08Jun
Ed Investment

Interview with Alastair Blyth

1. In your opinion, what has been the biggest shift in schools design and how do you think this will continue to evolve in the coming years?

I think that the biggest shift in schools design is the recognition that a variety of spaces in schools can be used as settings for learning, that schools can use more than just the classroom box. A survey that I did at the OECD for “Designing for Education” showed trends in school building design moving towards providing environments with greater variation in the types, sizes and shapes of space to accommodate different activities and varied group sizes.

As learning is a social process and students work in groups as well as individually other spaces traditionally conceived as having a single function such as the canteen can be used. Also spaces such as corridors which would be used periodically during the day for the movement of people provide space for students to work on projects together. This has led to the development of designs that incorporate a greater variety of spaces and provide opportunity for teachers and students to adapt the environment to suit their particular needs. While the changes are not universal, in that not every school or school system is changing their buildings, there is a trend.

I would say that it is more the wider acceptance of this idea and recognition of the value of space that has changed rather than merely the fact of schools being designed this way. Although these changes are more prevalent now, forty years ago the OECD noted that school accommodation no longer consisted of uniform classrooms and that they had given way to a variety of space there was perhaps less change in pedagogy.

Another broad design shift is the extent to which the buildings are becoming more transparent so that people can see what is happening throughout the building and feel connected with those activities even if they are not always taking an active part in them. The transparency is being facilitated by greater use of glazing or more attention being given to the design of sight lines.

The symbiotic relationship between pedagogy and building has to be recognised. The pattern varies from school to school and between the extremes of entirely contiguous space with few if any, walls to broadly cellular approaches. For example, one can see school layouts that have very few enclosed rooms, although the best ones don’t have entirely open plan either- in other words there are partially enclosed spaces. Essentially they create a variety of settings for group and individual teaching and learning to take place. This may demand a different teaching approach, for example team teaching. At the other end of the scale there may be the predominance of classrooms, but these have a close relationship with alternative small spaces.

2. With growing demand in school spaces and not enough space to build large school, what would you say are the top 3 considerations when designing quality school buildings for demand?

A focus on greater efficiency in the use of space, designing space that is capable of being used in a variety of different ways, for example looking at how spaces can have more than one function so that when they are not being used for one thing, they can be used for another.

Enabling greater flexibility and agility within spaces. This also relates back to the previous point. The point about making spaces agile is to enable people to quickly change the arrangement of furniture in the rooms. This will also facilitate more varied use. Furniture that is fixed or difficult to move because it is heavy constrains how space can be used. Likewise the supporting technology such as whiteboards and data projectors need to be incorporated in such a way that they can be moved.

Another important consideration is robustness of finishes to buildings to enable them to withstand more intensive use.

 3. Personalisation of facilities design is a growing trend; how can this be incorporated in facility design to cater for growing student numbers?

I think the issue here, if I have understood the question correctly, is to humanise the building and make it meaningful for the individual. In one sense this is about animating the spaces with features that individuals can relate to. Designing the building so that through its scale and its proportions it is human. Providing variety and creating smaller units that reduce the apparent scale of what may be a large building and provide small gathering spaces. One can also incorporate features that people can relate to, or are meaningful to them for example sculpture or other exhibits. Also allow people to animate spaces themselves through perhaps display of student work – it is about creating places that people can play with, that invite intervention. In that sense the users whether they are teachers, students or support staff are being invited to design parts of their own space or spaces that they use. In this design design is being seen as a co-operative venture, not just the preserve of the ‘designer’.

 4. What design principals can be applied when building education facilities that are cost efficient, as well as inspiring for both learners and teachers?

Implicit in the question are two myths. First, there is a myth that good design is expensive. That is, that there is a natural relationship between design and cost inefficiency. Second, buildings that are cost efficient cannot be inspiring.

However, good design does not have to be expensive, but it does have to be thoughtful. One interpretation of good design is that it is the meaningful and efficient allocation of resources.

I think four key design principles are: understanding value, responding to change, useability and efficient design.

There are two areas of cost efficiency to consider and these four ideas relate to both. Education facilities have to be cost efficient to construct (i.e. in terms of capital expenditure), and cost efficient to use (i.e. in terms of current expenditure) including both maintenance and operational cost including energy use, which is one of the most expensive components of operational expenditure.

Cost-efficiency is easy to measure but hard to assess because there must be a relationship between cost which is measurable and value which is not always easy to empirically measure.

So one question is what value does the physical learning environment add beyond being just a weather-tight box that contains human activity? To a great extent this is one of the questions that the OECD Learning Environment Evaluation Programme is attempting to answer through its study into the physical learning environment.

Creating and environment that is responsive to change. Given that buildings must support the needs of users and respond to user needs, as the context of the users (teachers or students) change whether this is imposed by policy change, technology or developments in pedagogy, so the building should be able to accommodate this. It can do this through its flexibility so that users can move things about easily and quickly without difficulty to create a day-to-day environment that suits them. It can also do this through its adaptability, in other words being able to accept structural changes so that for example more accommodation can be provided.

An efficient environment is one that is easy to use and manageable for people. Very often buildings that are inefficient in terms of energy use, are those that have technological systems or features that people find difficult to use, or that are designed in such a way that people do not intuitively understand how to operate them. Such systems invariably also cost a lot to maintain. Merely designing a building that meets a very high rating on an environmental rating system is not enough, users must be able to operate it otherwise say the real energy performance way lower that the notional designed energy rating. Giving users control over their environment is important whether it is heating, cooling, lighting or sun-blinds. Whether they feel that they do not have control, leads to frustration and the building being seen as a constraint rather than an enabler. The aim is to reduce the number of obstacles to using the building.

It can be tempting to have too much design, too many parts in the system that just add to the complexity and the cost of construction as well as cost of operation, and more options for failure. A simple, well thought through building can be far more elegant and inspiring than one that includes too much of the latest, but poorly understood technology that can end up on show as if to demonstrate some sort of design prowess.

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