CABE has warned Building Schools for the Future risks procuring poor designs. But Wilkinson Eyre’s Bristol schools – the first off the blocks – are based on a lovingly prepared concept

For Hartcliffe Community College in Bristol, three triangular “strawberry” blocks are planned to house nursery, primary and secondary teaching spaces
For Hartcliffe Community College in Bristol, three triangular “strawberry” blocks are planned to house nursery, primary and secondary teaching spaces

The first scheme past the post in the government’s £45bn Building Schools for the Future programme promises pupils and teachers an inspiring educational environment. But then Skanska’s £173m four-school scheme, which reached financial close with Bristol council last month, could be viewed as the exception to the BSF rule.

The Building Schools for the Future programme has been drawn up by the Department for Education & Skills to build 3800 schools across the country over the next 15 years. It is conceived as a collection of framework agreements between local education authorities and private consortiums that fund, design, build and maintain the schools. But, in a trawl of the first 17 BSF projects, CABE warns the poor design standards of recent PFI and design-and-build schools could be repeated in BSF.

Poor design is not a criticism that can be levelled at Skanska’s Bristol scheme. The scheme’s great strength is its design by Wilkinson Eyre Architects, a practice that has twice won the Stirling prize and boasts a particular expertise in school design.

Three of the four schools are based on a standardised but distinctive form of classroom block devised by the architect in 2004 as one of the eight model “exemplar designs” commissioned by the DfES from top practices. Skanska’s team bolstered its credentials further by bringing in as educational adviser Graham Parker, formerly chief architect at the DfES school building division and who contributed to the same exemplar design.

Christened “the strawberry”, Wilkinson Eyre’s classroom block is a triangular deep-plan block with a rounded apex. It is a long-life, low-energy, adaptable building form. An 8.4 m deep strip running all round the perimeter is devoted to classrooms or other teaching spaces. The triangular core at the centre is a multipurpose zone that can be used as an IT-serviced study space for pupils spilling out from the classrooms.

This deep-plan configuration dispenses with corridors, as the multipurpose core doubles as circulation space. Not only does this save on building costs, but corridors are widely condemned by teachers as unsupervised spaces where pupils let rip with unruly behaviour and bullying.

The classroom strips have windows along one side only, which can provide natural ventilation for spaces not deeper than 7.5 m. But the strawberries are also equipped with rooftop ventilation flues towards the heart of the blocks that suck fresh air across deeper spaces without need for mechanical plant.

At Whitefield secondary school, a daylit internal mall serves as a circulation spine and is wide enough to encourage social interaction
At Whitefield secondary school, a daylit internal mall serves as a circulation spine and is wide enough to encourage social interaction

The deeper plan enables the classrooms in the perimeter strip to be reconfigured as larger rooms without distorting them into an awkwardly elongated spaces. “This makes for long-term flexibility,” says Stafford Critchlow, director of Wilkinson Eyre.

The adaptability of the strawberry has been tested by Wilkinson Eyre at four different schools – Whitefield school, Brislington Enterprise College and Hartcliffe school in Bristol, plus the Madejski Sports Academy in Reading, currently under construction.

In the 1080-pupil Whitefield school, the three blocks contain all the teaching spaces, including technology labs and art studios. The other main building element in the Whitefield school is an elongated rectilinear block that contains the larger spaces such as a multipurpose hall and dining hall and ancillary rooms such as offices and toilets.

A wide daylit mall – rather than a narrow corridor – separates the elongated rectilinear block from the row of three strawberries.

In the more ambitious Hartcliffe school, at which pupils range from ages four to 18, strawberries were designed to serve as nursery, primary and secondary blocks.

However, Critchlow accepts the strawberry plan does not lend itself to tight inner-city sites. Instead, Speedwell school in central Bristol adopts a condensed configuration of angular forms offset from a central mall.

The average two-storey strawberry houses about 300 pupils, which education consultant Parker sees as the ideal size for a creatively interactive education establishment. “In Chicago, they have found that the optimum size for secondary school is 350 pupils,” explains Critchlow. “In the UK, there is a drive for ever-bigger schools of 1000 pupils or more. So what we’ve done here is to create smaller units within bigger schools.”

The emphasis on design quality at Bristol emanated from the client. “We made a great fuss about design right from the start,” says Gordon Clements, Bristol council’s project manager for BSF. “All three bidding teams had strong practices that carried out exemplar designs in 2004. We went through extended interviews with lots of detailed evaluation, and we had a terrific CABE enabler in John Jenner of architect Greenhill Jenner. We also made it clear from the start that we expected design modifications as part of the process.

“So the whole bidding process from initial bids to financial close took just over a year. It was longer than expected, but there was a desire to do things properly.”

Although delighted to win the project, Wilkinson Eyre’s Critchlow discovered some weaknesses of the procurement method, as well as strengths. The Bristol BSF is a variant of the PFI, which along with design-and-build is the delivery method favoured by the DfES. Bids were invited that combined funding, design, construction and FM over 25 years. With its restrictions on time and dialogue with the teachers, the PFI process offers little scope for developing spatial concepts that would enhance the educational experience.

“There is no way we would have got to this concept without all the work we’d done on the exemplar design,” he admits.

Both the pros and cons of PFI procurement were apparent on the project, according to Critchlow. “The FM angle is upfront, so there’s a pretty thorough level of debate about things like catering and cleaning,” he says. But he goes on point out that the PFI contractor controls the construction methods. “In the conventional contract for the city academy in Reading, we proposed curtain walls, but in Bristol, the BSF contractor wants solid walls with punched-through windows.”

The four schools designed by Wilkinson Eyre and built and managed by Skanska promise to transform the educational experience of their pupils. But whether Critchlow will be as happy with the build quality of the end result will not be known until September next year.

BSF’s school report: Must try harder

With the Bristol project, Building Schools for the Future is starting on a high note. But given the programme’s scale – 3800 schools to be built over the next 15 years at a cost of £45bn – will this high design quality be maintained?

The initiative was scrutinised earlier this month by CABE, which drew on feedback from its design enablers who worked on BSF projects at bidding and design stage. Although CABE acknowledges that the design quality of schools has improved over the past five years, it warns: “Too many of the mistakes of the past look like being repeated in the first wave of schools being built.”

CABE’s criticism focuses on BSF procurement methods, which it says militate against design quality. It supports the joined-up delivery programme in which local education partnerships are created to pool the strategic perspective of the local authority, the commercial acumen of a private sector partner and the best practice knowledge of the newly established national delivery body, Partnerships for Schools. But of the 17 early BSF projects it reviewed, 42% deviated from this model. As contracts have not yet been agreed on any of the BSF schemes other than Bristol, the designs remain confidential.

CABE is also concerned that the school designs will be viewed as a “high water mark” that will not be sustained over the 90% of school buildings that will follow in the same contract without any competitive element.

CABE also supports the DfES vision of creating new schools that will transform the way children learn, not so much in a passive enclosure of walls and roof but as part of an active community where individuals can share learning experiences and activities. But it says: “In several cases, the message about transformational design is getting lost in a procurement process that is more concerned with cost and time.”

CABE is encouraged by the support from the DfES and Partnerships for Schools for a mutually reinforcing system of design champions, client design advisers and CABE enablers. But it notes that on some projects, design champions are ineffective, client design advisers do
not act independently and CABE enablers are brought in too late.

As for the bidding process itself, CABE argues: “There is not enough weighting placed on design quality in the Partnerships for Schools scoring system.” It adds: “The weakest projects have bidding periods that are too short and leave themselves vulnerable to a bid that superficially looks quite good but is in fact a weak scheme.”

CABE recommends that the DfES should undertake a urgent review of school design briefs, which it says “have hardly changed in the last 20 years”. More fundamentally, it urges the department to set up a national schools review panel to approve design proposals. “If the review panel considers a submission unacceptable, the DfES should withhold funding,” it says.

Jim Knight, the schools minister and education department design champion, who took up his post in the May reshuffle, is “very open and supportive” of the recommended design review panel, according to a CABE spokesperson. On the other hand, the spokesperson accepts that setting up such a panel covering all school schemes across the country would “require significant additional expenditure on an ongoing basis” at a time when rumours are mounting of 5%
cuts across all government departments. “But it would
save hell of a lot in the whole-life value of school buildings,” he adds.

Given the disparity between the £45bn scale of the schoolbuilding programme and the lack of expertise in contemporary school design, there is a lot to be said for a design review panel. In the meantime, BSF project teams could learn a great deal from Bristol’s pathfinder scheme with Skanska and Wilkinson Eyre.

Key points

  • The first Building Schools for the Future scheme in England and Wales won by Skanska and based on an earlier design concept by Wilkinson Eyre Architects
  • Triangular “strawberry” blocks designed as loose-fit all-purpose cluster blocks that can be used for diverse suburban schools and colleges
  • Strawberry blocks economise on space by combining perimeter teaching spaces with central communal space instead of corridors