25th April 2008 at 01:00
This school building is more than a generic block. It's been designed for disabled children who can touch, feel and smell it. Biddy Passmore peeks behind the scenes

This school building is more than a generic block. It's been designed for disabled children who can touch, feel and smell it. Biddy Passmore peeks behind the scenes

Hazelwood School in Glasgow is a beautiful building and has rightly won awards. But its beauty is also highly functional. It is a building designed to make the lives of the 52 severely disabled children who attend it as happy and independent as possible.

The pound;7 million school project, funded by Glasgow City Council and opened last summer, is thought to be the first building of its type in Europe: a school specifically designed for blind and deaf children, some of whom also have severe learning and mobility problems.

Almost every feature of the design emerged from a 20-month consultation between the architects and medical experts, as well as with staff, pupils, and parents. Gordon Murray and Alan Dunlop, of GM and AD Architects, entered into the spirit of the project so thoroughly that they put on blindfolds when visiting schools to find out how well blind or partially- sighted pupils would get around or see colour contrasts.

The S shape of the building has come directly from guidelines drawn up by Professor Gordon Dutton, an expert in paediatric ophthalmology and a consultant at the Royal Hospital for Sick Children in Glasgow.

He pointed out that it is quite common for children to have impaired vision on one side (in both eyes), which often makes them frightened in symmetrical environments. He recommended avoiding long, straight corridors too.

Professor Dutton also suggested having large, north-facing windows looking out on to the grass and trees, with wheelchair access to the outside areas. This kind of environment has a significant calming effect on pupils, he says.

The precise shape and siting of the resulting school, which has a wide, curved corridor as its backbone, was determined by the existence of three mature beech trees on its wooded site.

"The S shape embraces the trees; it's wrapped around them," says Alan, "and the trees form a sort of exterior classroom."

Helping children find their way around has been one of the architects' concerns. Many children with brain damage and impaired vision get lost, not just on their way to classrooms, but within them, Professor Dutton says.

Pupils at Hazelwood are helped to orientate themselves in several ways. First, classrooms open off the corridor in a logical order, starting with the nursery classes and ending with the senior school (pupils at the school range from two to 18 years).

Secondly, a sensory wall running the length of the corridor allows them to feel their way to class or to the music, cookery or art rooms. It incorporates a Braille line at different heights and also symbols indicating what point the child has reached: the art room, for instance, is marked by a paint brush carved into the wall.

Within each classroom, the layout is similar and labelling systematic. Any signs are simple and well spaced, with a tactile dimension to make them accessible to everyone. The corridor and classrooms are kept obstacle free, which means not just keeping all equipment behind curtains or in store rooms, but making sure that items such as bins are tall. Children with poor sight often cannot see the ground.

The classrooms also have no background clutter or decoration, with plain floor surfaces and clear contrasts in colour between wall and floor, wall and doorways and wall and windows.

"We tried to create a school that is domestic in character rather than institutional," Alan says.

"The school is also designed to provide a supportive setting for teachers and carers, with lots of natural daylight, private spaces and easy access to gardens. Acoustically, it is highly efficient, and it's also sustainable. It uses natural materials - Siberian larch for the walls, zinc on the roof and slate on some walls - which smell nice and are good or interesting to touch," he adds.

It is this contact with the outdoor world, as well as the pleasure of, say, touching a slate wall on a warm day, that particularly appeals to the pupils, say the staff.

For these severely disabled children, who formerly attended either Carnbooth (handsome, Edwardian, unsuitable) or Kelvin School (a temporary, post-war glorified hut), Hazelwood provides a safe, natural and sensation- rich environment in which they can learn the life skills needed for an independent future.

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