Blueprint for school buildings of the future

12th March 2010 at 00:00
Teachers may guide children through their schooldays, but another professional shapes their every move without being in the classroom: the architect. Henry Hepburn meets the people who design Scotland's schools

Alan Dunlop, GM+AD

Alan Dunlop says his speciality is "large-scale, urban, hard-edged projects", epitomised by Glasgow's Radisson Hotel: a jutting, copper- fronted monolith in the centre of the city, which he admits was designed to be "provocative".

"We had never done a school before," he says, recalling the hard work his practice, gm+ad, put in to win the bid of building a new special school. He and his colleagues made a virtue of their inexperience, convincing Glasgow City Council that, unlike other architects, they would not come armed with preconceptions.

True to their word, they spent a year learning about the needs of the blind and deaf children who would be pupils at Hazelwood School, a joining of two special schools catering for severe special needs.

There was scepticism, even a "sense of dread" among parents. They liked and knew the two old schools - no matter how much modern standards deemed them unsuitable - and feared architects would coerce them into something they did not like. That perception is one which architects largely bring on themselves, Mr Dunlop says, but gm+ad worked hard to overturn it.

The methods for explaining plans were crucial. Traditional two-dimensional drawings would not suffice: Mr Dunlop believes non-experts cannot tell exactly what they are looking at, and that fear of "looking daft" stops them from asking questions.

Instead, gm+ad came up with three-dimensional computer-generated animation that allowed parents to wander through the school. Their deep gratitude at the efforts made would, says Mr Dunlop, "bring you to tears".

The first thing an architect does is look for precedents, he explains, but there were none, anywhere in the world, for a bespoke school aimed at children who are deaf and blind. So the lengthy groundwork was crucial, and two weeks were spent purely observing pupils.

Mr Dunlop was struck by how much they revelled in being outdoors, and that they did not want everything made easy: "They loved being challenged and stimulated," he says.

He also wanted to get as far away as possible from the institutional feel of stark, red handrails. So Hazelwood has a sensory wall instead, whose changes in angle let children know where they are. When the school opened, pupils understood this immediately, without explanation.

The largely timber exterior curves gracefully this way and that, blending in with surrounding woodland. That appeased nearby communities, who had feared a blot on the landscape, but without compromising on the space - indoors and out - needed by pupils and teachers.

One of Mr Dunlop's proudest moments was hearing how one girl responded when asked what she could do now that she couldn't do at her old schools: she simply replied, "Outside."

"It's absolutely the most satisfying project I have been involved in," says Mr Dunlop, and it is one that has earned him numerous accolades, including the prestigious Regnier visiting chair at Kansas State University.

But Mr Dunlop fears Hazelwood School will remain a one-off. He is scathing about the widespread reliance on public-private partnerships (PPP) to build schools, because that ensures "finance is the most important thing, more than meeting the needs of kids".

Some PPP schools may look impressive, but they are "cookie-cutter" buildings that would look little different in Shetland or Shettleston; anything looks good if you arrive from a dilapidated Victorian building with a rat problem, he says.

A project like Hazelwood must be given time, and cannot be about the bottom line, because the "well-being of the children is absolutely dependent on the architect".

Sadly, the current financial climate makes those circumstances less and less likely: Mr Dunlop believes Glasgow City Council could no longer afford such an ambitious project. "It's going to be a long time before there is anything else like Hazelwood," he says.

Paul Stallan and Ian Harper, RMJM

Ask Paul Stallan to name one school anywhere in the world that sticks in his mind, and he's not slow to answer: the Fuji Kindergarten in Tokyo, Japan, which is doughnut-shaped, has a tree growing through it, and a play area on the roof.

Ask his RMJM colleague Ian Harper what would happen if they presented that idea to a Scottish local authority, and he smiles: they'd fret about children falling off the tree, the tree falling down, and the school's foundations being compromised.

A combination of Scottish conservatism and ultra-tight budgets ensure that architects' wildest flights of fancy are off limits, both agree. Even so, and despite their involvement in designing the athletes' village for the 2014 Commonwealth Games, they insist that school design provides the most fulfilling of challenges.

RMJM, whose Glasgow and Edinburgh offices are among 18 across the globe, has taken on 20 schools in recent years, in Midlothian, South Lanarkshire and Glasgow.

One of its proudest achievements is the central courtyard at Glasgow's Avenue End Primary, delivered on an "impossibly tight budget", Mr Stallan recalls. It was a small triumph, since schools and authorities are often wary about the commitment required to keep outdoor features in good condition.

Imaginative solutions are constantly demanded. Many new schools neighbour their old premises, and the previous architect invariably picked the best spot. In Midlothian, schools have migrated to the roadside edges of sites. Mr Stallan says this can work to their advantage, by creating a sense of civic stature and "street presence". Administrative staff work next to the roads, while classrooms open out at the back on to what is now an enlarged playground.

RMJM's Glasgow schools are in challenging areas such as Drumchapel and Easterhouse, where many pupils are asylum seekers or cannot speak English fluently. That necessitates more "cellular" spaces for work with small groups.

Urban authorities are also more preoccupied with safety and security, Mr Stallan says; there is less anxiety about opening up rural schools to the surrounding environment.

The biggest headache, he claims, is insurance. He and Mr Harper appreciate the sense of openness and ease of movement encouraged by Curriculum for Excellence, and are irked by demands for towering metal fences to surround schools and sprinkler systems by its entrance. The "resistance to timber" in Scotland is also frustrating.

There is a danger that teachers, too, might become frustrated by tight design processes that limit much of their input to the latter stages. But by looking at the increasingly imaginative use of interior colour and designs in universities and further education, they can still put personal stamps on their surroundings, he says. Staff at one school were inspired to create a trail of thought-provoking quotes around their new premises.

Mr Stallan is "education design champion" for Architecture and Design Scotland, a public body which advises the Government on good architecture, design and planning. It is a role that keeps him abreast of recent trends in school design.

He has been hugely impressed by St Joseph's Academy in Kilmarnock, where there is a "focus on socialisation and getting kids familiar with an environment", thanks to a large mall-like area in the centre of the school where pupils can gather in comfort: "It's like High School Musical," he says.

RMJM offers its own glimpse of the future with plans for a possible sixth- form academy at Newcastle College. Aware that pupils often become disillusioned with school in their upper teens, they have tried to get as far away as possible from traditional school design. They propose something more enticing, with the feel of a boutique hotel. Most strikingly, the building is peppered with large circular holes to let passers-by see the activity inside, and to let light stream in.

"It's fun and it's punk - it's not institutional," Mr Stallan says. "We want the building to be quite sexy."

Lesley Woolfries, Holmes Partnership

Plenty of local authorities might be ignoring the Scottish Government's class-sizes policy, but don't accuse architects of that.

Lesley Woolfries is making sure to think ahead when she designs schools. If class sizes shrink, that has multiple knock-on effects. Apparently mundane details could have a big impact in years to come. So she designs in drainage points that are redundant for now; in the future, a huge amount of labour will be saved if a classroom needs new sinks and the groundwork has - literally - already been done.

Mrs Woolfries, an associate at Holmes Partnership in Glasgow, believes another big challenge on the horizon for school design is ICT. As the years pass, children are becoming more and more tech-savvy at a younger age, and that technology is increasingly portable. Pupils could soon be roaming the school with hand-held devices, she predicts, making the traditional notion of a classroom increasingly out of date. The computing lab is on its last legs: pupils will be able to use technology wherever they go.

Designing a school puts architects at the behest of a huge number of people, Mrs Woolfries explains. Consultation can stretch across hundreds of pupils and parents, dozens of teachers, and demanding specialists, such as psychologists. You have to meet with headteachers "very, very early" in the process to avoid heading off in the wrong direction.

Mrs Woolfries has been working on schools for seven years, and knows by now that local authorities issue far more prescribed instructions than maverick commercial developers. "I wouldn't be bold enough to try to change their minds," she says. "We try to respect their decision, whatever it is."

Her favourite design feature is one of her own - Kirktonholme Primary, East Kilbride. A first-floor library teems with light, thanks to large glass panes on two sides. It hovers above a busy multi-purpose area, with the industry below enhancing the serenity above: like Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio on the prow of the "Titanic", she suggests.

"You feel fantastic - you really feel part of the building," she says. "You can watch people going about their daily routines and feel part of it, without getting involved."

The painstaking process of school design becomes worth the effort, Mrs Woolfries insists, once she revisits the school when pupils and staff have moved in, put up their posters, rearranged the furniture, and given the shell of a building "personality".

"There's not a better feeling in the world when you're speaking to a six- year-old and they're thanking you so much for their new school."

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