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Building bridges

Talking to pupils and teachers leads to better designs, says David Smith

Investment in education is a good thing. But for new buildings, the best investment is in time to learn the users' requirements. Too often, school buildings are delivered late, are of the wrong size, in the wrong place and cost more than they should. In far too many cases, money has been wasted on inappropriate designs that fail to inspire.

The number of classrooms that can be delivered from a fixed budget is often determined by architectural style rather than the school's requirements for effective delivery of the curriculum.From the same capital grant, one scheme can provide up to 30 per cent less accommodation than another, and there is no guarantee that the accommodation will be of better quality, better fit for purpose or delivered earlier.

There is no substitute for early and detailed discussions with the teaching staff. Every school has its own ethos - this applies as much to the way it uses its buildings as to the way it teaches its children.

The Helena Romanes secondary school in Great Dunmow, Essex, was awarded a basic need grant in December 1998 to expand by 65 11-to-16 places and 24 post-16 places. Although the bulk of the money was for the main school, the governors wanted a purpose-built sixth-form centre.

Detailed discussions with all the people who would use the building, including pupils and governors, enabled the design team to appreciate the unique requirements of the school. As always, money was tight. Squeezing the maximum amount of new building from a finite sum of money was a challenge.

It was essential to ensure that tenders were within budget - redesigning schemes later invariably results in a less than satisfactory building, poor value for money and delayed completion. Any thought of breaking new architectural ground with glazed atria, circular windows or curve walls was soon forgotten. Far more important was a project that would continue to inspire teachers and pupils into the future.

The investment in time has paid off. The school took delivery of the new sixth-form centre and the main school facilities on the day promised and within budget.

So what lessons can be learned? Fairly basic ones, I would suggest. Communications with the people that matter at the right time, involving them in the process from the outset, creates a sense of ownership of the project by the school.

The quality of the internal spaces and the relationships with other areas, in particular cross-curricular activities, are all far more important to get right than striving for a dramatic architectural statement. Of course all new buildings should be pleasing to the eye, but elevational embellishments invariably cost money that could be better spent on improving the internal teaching environment and maximising floor space.

This pragmatic approach to design could be criticised by some as philistine, but the planning of educational buildings funded by taxes should not be used to win design awards. Much of what has been built in recent decades, although hailed at the time as revolutionary and breaking new ground, is now hopelessly inappropriate for effective teaching.

Nor should hard-pressed maintenance funds be squandered on trying to patch up relatively new buildings whose design paid no heed to future costs in use. Many schools are paying the price for designers' past mistakes.

My fear is that we have not learned from these mistakes and in too many cases we are delivering buildings that are not good enough. However, when we do get it right, the positive effect on teacher morale and pupil enthusiasm can be substantial.

David Smith is a chartered surveyor and managing director of David Smith amp; Co, Gloucester. Tel 01452 300555

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