a major teaching space when we bring three classes in the same year group together. We also use it for school assemblies, dance sessions and community events in the evening”. The demountable partition is both easy and quick to handle and, crucially, soundproof. It consists of eight individual panels that run on an overhead track and, once in position, the entire partition is locked with rubber seals at top, foot and sides by a single turn of a handle. The whole operation takes a teacher less than a minute to perform, and gives acoustic insulation of 46 dB Rw – the same standard as for a fixed internal wall. “Two of us have deliberately taught back to back on either side of the partition,” says teacher Pam Blanchard. “You couldn’t hear a thing on the other side.” Project team Client, architect, services engineer and QS Milton Keynes council
Structural engineer Stuart Thomas Associates
Environmental consultant National Energy Services
Main contractor and module manufacturer AV Group

Learning at the cliff face in Bournemouth

A special outdoor learning centre is planned at Hengistbury Head, Bournemouth’s scenic headland of sea cliffs, sand dunes and wetlands that is a site of special scientific interest and an ancient monument. This distinctive natural landscape inspired the building design. As conceived by White Design, a long crescent-shaped building shelters from the prevailing sea winds behind a concave dry-stone “geology wall” made of waste from a local quarry. The convex lee of the building is clad in timber and opens out onto sheltered verandas and gardens. Inside, three circular e-hubs (where the “e” stands for educational, electronic and environmental) serve as teaching spaces for 30 children each. They are enclosed behind sliding partitions, which can be opened up to create a large open-plan space. Prolonged discussions with the planners and conservationists have delayed the project, which is not due to start on site until September. The team working on the project include Bournemouth council as client and landscape architect, Mander Structural Design as structural engineer, Arup as services engineer and Davis Langdon & Everest as quantity surveyor.

Communing with nature in Sheffield

Not content with one classroom of the future, Sheffield council has tackled four projects, each assigned to a different architect. At Mossbrook School, a free-standing classroom (right) is being built in the school’s own nature reserve, where children with learning difficulties can explore the natural environment by interacting with it. Accordingly, Sarah Wigglesworth Architects and artist Susan Collins have set out to stimulate the children’s senses and attract wildlife to inhabit the building, including a timber gabion wall for cultivating plants and flowers. The basic £290,000 building is supported on plywood portal frames and clad in galvanized steel rainscreen panels. The building is due for completion next month. The council’s in-house architectural department provided structural and services engineering. The contract was let to its direct works department, which was taken over by Kier last month.