It should not be controversial to say that schools should be well designed: that the spaces where so much of everyone’s childhood is spent should be well lit, well proportioned, and well planned; that there should be signs of care and glimmers of human spirit in their design and construction; and that there should be natural reminders in the materials and views out. Even if limited educational results are your sole focus, there is evidence that the quality of school settings aids these achievements.
This is particularly important for a government whose members have often seen the beautiful architecture of private schools and Oxbridge institutions. It is, however, gone.
New school buildings have been subject to functionalist papers called Building Bulletins since 2014, when Michael Gove was Secretary of State for Education. These specify, with as much ambition and pleasure in learning as dishwashing instructions, how much floorspace is given each kid, how much storage and other auxiliary space is allotted, and what are the best zone layouts.
In principle, these rules establish minimum standards, but in reality, they serve as maximums when delivery demands push them down. Local governments provide school construction contracts to a few large construction firms, who regard the bulletins as how-to manuals to be carried out as quickly and certainly as possible.
The end product is a school that resembles an industrial park unit. Classrooms are lined up in dumb boxes resembling cubicles, situated amid asphalt oceans of parking lots.
The materials are flimsy, and the details have been overlooked. Primary colors may be used, ostensibly for the benefit of children’s brains.
Wintringham Primary Academy, in the Cambridgeshire town of St Neots, is a welcome exception to this rule. Classrooms are intended to have as much interaction with the outdoors as possible, with large windows and exterior doors, as well as a central circular courtyard with a planted “grove” that allows classrooms to receive sunshine from two sides.
The layout reflects a concept of educating as much as possible outdoors, both in the grove and in the nearby playground. It is intended to maintain bees and rear hens, as well as cultivate vegetables and herbs for soup.
“It’s about teaching children to appreciate their surroundings,” says Tracy Bryden, the school’s principal. “If they care about the environment, they will do more to protect it.”
The school is made of cross-laminated timber (CLT), a kind of super-plywood that transforms trees into a more environmentally friendly alternative to steel and concrete. It’s tough, efficient, dependable, and versatile.
It can perform most of the tasks that other materials do: it can hold a structure up, just like steel, and enclose a room, just like bricks. It has the ability to give a visible finish, similar to painted plaster.
It allows for quick building times: Wintringham Academy would have been completed in 12 months if not for a three-month delay caused by Covid.
With their sports hall and music facility for Kingsdale school in south London, which was finished in 2006, the school’s architects, dRMM, helped to pioneer the use of CLT. They also utilized the material in the 2017 Stirling Prize-winning renovation of Hastings Pier.
Although most school construction contractors still favor steel and plasterboard, it is increasingly becoming more popular. The fact that the wood will be visible within the building will be the most apparent advantage for the youngsters at Wintringham.
They perceive something that sprouted from the earth, rather than petrochemical goods like paint and plastic.
The Building Bulletins’ text has been turned into a little of practical poetry with a little ingenuity. In circulation spaces that would otherwise be monofunctional corridors, opportunities are utilized to construct extra learning rooms. Wherever feasible, partitions are omitted.
Storage is managed in a unique way, with storage being dispersed throughout the classrooms rather than in distinct rooms. To avoid taking up valuable interior space, lockers are put outdoors.
While the bulletins suggest that classrooms should be organized in small rows of cells, as is the case in most new schools, dRMM’s more fluid design takes use of the fact that it isn’t required.
The school is big – with three grades and a preschool, it will ultimately have over 700 students and 60 teachers and support personnel – yet the design makes it seem small. The two-story design also aims to serve as a beacon for a neighborhood that isn’t quite ready — a 2,500-home development that takes use of the fact that St Neots is less than an hour’s train ride from London.
The school confronts a proposed town square with just promissory hoardings – “an exciting new community,” “wellbeing at its core” – for the time being. The school hall is located at the end of the new building closest to this ostensible plaza, allowing the public to access it for events and performances without having to pass through the teaching rooms.
The construction is tallest at this point due to the height of the hall. It’s also elevated off the ground to give it a stronger presence.
The building’s exterior is made of glazed terracotta with tree-inspired gradations of green, yellow, and russet that attempt to combine dignity and playfulness. This is all fairly basic information, but it conveys a sense of pride in the school and the community that is absent from the Building Bulletins.
The characteristics of Wintringham — the connection to the outdoors, the natural finishes, the smart use of space – are also not rocket science. It’s also not perfect; there are certain architectural and crucial elements that might be improved.
The landscaping is a bit generic and could be anywhere, failing to meet the school’s goal of bringing students closer to nature. However, it still sets a high bar that other institutions should strive to meet.
Because the developers of the adjacent housing, Urban & Civic, were engaged in its development, it has been able to accomplish so much. They hired dRMM to create a masterplan for the proposed square before the school was built.
They collaborated with Cambridgeshire County Council to develop a brief that emphasized the significance of design. Morgan Sindall, the contractor that won the contract, reacted by contracting dRMM to design the structure.
The headteacher and her staff were given the opportunity to offer ideas to the design, which is something that seldom happens.
There is enlightened self-interest at work for Urban & Civic, who are pursuing similar policies in the Cambridgeshire villages of Alconbury and Waterbeach, as well as the Rugby suburb of Houlton. Building a good school is both worthwhile in and helpful in selling houses. This is fantastic news for Wintringham’s future students.
However, in regions where property firms have an interest, such quality should not be dependent on their kindness and intellect. This is how all schools should be constructed.