Flexible design the key to safer schools

With the government recently announcing the School Rebuilding Programme, Alfonso Padro, Principal and Director of Education at HKS Architects, provides his reaction and sets out what considerations need to be taken into account regarding the design of these schools

THE government’s announcement of the first 50 schools to benefit from the School Rebuilding Programme is very welcome but immediately throws up the question of how the next generation of schools should be designed, particularly in light of Covid-19.


The key here is flexibility to future-proof. The importance of futureproofing is already set out in the DfE Output Specification, but the current situation has really shed a light on how vital this is. Schools need to be flexible from the outset so they can easily be adapted for unforeseen circumstances such as pandemics. This will in turn mean that fewer schools need to be rebuilt (again) in the future as the current infrastructure can be adapted as specifications and requirements change, which will also save on long term capital costs. So, what factors and areas of school design need specific consideration?

Whilst much of the design focus has traditionally and understandably been on learning spaces, we now have to look far more critically at circulation. From the outset of the design, entrances, exits, corridors and staircases need to be thought about, both in terms of numbers and size. We must provide the ability for one-way systems to be implemented quickly and simply for vertical and horizontal flows so students can move around the building safely.


Creating flexible and adaptable learning spaces throughout the school building is also essential. Flexible layouts and moveable walls mean that size of spaces can be changed to help with social distancing. Having the ability to easily alter the layout of classrooms would help schools respond to changes in the national curriculum or become more suitable for self-directed learning as technology advances. With remote learning now a reality, there could be a move towards a hybrid system in the future, and we must ensure that this doesn’t render individual classrooms or whole buildings obsolete.


As well as flexible layouts, there are of course a number of other ways to ensure that schools are future-proofed to respond to pandemics. Outdoor covered corridors could be one solution to reducing infection. And we shouldn’t be afraid to look to other building types and see what lessons we can learn. Practices used in hospitals such as sensors and touchless door openings in all walk-through areas will help to prevent and contain any future outbreaks.


Ventilation is an important design specification that also needs to be studied. When schools returned in previous lockdowns, teachers were instructed to increase the ventilation in the classroom by keeping the windows open. However, many school windows are on restricted openings for health and safety reasons, which reduces airflow. Opening windows can also negatively impact on the learning environment and wellbeing of the pupils due to pollution and noise ingress, particularly in inner city schools.


From a future design perspective, schools may have to incorporate good mechanical ventilation systems into their funding and infrastructure and not just rely on natural ventilation. Allowing enough space throughout the school building such as wider circulation routes, is key consideration as discussed earlier, and further thought needs to be given to typical classroom sizes for social distancing scenarios.


There are challenges to this approach – the majority of schools have numerous site constraints and are also limited by funding formulas. However, by putting the emphasis on flexibility rather than simply ‘future-proofing’, we can more easily adapt to future scenarios and unforeseen events. 

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