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Creating inspirational learning spaces

“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” said Nelson Mandela. So, what can be done for the future of education buildings to ensure they are structurally sound, healthy and nurturing environments, and can also be built and maintained under tight budgets?

The famous quote from Nelson Mandela serves as a reminder of how important education is. Looking at the UK’s current stock of education buildings, in many cases the environment in which children are learning is less than adequate. Reports have found existing schools to be damp and leaky and it was headline news when 17 schools in Edinburgh were closed due to poor construction. A National Audit Office report has revealed that to get all school buildings up to scratch would cost an estimated £6.7 billion.

Designing for the next generation

Currently, there are no specific requirements set out by the government for the building of schools other than non-statutory guidelines such as the ‘Area guidelines for mainstream schools’ which provides details on the spaces recommended for schools based on pupil numbers, age range and curriculum.

With limited direction from the government, the onus is on the architect or building designer to work with the local authority or sponsor of the building to achieve the best outcome.

With this in mind, how can we use timber in educational buildings help to create learning spaces which inspire learning, foster creativity and improve productivity for children and young adults?

Timber helps to take the stress out of learning

Health and wellbeing is a topical issue in construction. With numerous studies examining the achievable health and wellbeing benefits for building occupiers, it’s no wonder that so many clients are including it in their design briefs.

This extends to education buildings too. An Austrian study conducted by Human Research compared the health of children in two different classrooms; one constructed with timber and the other with standard materials. The results of the study were substantial; and showed children in the timber classroom were less stressed, had significantly lower heart rates and were generally happier. Other studies have highlighted the positive response people have had in buildings made from or containing wood because of the warm and calming effect it has.

Bringing the outdoors in to increase productivity and creativity

The calm and peaceful feeling people experience in a timber building is linked to biophilic design. Biophilia means a love of nature and is essentially about bringing the outdoors in, with increased daylight, use of timber and plants.

Buildings using biophilic design, particularly timber, have shown the same benefits as the Austrian classroom study. Biophilia also helps increase productivity and creativity - essential elements for a learning environment.

Oliver Heath Design, a sustainable architecture and interior design practice, cites research that education spaces built with biophilic design principles increase the rate of learning by 20-25% and can improve test results, concentration levels and attendance. It can also reduce the impacts of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

Oliver Heath Design used timber in a creative way to transform a gym in a school for children with special educational needs. The hexagonal seating at Hackney Garden school constructed of natural wood is not just aesthetically pleasing but provides a space for children to relax and recharge their batteries.

Improving indoor air quality

Indoor air quality is an issue high up on the health and wellbeing agenda. Air pollution is the biggest environmental health risk on the planet and our education spaces are a contributor. A study by the University of Reading revealed that 35% of school hours had inadequate air quality conditions. When the students in these classrooms were tested, it was clear that higher levels of CO2 were affecting their cognitive abilities, resulting in lower memory capabilities and reduced reaction times.

The simple combination of plants and wooden interiors can significantly improve indoor air quality through effective humidity regulation and removal of CO2 from the air.

Flexible spaces and rapid construction

Timber engineering allows for wood to be manipulated into a variety of shapes and sizes, so furniture and interiors can be moulded to fit the needs of children and students, rather than the other way around.

Cross-laminated timber (CLT) is another result of great timber engineering and CLT alongside timber frame is increasingly being used for education buildings due to faster build times. Construction of education buildings often requires a quick turnaround and the summer break offers the perfect opportunity for this work to take place.

CLT and timber frame can be manufactured offsite in factories, meaning they can be delivered to site and installed in a matter of weeks. This reduces construction traffic and minimises the need for a large number of construction workers on site.

This type of construction also lends itself to a more flexible building and features such as interchangeable walls can be incorporated so the building users can adapt the building as requirements change.  

Education spaces should inspire students from nursery through to higher education. Designing buildings and interiors that improve health, air quality and productivity should be top of the brief to ensure that future generations get the best from their educational experiences.

Further information

Read our interview with Eleanor Brough, associate at Sarah Wigglesworth Architects, on the future of classroom design.

Explore case studies of education buildings

Find out more about wood in buildings and the lifecycle database at www.woodforgood.com

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