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The future of classroom design

In a knowledge based society education is our primary asset. Education buildings ought to inspire students from nursery through to higher education. Eleanor Brough, associate at Sarah Wigglesworth Architects, spoke to us about creating healthy learning spaces for the future.

Where do you see the future of classroom design?

We see the form of the traditional class base evolving to give greater flexibility to suit teaching styles, accommodate different ways of learning and facilitate extended use for out of hours activities. 

In the projects we have done with Mellor Primary School and Takeley Primary School direct access from the classroom to covered outdoor space has been key to enhancing the curriculum. At Mellor, class based activities have expanded to include woodwork and growing on the covered deck as well as Forest School activities which also make use of the surrounding wooded dell as an extension of the classroom. Utilising different types of spaces for learning – both inside and outside, built and natural – can open up subjects to students with varying aptitudes, recognising that not all children respond best to traditional desk based learning. 

One of the key roles of the classroom is to provide a place for communication and engagement. Well integrated and adaptable technology, alongside the physical design of the space is key to facilitating this. Interactive whiteboards and wifi technology are commonplace, placing vast library of resources at teachers’ and students’ finger tips. Acoustics are key, and at Mellor carefully considered acoustic attenuation alongside a Soundfield system means the teacher does not need to speak loudly to communicate with the class, creating a calmer setting and positive outcomes for both staff and students. In an early project for Mossbrook School in Sheffield, we used interactive technology – web-cams in the landscape, a camera obscura, and a sound installation combined with soft play - in our science classroom to provide a variety of sensory experiences to enhance class based learning for children with special needs. 

There is recognition (for example in the emerging WELL Standard) that a biophilic design, which provides connections to nature and the environment can bring benefits to our well being and productivity. This theory is tested at Mellor, where the new classroom sits in the tree canopy with windows designed to frame views to different elements in the landscape enabling children to appreciate and engage with seasonal changes. Teachers and children have commented positively on the unique and calming atmosphere of the ‘Tree Top Classroom’.

 What do you perceive as the main challenges in school design and construction?

  • Managing budgets and funding streams alongside and the school’s priorities 

  • Finding effective ways to communicate design proposals to clients who may not have commissioned a new building or extension previously – sketches, physical models, material samples alongside building visits and precedent images

  • Developing appropriate ways to engage with end users and evaluating and consolidating their input into a clear brief

  • Balancing immediate needs against long term aspirations

  • Balancing national requirements and standards against specific aspirations of staff

  • Programming design and construction work around school term time and holiday periods

  • Minimising disruption and mitigating health and safety risks for works taking place on an operational school site

 How do you achieve a healthy building design, and what does that encompass?

  • A comfortable environment, with principles of passive environmental design carefully considered from the outset

  • Well ventilated spaces, with plenty of fresh air helping to maintain concentration levels, achieved through careful environmental design with input from environmental design specialists

  • Good indoor air quality, achieved through specification of low/no VOC products

  • Naturally lit spaces, providing ample diffuse light and avoiding glare through well orientated and appropriately shaded windows, and north facing roof lights.

  • Views out to greenery and direct access to outdoor space 

  • A safe and secure environment for all ages and abilities, providing legible layouts which are simple to navigate, supported by a strategy for colour and texture and a clear approach to way finding  

  • Excellent acoustic performance both within and between spaces, with specialist acoustic input informing wall build ups and finishes and technology used where appropriate

  • Engaging and imaginative outdoor spaces, combing nature and ecology with hard and soft play areas

 Your recommendations for choosing building products used in schools

  • Use sustainable, natural materials and reclaimed or recycled materials, such as the timber used at Mellor and the range of found and salvaged materials in their Habitat Wall

  • Understand the potential of specifying materials and technolgies which enhance the curriculum and engage students in issues around environmental sustainability. At Sandal Magna Primary School fair faced finishes and services including transparent rainwater pipes support the school’s pedagogical approach to learning about sustainability. 

  • Specify robust materials that are easy to maintain, for example timber which will weather naturally.

  • Keep things simple, avoiding complex mechanical installations where possible and specifying products which are within the end users’s capabilities to maintain.

Three wishes for the future 

  • A wider appreciation of the role good design has in creating engaging learning environments and the positive outcomes this has for staff and children

  • Flexibility in the brief, and an understanding that the traditional classroom is not the only way to learn

  • An investment in post occupancy evaluation. The best way in which we as design professionals and our clients as building commissioners can continue to improve is to learn from our previous projects, understand where things may have been done better and look to address this in the next project

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