How to create architecturally engaging schools on low budgets

29th September 2015

Passionate about the quality of education buildings and spaces in the UK, Lee Bennett and James Jones were asked to write the following essay for the Architects Journal on practice's schools in Liverpool.

The city has found a scalable and economic model for delivering high-quality schools, showing how architects’ creativity – when fully harnessed – can deliver good design that saves money.

After the cancellation of the final phases of its BSF programme in 2010, Liverpool City Council decided to complete the regeneration of its education estate by self-funding projects through the Scape framework, which was partly funded by the city’s recently acquired mayoral funds. The initiative – part of the Liverpool Schools Investment Programme – revolved around the design of a new 950-pupil school for children aged between 11-18 years old, which developed scalable design ideas that could be then used across a number of projects.

The city’s brief called for a non-iconic, cost-effective and adaptable shell structure capable of hosting a pedagogically-driven, bespoke arrangement of school accommodation. This was to learn from the last decade of schools delivered under the BSF programme, moving away from some of the experimental and expensive ‘transformational’ spaces that it encouraged.

The outcome was the Liverpool Schools Model. This creates a flexible and economic architectural ‘shell’, within which individual components are added, to create a mix of learning and social spaces bespoke to the individual school’s requirements. Our design also had to be capable of future reuse for non-educational purposes, with the building envelope entirely independent of any internal structure. The internal floors of the schools had to be completely removable, providing the city with a future-proofed asset.

We worked with Wilmott Dixon on this new approach, a successful partnership that delivered the first school using this model – Notre Dame Catholic College – in September 2013. Construction was completed in 56 weeks with the school costing £1,459/m², including full FF&E, significant groundworks and retaining structures, and all consultant fees. Since this, we have delivered two more schools using the same model – Archbishop Beck and Archbishop Blanch.

We developed the brief for all three schools in advance of the EFA’s post-2010 policy rethink. We used Building Bulletins as guidance only, considering specific problems from first principles with teachers and the city’s advisors.

Archbishop Blanch, which opened this month, uses some of the common architectural features used on the past two schools, such as positioning classrooms around the perimeter of the structure to create naturally lit and ventilated learning spaces. However, at Archbishop Blanch, we modified the design to cater for the school’s specific cultural requirements. This involved creating a longer, thinner structure, with school life centred on two internal courtyards: one quieter and more contemplative and the other larger and busier, containing dining spaces. This is a very different response from Notre Dame, which was informed by its own research of the pedagogic and social requirements of the school. It was formed from one large open space which had the feel of a village, with a chapel at its heart and streets defined by pavilion-like learning areas and performance spaces.

Unlike the EFA model, the limiting parameters to the design were simply the predefined budget, not proscriptive area stipulations. This allowed the design to ‘breathe’, delivering more economic floor space than would be allowed under more typical school procurement. Rather than being limited to a predetermined kit of parts, the project gave us space to engage with the specific issues of the schools.

The model does not come without its challenges, which mostly relate to cost and programme. We were working to a budget significantly lower than previous BSF cost rates, yet Liverpool’s commitment to design quality was undiminished. Keeping to budget was helped by Liverpool’s choice of procuring through the Scape framework, using the open book NEC partnering contract. This meant that all parties – school, city, architect and contractor – were working to the same end on design/cost decisions.

With the completion of three schools so far, the first now having been open for two years, we have seen that quality educational space can be delivered on an ‘austerity’ budget. Notre Dame has become one of the most sought-after schools in the city, with performance and truancy levels significantly improving. The second and third schools have been built even more efficiently as the team tunes the model each time. Most significantly we believe the Liverpool Schools Model demonstrates that good design saves money, encouraging close consultation with the end-user and giving architects the chance to shape learning and social spaces to the specific requirements of the school. Not only does this cater for needs on a practical level, it also leaves staff and pupils with a feeling that they have been listened to and invested in – which, in our experience, is a powerful thing.

Schools of this quality could not have been delivered at this cost under the BSF, due to its procedure-driven approach. With the Liverpool Schools Model the competitive part of contractor and design team appointment was dealt with at the start, before briefing and design began. This meant a proper relationship could develop between client/user and contractor/designer. Cost and design decisions were taken in a productive atmosphere devoid of the iconic gimmicks and creative accounting of the BSF and Academy ITT stages.

We hope that the proven success of the Liverpool projects will register with forward-thinkers within government policy circles. Certainly other local authorities desperate to meet the rising demand for school places have noticed the outcomes in Liverpool, and are keen to replicate the quality and cost success; for example, we are now exploring designs with Bedford College Academy Trust. Lighter touch procurement routes such as the Free Schools programme seem to provide opportunity for this to happen, and we would like to see direct EFA procurement evolve to give architects more opportunity to add value.

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