Keeping your options open

The importance of flexible space in future education facilities and the latest innovations in the building products market

The government’s priority school building programme (PSBP) has delivered some positive steps forward for the school estate across the UK, with Whitmore Park Primary School in Coventry the first to open its doors under the £2.4 billion scheme. The injection of additional capital funding back in May was further progress in the drive to rebuild those schools in need of urgent repair, and the future of our school estate, you might argue, looks rosy. But there are challenges afoot.

As the programme enters its second phase, it’s increasingly clear that contractors are struggling to meet the stringent affordability targets in place. The aspiration to deliver best value for money is, of course, a valid one, but in pushing forward austerity measures, it’s critical we remain focused on the ultimate end-goal. And that’s constructing flexible, future-proofed buildings that will support positive learning outcomes. It’s a point made all too clearly by Wates’ Steve Beechey in a recent edition of this magazine. The question now is how to deliver.

The answer, at least in part, lies with taking a holistic view and designing for cost-effective space utilisation that can adapt as the demands of the busy school environment grow and develop. We need a long-term solution, not a short-term fix, and flexibility is key.

Whilst this current programme is being scrutinised by taxpayers and politicians alike, the truth is there will be very little interest in the changing facility needs of the school building once it’s completed and throughout its life. Pupils and teachers will effectively be on their own.

The space we create now therefore needs to not only be able to accommodate current requirements, it must also be multi-purpose, with the option to reconfigure it and re-allocate it as required in future. No mean feat, when we consider the current focus on affordability. 

Flexible futures

In terms of future design trends, the use of open-plan space is increasingly popular in educational establishments, helping to encourage communication, creativity and information sharing. Clifton with Rawcliffe Primary School in Yorkshire is a case in point. Here, more traditional, individual classrooms have gone in favour of large open spaces, often shared by several classes at any one time. The focus is on controlling the environment in order to support a particular style of teaching and learning.

Despite the benefits on offer, however, care must be taken that open-plan learning environments do not go the way of open-plan offices, with communication overload, low concentration levels and a deficit of quiet space when needed.

Acoustics, insulation, and flexibility all need to be key considerations when building open-plan design features into an educational environment and it’s these aspects that are triggering architects and contractors to increasingly look to the building products market for a flexible solution.

Once associated with function, rather than aesthetics, extensive R&D and new technology are now driving a growth in high-specification movable wall design. This was initially a trend in the commercial office environment, with major corporates such as Google and Yahoo embracing the opportunity for open-plan environments which offer the option of private, flexible space as required. The education sector has not taken long to follow, however.

Movable walls are proving an increasingly popular solution as the creation of large, open-plan spaces sees schools battle with challenges similar to those that have faced commercial occupiers for the last decade.

Sound acoustics 

In introducing movable walls into the education sector, there are clear regulatory requirements to consider – not least the need to comply with the building regulations set out in Building Bulletin 93. This recognises the background noise and sound intrusion that can cause issues in open-plan lay-outs and calls for appropriate insulation in multi-functional space. It also sets out a minimum expected standard for the acoustic design of schools and specifically a 35db limit for indoor ambient noise levels.

Developments in technology mean that certain movable wall ranges are more than capable of meeting and exceeding the required levels – Akurawall’s slimline range, for example, can provide acoustic insulation of up 57db. Project teams should pay particular attention to how acoustic levels are tested, however.

Any movable wall partition needs to be able to deal with both airborne sound and prevent or reduce noise travelling from one room to another. But where a partition is made up of different elements – for example, doors or glazing – each element will have its own sound reduction characteristics and these all need to be taken into account. It is not just a question of looking at the largest and highest-rated part.

Similarly, consideration of the surrounding structure and not just the partition itself is also critical to ensuring suitable levels of noise insulation. Areas typically prone to sound leakage include continuous suspended ceilings, ventilation grills and connected ductwork and doors common to corridors. This sound leakage is known as ‘flanking transmission’. Ensuring that all flanking elements are fully and appropriately sealed or insulated is critical to achieving the required dB rating. 

In practice

Strong acoustic properties, combined with ease of operation and flexible design have seen Akurawall’s movable walls used in schools up and down the country, including London’s Blossom House School, Downlands School in Wiltshire, St Catherine’s in Middlesex and, most recently, at the House of Commons and Westminster City Council’s new Parliamentary Education Centre, for which work started in September this year. With the latter due to be completed in the summer of 2015, flexibility has been central to the design brief, with the option to effectively collapse and move the education centre after a 10-year period. Inside, this focus on flexibility continues, with main contractor Balfour Beatty commissioning a number of acoustic movable walls to allow the space to be segmented according to learning requirements. Not only will these walls support greater flexibility and robust sound insulation, they’ll also act as a design feature in their own right, with the option to print on them or even to write on them in order to facilitate learning.

As we invest in education facilities, building products that support flexibility will be key. Facilities must be not only relevant and functional now, but future-proofed and able to remain so for the next 40 years. Careful selection of building products can help to ensure this is the case.  

Author Alex Stewart is manager at Divisions Operable Wall Systems, part of the Akurawall Group W:

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