As the government and local authorities look to follow through with plans to increase the number of school places to the required 417,000 by 2015, the refurbishment sector is astir with activity. With purse strings tightening, it is up to contractors to come up with creative ways to utilise existing space to its full potential.
In an effort to achieve the thousands of additional school places the UK needs, education building design is being driven by the best use of space. Increasingly, the question project delivery specialists have to ask themselves is how to make the most of what a school already has, and if necessary how they can efficiently extend it, without compromising its outdoor spaces. All the while, average budgets are noticeably shrinking.
There has been a major shift since the days of the grand designs associated with the BSF programme and it remains a moving feast, with the specification of school refurbishment having changed dramatically in as little as five years. In this new context, designers and contractors have come up with some create approaches to tackling recurring themes.
Flexible learning zones
To get more out of an existing space, in-built flexibility is absolutely key. So where space and budgets are both squeezed, the creation of multi-purpose areas – for example those that can quickly be turned from an assembly hall into a performance area or cyber-cafe – are becoming popular.
As a result, companies such as Styles & Wood are increasingly specifying and fitting out large, open-plan areas with the capacity to host a variety of activities and events through a layout which can be altered quickly and easily. A key method of achieving this is specifying retractable seating, which can be set up temporarily as and when required. Ensuring these spaces are equipped with wireless technology to accommodate laptops and tablets will deliver maximum accessibility and flexibility for them to be used as teaching spaces.
Independent work pods
For institutions with older, more independent students such as sixth-form colleges the installation of individual learning pods is becoming increasingly popular. These are sought after due to the flexibility and ease with which they can be built and moved around libraries and resource centres to create private, independent learning zones. The pods can also be equipped with wireless technology, and promote sound insulating properties and excellent acoustic benefits, which means students have the opportunity to work in a quiet, convenient environment when access to computer suites and classrooms may be restricted.
Stacking and multi-storey schools
‘Stacking’ is another strategy which has emerged as a way of tackling the space challenge. Known more commonly as multi-storey building, it offers the real benefit of creating four or six new classrooms over two or three storeys, without overly expanding a building’s footprint. This provides an alternative when there is a reluctance to extend out across grounds dramatically. Schools can accommodate more children and improve facilities, without having to use space dedicated to sports facilities and playgrounds.
With cost remaining an ongoing issue for the education sector, stakeholders and contractors are looking for ways to bring down the capital expenditure required for every project. There was once a time when a contractor could walk into a school knowing there was the budget to replace every fixture and fitting, but nowadays they’re driven by the need to be more selective. The industry has also embraced the need to understand the life cycle and integrity of the existing facilities and fittings and look to refurbish or improve rather than replace wherever possible. There are always ways of saving money without compromising on the finish quality and functionality.
This might mean re-using existing furniture, or maintaining current hardwood floors that can be polished and varnished to look more presentable, rather than spending the money on replacing them.
New demands in the market are also driving significant changes in the skills of contractors. Styles & Wood, for example, are increasingly offering clients a turnkey service, which includes consulting and advising clients through every stage in the refurbishment process, from the specification of furniture through to the installation and set-up of ICT systems.
Contractors’ roles and skills have evolved in a bid to help all sectors, including education, to future proof their facilities by integrating new ICT systems into current buildings and reap the benefits. Upgrading ICT in schools helps increase the number of flexible learning zones, and also provides the option for building management systems (BMS) to be installed, allowing estates teams to monitor and manage the running and efficiency of the buildings. Ultimately, this can save on heating and energy costs as it allows teams to track which areas of the school are in use at what times and switch off radiators and lighting accordingly.
Whether budgets increase in the long term remains to be seen, however the best practice that is being developed now to ensure all education buildings are used to their full potential can only be a good thing for the future of the sector’s built environment.