Or what happened when the man whose ‘blood boiled’ at the mere sight of a PFI school decided to have a go at one himself. We write the end-of-project report, Richard Feilden‘s critical self-assessments provide the captions for the photographs
“I feel so passionately about schools that, when I see what we get fobbed off with, my blood boils. It’s a serious matter of social responsibility.” So says architect Richard Feilden, who as CABE commissioner has been a biting critic of contractor-led PFI schools ever since the first batch came off the drawing boards in 2000.
For HBG Construction, hiring Feilden’s practice, Feilden Clegg Bradley Architects, to design its bid for a large PFI school must have felt like putting its head in the lion’s mouth. It was a calculated risk, as the client authority, West Sussex council, had made it clear that good design and on-time delivery would be the top criteria for selecting a PFI provider for three new schools in Crawley. The council had even brought in the doyen of school architecture, Sir Colin Stansfield Smith, from neighbouring Hampshire, as its adviser.
HBG had calculated correctly. The company won the £60m contract to design and build the schools and run them for 30 years for the council. And in September the firm completed the first of the three, Feilden Clegg Bradley’s Oriel High School for 1400
pupils, to budget and in time for the new school year. In fact, it was built in 54 weeks, compared with the more usual contract period of 76 weeks.
It may have met one of the council’s top criteria, but it is the effect that the completed project has on the blood temperature of Feilden that is of even more interest. Has a PFI school building at last been raised to the design standard of this multiple-award-winning architect? Or has an inspired design been value engineered into a run-of-the-mill package?
A cursory look at the completed building suggests that the answer is not clear-cut. It is a large, loose-limbed building that spreads itself out with no sign of constraint over an expansive site at the edge of the former new town. Its clean forms are enhanced by simple materials, mainly white render, large windows and simple detailing. It is arranged around a central courtyard, as large as a town square and furnished with trees and benches. The downside is that the building is somewhat bland and in many places downright utilitarian. Inside it has long corridors beneath institutional suspended ceilings, and little in the way of attractive communal spaces where children and teachers can dally between classes, socialise and compare notes.
As for the architect itself, Feilden Clegg Bradley is distinctly critical of the school it designed with HBG’s design office – or, as Feilden himself puts it, “self-critical without attaching any blame”. As a result of a visit in August, Feilden has drawn up a list of 11 “positive aspects” and 14 “areas that are less satisfactory”.
Among the positive aspects, Feilden praises the courtyard for its “warm quality [and] the scale and proportions [that] work well.” He also picks out the entrance for being “clearly visible on arrival”, the interior circulation for being “generally speaking clear” and the teaching spaces for being “fit for purpose”.
But in the longer list of less satisfactory features, Feilden criticises the exterior light fittings, saying “they look like a bit of poor ventilation”. The fittings, furnishings and equipment “feel bog standard, and the uniform colours of chairs, tables and so on create a disappointing sameness within the interior”. He is no more impressed by cluttered services and partitions, the solid balustrades that “are crude and reduce intervisibility” and suspended ceilings in corridors that “are to a pretty low specification and look like they may be vulnerable in the long term”.
Such criticism may come across as sour grapes from a consultant architect peeved at being unable to carry through their design concept to the building interiors and detailed design. But Feilden makes the valid point that some aspects of fitting out and landscaping could have been improved “by simple better co-ordination [between concept architect and contractor’s design office] – arguably at no cost”.
He goes on to suggest other improvements that might have been worth investigating, even if they had cost more. His ideas include more glazed screens between classrooms and corridors to reduce the feeling of isolation. Likewise, if clear-glass balustrading
had been used instead of solid metal panels in the two-storey mini-atriums connecting the three side wings, they could have made them more sociable as hubs by increasing visibility between floors. And “greater use of colour and natural materials” would have enlivened the interiors.
However, perhaps the building’s greatest achievement is all but invisible – and deliberately so. The building combines a regular secondary school along two sides of the central courtyard with a youth counselling centre and a whole-life learning college along the other two sides. This arrangement, conceived by the architect as two clasping hands, neatly integrates the school into the community by allowing both groups of organisations to operate independently while sharing social amenities, such as the square, restaurant, sports hall and dance studio.
As for how the building has been received, the headteacher, Gill Smith, is volubly delighted, emphasising that “it’s very bright and airy and child-friendly”. The council’s cabinet member for education, Pat Arculus, has complimented HBG on its professional approach, dedication to the job and excellent partnership with the council. And Caroline Fraser of CABE’s enabling team accepts it as “one of the few good PFI schools”.
That said, it is the speed of delivery that comes out as PFI’s prime contribution to Oriel High School. Not only was 22 weeks knocked off the normal contract period, but Mike Lee, assistant director of education at West Sussex council, reckons that the total period from the first decision to develop to the handover of the fully fitted out and commissioned school amounted to just three years, whereas a traditionally procured school would have taken five years. As a result, a totally new school has been created in a rapidly expanding town at such a speed that children have been spared a couple of years of overcrowded lessons in existing schools – and that applies just as much to the children who have remained in those schools.
Feilden is well aware of the relationship between time savings and architectural quality. In summing up the school, he says: “To my mind, it’s a good school. It could have been excellent. And this was partly because of the PFI process and the timescale, which worked against us. There was a loss of control and lack of direct client contact.”
Even so, being a good school, if not an excellent one, does put Oriel quite a few cuts above most PFI educational buildings. And this did not come about purely through the efforts of the design consultants. For a start, HBG Construction, unlike other major national contractors, has an intrinsic commitment to architectural design, as the contractor retains a 75-strong design department that frequently tackles entire buildings for clients – including a special-needs school for West Sussex council. Its package of five schools for Peacehaven in East Sussex, completed in 2001, was singled out by CABE as the best of the bunch in the first generation of PFI schools.
For its part, West Sussex council has taken pains as client authority to obtain high-quality designs. For the three PFI schools it procured for Crawley, it set up a taskforce of seven county councillors that oversaw the work of a project board of officials and headteachers and a project team responsible for the day-to-day running of the scheme. As well as Stansfield Smith, it appointed external advisers on legal, financial, access and communications issues.
Oriel was also the first PFI schools project that CABE took an active role in. It sponsored public-sector comparator designs from recognised architects to set design standards for each school and recruited Clive Birch, director of project manager Buro Four, as design enabler for the Crawley schools. “Clive Birch was able to make sensible, down-to-earth, practical suggestions as to how the client could get the best out of the process,” says CABE’s Caroline Fraser. “Combined with the advice of Sir Colin and the public sector comparator designs, it enabled the council to give clear instructions to the PFI bidders.”
Oriel High School can be viewed as an impressive achievement in delivering a secondary school two years early. Architecturally, the most you can say for it is that it is the best of a mediocre bunch. But, on this matter, perhaps Caroline Fraser should have the last word: “There’s something terribly unfair if we say that’s good for a PFI school. Schools should be judged even Stevens on their architectural quality, whatever the form of procurement.” Her solution is for the PFI contractor to retain the original design architect throughout the process – or at the very least, to retain the original architect with a brief to oversee the detailed design.
Client West Sussex council
PFI provider HBG PFI Projects
Architects Feilden Clegg Bradley and HBG
Structural and services engineer Arup
Design-and-build contractor HBG Construction
Doing their homework: HBG's research into school design
"We've spent £1m on research into design and specification," says Gordon Higham, who heads up HBG Construction's research into educational buildings. "This puts us at the other end of the spectrum from Jarvis when it comes to PFI schools. I like to think we offer a BMW project rather than a Skoda."
Higham's education team forms part of HBG Design, which has systematised a comprehensive approach to design, specification and supply-chain management of schools in particular. For the 1400-place Oriel High School in Crawley, West Sussex, HBG Construction completed the building in just 54 weeks, some 22 weeks quicker than the norm. The completed building is acceptable, neatly detailed and well finished, though not wildly attractive. Perhaps not as flash as a BMW – more an Audi saloon.
Here are the main ingredients of HBG's approach to PFI projects:
A one-stop shop
HBG pulls together the full PFI team entirely from British companies within the £7bn Dutch-owned group. These cover project management and funding, construction, design and facilities management.
Comprehensive in-house design
HBG's 75-strong design company carries out multidisciplinary detailed design of PFI projects, and occasionally full concept designs. "We do all the services design, too," says Graham Cash, HBG's design director. "We design out all the risk and clashes with other disciplines. We cut out the middle person in the process and share the money we save with the client."
Expert school design team
In response to the government's multibillion-pound Building Schools for the Future programme, HBG set up a six-strong team to research school design. The team is in the process of digesting hundreds of Department for Education and Skills building bulletins to develop a design solutions manual. To this end, the Autodesk's Revit CAD system has been adapted (and named Trevit in honour of its manager, Trevor Pool) to carry out comprehensive 3D design of buildings and their interiors.
Purchasing Excellence Programme
An instantly accessible comprehensive online database has been set up to cover thousands of the company's subcontractors and suppliers. The database contains each firm's health and safety and insurance records, as well as the dimensions, details and lifetime costs of its components.
Interiors CAD system
The 3D database is being extended so as to standardise all building elements in the interests of quality, speed and cost savings. "There is a very fine balance between developing standardised elements of school design and producing stereotype school designs," says Higham. At Oriel High School, where speed was of the essence, the structural frame was specified in insitu concrete and was erected in just 13 weeks. The external walls were prefabricated as large panels of concrete blocks with windows incorporated, and these were slotted into structural bays on week 15 and then insulated and rendered.
The interior of the courtyard has a warm quality
The exterior of the building has a character with some dignity
The fenestration is generous and greatly enhances the quality of the school
Teaching spaces appear fit for purpose
Exterior benches have been sited extraordinarily randomly in relation to the landscaping.
Exterior light fittings look a bit like poor ventilation.
The fittings, furnishings and equipment feel bog standard, creating a disappointing sameness within the interior