Designing Schools Means Designing Projects

December 19th, 2014

Joe Taylor
Associate Partner,
Franklin Ellis Architects

A LOT of people in the construction industry look back with misty eyes on the days of the Building
Schools for the Future programme. It was a big, inspiring initiative delivering some big, inspiring
schools – and may be even some big, inspiring revenues for some!

Even before recession struck I think there was a sense in the industry that big bang funding
programmes like BSF would to struggle to maintain momentum. They were expensive, they sucked
up resource across the industry, and with so much going on elsewhere in construction it was
difficult to see how the quality would be maintained.

Disappointing though it was, I don’t think anyone was surprised by the coalition government’s
decision to scale it back against a background of large-scale cuts. The end of BSF hasn’t meant
the end of new school building projects, though. What it has meant is less money going further.
There’s no point lamenting lost opportunities for architects to design educational landmarks. We
are where we are, and funding is still available through the Education Funding Agency. Neither
should we focus on the fact that budgets are modest: job number one for any architect involved in
state-funded education development is understanding that we are now designing projects, not
buildings.

What does this mean? The EFA is looking for cost-effectiveness more than anything else. That
doesn’t necessarily mean lowest price, though – it means an oven-ready project which has the
necessary approvals and has an experienced team contracted to deliver it to a sensible timescale.

 

At Franklin Ellis, we have more than a decade’s experience of working on education
developments. Those developments take in everything from new reception areas in rural primary
schools to heritage extensions at public schools and brand new academy buildings. There isn’t
much that we haven’t done and the Franklin Ellis ethos – that quality is not defined by price – has
been a central feature of the way we’ve approached them all.

Even before the structures of the EFA, we were learning a whole new set of skills: understanding
how a budget could work, where the real value in design was, helping to make the case to the
different stakeholders in a school (whether that is parents, students or local authority planners).
Most of all, we developed partnerships with contractors who, like us, could see that design and
build expertise must be accompanied by skills in planning, cost management, scheduling…perhaps
even diplomacy!

Sometimes we have quite literally had to go back to the drawing board because the funding
landscape has changed again. Yes, it’s frustrating sometimes but it happens and provided your
design is flexible enough to accommodate financial change (both up and down) this should never
be a major hurdle to staying on schedule.

This is what the EFA is looking for: clear evidence of need served by cost-effective design which is
supported by stakeholders and can be delivered by a team that has done it before.

That is pretty much what we did with the Toot Hill School project at Bingham in Nottinghamshire, a
£3.5m extension to provide a new teaching block with 19 classrooms and other facilities. We’re
pretty pleased with the design, which focuses on those areas that deliver the greatest benefit but
still has some neat detailing.

What we’re pleased about most of all is that the ‘design’ in this case wasn’t just a physical
structure. It was a process which identified the school’s objectives, secured planning permission,
brought together a development team and won backing from the Education Funding Agency’s
Academies Capital Maintenance Fund. Without that, there would have been no building a school in
the future!

There was, and Toot Hill are delighted by the result. Together, we’ve navigated a process and
delivered an extension which gives an outstanding school yet more to build on.


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