How older schools are creating modern educational spaces

18 marzo 2019

Rich in heritage and history, many of the UK’s long-established schools are looking for new ways to merge the old with the new as they create modern learning environments.

With more than 5,000 listed schools in England alone, each establishment has its own unique features from stained glass windows to centuries-old oak panelling. Modernisation needs to be based on a detailed understanding of significance of the building, says Paul Crisp, Head of Heritage at JLL.

“Having listed buildings on site really plays to the sense of tradition and prestige which is massively sought-after by parents,” says Crisp. “But modernisation is a balance between providing bright, airy learning spaces and protecting the character of older buildings.”

Modern, energy-efficient learning environments need carefully designed spaces, often to respond to specific age group needs or learning requirements. Design flaws, such as cramped conditions or a lack of natural light, can negatively impact on the learning experience or even affect students’ mental health, as a recent report by Place with Architecture and Design Scotland, set out.

“Fitting sensors to monitor carbon dioxide levels is one way to avoid pupils getting drowsy and losing concentration,” says Vincenzo Cacioppo, senior building surveyor at JLL. “The sensors alert teaching staff when CO2 levels drop, prompting them to open windows to boost air quality before the inevitable yawning occurs at the back of the class.”

Restoring original windows to ensure they work as they did centuries ago can help.

“Historic buildings are often naturally well ventilated with large sash windows, although we frequently find these to be painted shut following decades of redecoration,” Cacioppo says.

Many older schools, such as London’s Dulwich College, have curtained windows above head height, thought to have been positioned to prevent distraction in the classroom.

“When seeking to add light, the answer can sometimes be found above with skylights or dormer windows proving a good alternative option – in some cases these features are already present but have been hidden by artificial ceilings or boarded over,” says Cacioppo.

Ensuring buildings are fit for purpose

The way tech is incorporated also informs design decisions – something older buildings generally are facing up to as connectivity becomes de facto. Providing reliable and extensive wifi connections across classrooms and learning areas is often essential, says Tom Lambshead, Planning, Development and Heritage Associate Director.

Another way schools are seeking to modernise is by creating more communal spaces for better collaboration - something that has become equally prevalent in the workplace but can prove tricky to accommodate in older schools.

“There’s demand from schools to create space beyond just the canteen for interaction and dialogue between pupils and teachers,” he says. “While seismic design changes are highly unlikely, gone are the days of pupils sitting in rows being talked to for eight hours a day.”

Equally new external additions from security gates to sports facilities can also be designed to better blend in with their surroundings. “There’ll always be the conflict between aesthetic and the practical,” says Lambshead.

“While children’s welfare remains the top priority - and buildings need to change with the times to accommodate modern health and safety - schools often have to work within their existing structures to strike a balance between preserving their heritage and creating an environment which allows for study, creativity and relaxation.”

Meeting requirements from all sides

Schools also need to show the Local Authority planning and conservation officers and, in some cases, Historic England, that modernisation works maintain a balance between what makes the building special and delivering the high-quality spaces that teaching requires.

Historic England, the government’s advisor on Heritage, says that in many cases, schools can be “successfully refurbished to accommodate new uses, equipment and modern teaching methods, rather than being lost to educational use altogether”. But debate can get heated, as is the case with refurbishment plans for Scottish school, Butterstone.

Furthermore, heritage is not just the classic red-brick or Cotswold stone. Last year, Dorset’s Bryanston School was one of 17 post-modern buildings listed by Historic England as a building of special architectural or historic interest.

“These post-war buildings have a different set of values, but what’s key is to understand the reason for listing, so it’s not overlooked in the modernisation works,” says Crisp.

Design for life

With many schools boasting histories going back hundreds of years, many have been renovated several times, leading to a variety of design, ranging from traditional Victorian architecture through brutalism to modern glass structures.

“That’s pretty typical and you could say somewhat unavoidable,” Lambshead says, pointing to the impact that a donation from a benefactor can have on the design decisions of the day.

“When a school is left so many thousands by a former pupil or teacher, the very period that happens in can influence a school’s design choices,” he explains. “There are obvious implications for the overall look and feel of a school campus if that money is spent without consideration for the long-term.”

While many schools have a masterplan or estates strategy in place, thinking for the long term is, says Lambshead, something more schools may need to consider – despite the temptation to simply fix immediate concerns.

“At many schools, applications for places are high and it’s tempting to simply satisfy that demand with a quick solution in an area of a school campus where there’s less risk of architectural mismatch,” he says. “But the right answer today may be regretted in a decade.”

And with a school’s heritage playing a key part of its modern brand, ensuring that buildings can both reflect its heritage and facilitate the learning experience is a long-term balancing act.