Shape of things to come

12th August 2005 at 01:00
When it comes to designing their own outdoor space, artificial grass rates high on a Harris school's wish-list. Su Clark finds out how a landscaping project involving architects and pupils is taking shape

The children look at one another to check if they all reckon it is a daft idea. Their incredulous faces show they do, but are too polite to voice it straight away. Seaweed cultivation platforms is what it says on the design.

Midge paradise is how the children read it. It is only a few seconds before they all start saying so.

"This is one of the reasons it is so fantastic and so important to get the young people who will have to use the facility involved at the design stage," says Gordon Macdonald, the headteacher at Sir E Scott School in Tarbert, on the Hebridean island of Harris.

"They know a seaweed field is madness. They've lived with midges all their lives."

Seaweed cultivation platforms are only a tiny part of the early-stage design produced by landscape architect Lisa McKenzie, following extensive consultation with S1 pupils. They are a little quirk any designer could come up with. The pupils will put her right.

"We want AstroTurf, AstroTurf, AstroTurf," says Kieran Mulhern, an S2 pupil who, along with his classmates, got involved in the project in S1.

Ms McKenzie has obviously heard his call. Her design has a large area designated as an all-weather games field.

Others want improved seating areas outside and places to play and chat. Ms McKenzie's design has a tiered bank overlooking the games field, plus other seats dotted through the area.

David McCririck, the school's biology teacher and co-ordinator of its Eco Schools programme - and now also its landscape project co-ordinator - wants a garden. Planting beds, productive gardens and growing pockets are part of the plan.

The project is just one of a series initiated by The Lighthouse, Scotland's centre for architecture and design. In its three-year Design for Learning: 21st Century Schools programme, the Glasgow-based charitable trust has been bringing together architects and landscape designers with school pupils, the end-users of their designs. The aim is twofold: to have better, functional, longer-lasting buildings and to encourage greater understanding among children of their environment and why they should value it.

For Sir E Scott School, the brief was to integrate the outside environment into the curriculum and get more children outside more of the time. In preparation for their project, the pupils spent time in class discussing how they would like their outside area to be developed, before spending a week last February with Ms McKenzie, brainstorming ideas and making models.

"We wanted to do the project with the younger pupils, who would be able to work on it right through from inception to completion," says Ann Cunningham, the education projects officer at The Lighthouse. "They will see it finished, hopefully, before they leave school."

When Sir E Scott was picked for one of the projects, it had already been partly refurbished through a public-private partnership programme and was awaiting the second phase, which would see the rest of the ageing building renovated and the outside areas revamped. The initial plan was merely to pave the grounds for games.

However, getting involved with The Lighthouse has allowed the senior management and pupils' ambitions to soar. The aim now is to change the current collection of mobile classrooms, outhouses, a bizarre swimming pool bubble, car park and concrete into a vibrant, useful and interesting learning and leisure environment.

On the design list is the much demanded artificial grass, a climbing wall, a sports shelter, a black house, tidal gardens to make the most of the school's coastal location, a walkway out to the sea for marine studies, an exploration pool, a dining terrace for when the weather - and the midges - permit picnicking, gardens that could produce food for the dining hall and an orchard.

Mr McCririck, has been working with the pupils over the past year to increase awareness of the environment and to encourage them to behave in a way that is more considerate of the planet. For him, the best feature of the design is the gardens, which he hopes will be looked after by the students.

"The area isn't just for leisure and sport," he says. "There are areas where we can go outside to study biology, geography and history." Even the weather won't stop them. "This area has been designed knowing it can be windy all year round," he adds.

The play areas and seating bank, along with all the other features, will also be open to the community. As the school is over the local community centre, with a swimming pool and indoor sports facilities downstairs, local people visit the vicinity anyway.

The fabulous environment is still at a design stage and, with no money earmarked for anything elaborate, it may be some time before Sir E Scott School pupils get their gardens and seats. But they have been able to take part in the planning process and set right any ideas that growing midge-magnet seaweed could make their environment more pleasant.

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