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Light, space, attraction

For too long FE tolerated leaky, dilapidated buildings that sent the wrong message to students. Andrew Mourantreports on an architectural revolution in colleges

The prospectuses bristle with enticing images and exhortations to enrol, but the buildings are often downbeat and tatty. For years, further education colleges have soldiered on in old Edwardian schools with leaks and draughts and tired, peeling temporary classrooms long past their use-by date.

But things are changing. Colleges are beginning to make their unwieldy, sprawling sites work for them, selling off dislocated tracts of land, sometimes demolishing the mouldering old piles that stood on them and - primed with money from the Further Education Funding Council - embarking on a bright new future.

Bright is a key word - for the aggregate of buildings that colleges inherited through their various metamorphoses are usually anything but. If success is environmentally determined, heaven help former students of Liverpool Community College, who, at one former site in Greenbank, put up with "rising damp, falling damp and trees growing out of the walls".

Projects that would have been unimaginablyambitious a few years ago are now taking shape. The principal site of Swindon College, a forbidding tower block flanked by a hamlet of dingy mobiles, is about to be transformed at a cost of pound;25 million. Money has come from sale of land at two of its satellites and 35 per cent funding from the FEFC, but principally from reduced running costs. It will be good riddance to the tower block. In its place will be a new building, designed not only with practicalities and economics in mind but also to be inviting to prospective students.

This is a preoccupation of John Bryan, a partner in Bond Bryan, an architects' practice in Sheffield that has been involved, either as consultant or designer, in more than 40 colleges.

"Buildings need to be highly accessible and attractive to compete with the world of work," says Mr Bryan. "Many of the people who need FE most are those who don't come in. Part of the reason is that the physical environment isn't attractive and you aren't always dealing with people of the utmost confidence. Buildings have been putting up barriers."

First impressions are therefore crucial. The core of any Bryan design is what he calls the "heart space", the entrance or foyer area. "Places that you go to full of uncertainty, such as airports or stations, put front-line services before you," he says. "A college building should do that, pointing out student services as soon as you walk in - almost like the food quarter in a shopping centre.

"Points of arrival should be designed to attract you. Beyond that, you should have a good environment where you can enjoy your time.

"Many buildings cater for the days when students used to receive 40 hours' tuition a week. Now, for full-time students, this can be down to 16 or 17.

"Resources centres have become much more important than acres of specialist workshops. People will need training much more regularly for many reasons, either directed by employers or off their own bat."

With Bryan's heart space as its beacon, workshops built around a courtyard and a parkland setting, Swindon eagerly awaits its renaissance. Funding was recently confirmed in principle and work on the first phase is due to start in September next year.

Almost200 miles to the north, at Bury College, finishing touches have been put to another Bond Bryan building, paid for by rationalisation, demolition and the sale of surplus land. Around 1,500 A-level students will move there in September. Half of the pound;7.5 million cost came from selling the former Stand grammar school, on a site four miles away, to McAlpines, the building engineers, for housing.

At Bury, Bond Bryan practises what it preaches for Swindon: the heart space is a sweeping arc of foyer with a concave, sun-shaded entrance fronted by a hard landscaped area where students can congregate. It is already referred to by staff as "the vista".

Within, white walls, doors of varying shades of blue - colour-coded to indicate which floor you're on - reflect light and aim to banish an institutional feel. In some science labs, instead of sitting along formal rows of benches, students will cluster around hexagonal work stations - a better use of space that allows more freedom of movement. On electronic whiteboards, material and images downloaded from the Internet can be moved around. Purpose-built cupboards flank the corridors so that classrooms need not be eaten up by storage space.

"We're trying to plan for the future," says the vice-principal, John Fargher. "Every teaching room will have its own IT facility. We will advertise student services at the front and have an Internet cafe in the heart space."

Each floor allows full access for the disabled. "We got some ideas for disabled facilities from the neuro-muscular unit at Winsford Hospital in Cheshire, such as a hoist and an adjustable sink in the toilet area. At the Stand Centre (the site now sold), and in many other temporary buildings, unless you were able-bodied, you couldn't get around the place."

In all, 40 temporary buildings, along with the former Bury Junior School, a substantial redbrick landmark built in 1913, will go, all costly to maintain and none an ideal environment. The new building has a strong emphasis on security with cameras at the entrances and along corridors.

"It isn't Fort Knox but students do have strong feelings about who should and shouldn't be there", says Mr Fargher. "They are concerned about having a secure environment."

Bond Bryan's role extends to counselling colleges whose managements may see the latest funding mechanism - introduced two years ago - as giving them carte blanche to cast off old buildings in favour of the new.

"It did have the effect of teasing out a lot of new projects," says John Bryan. "But we spend a lot of time persuading them (colleges) that they don't need new buildings.

"We put in an estate strategy, for example, suggesting they use two sites instead of four. We also help with funding bids before we get to details of the building: we have a team of six architects doing nothing but that part of the work."

Stylish design counts for little if it is not practical. Fred Sherwood, director of health and safety for the Association of Colleges, is consulted by architects and colleges about statutory aspects of space and safety. He knows all too well the wildly varying conditions that prevail in the country's 480 FE colleges, although he declined to comment on whether some hard-pressed institutions break those rules. "Some are very poor and some very good: it all depends on what priority LEAs gave FE before incorporation."

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