Do you really need that new school building? Try this…

Imagine that you as a school principal or a teacher and have been told that your school going to get a new art / science / math (pick your subject) block. You have to define what is wanted so that the architect can start work on the design. Where do you start?

The solution may not be a new building. Well-designed furniture gives learning spaces versatility.

The solution may be well-designed furniture giving learning spaces versatility.

Merely writing out a list of different spaces and expecting them to function in the way you expect is not the place to start. Apart from anything else, the designer’s assumptions about how they function may be entirely different to yours. The fundamental question is: Do we really need the building?” or “Do we need it in the form that is being suggested?

From a client perspective, it is often hard to challenge the need for the building, or building project, in retrospect because apart from the beguiling nature of a new building itself, retrospective arguments quickly assemble making the project seem a no-brainer.

Here is how you can get to grips with this.

Bring together a group of people within the school who represent different disciplines and perhaps seniority, why not include students too? Then set up a series of conversations.

One conversation to have is about teaching and learning and how that takes place in the school now, and how you envisage it taking place in the future. You may want to ask: Will we always do it like this? Is there a better way of doing it? How would we like to do it in the future? There may also be questions around how the school interacts with the local community.

The next conversation would be about the resources that you use (including the built environment and IT). Ask : How are these resources Used? How do they help us do what we do? How do they get in the way? What is easy? What is difficult? How would we change what we have?

During these conversations, examples are hugely useful – examples of schools that do adopt particular teaching practices, and examples of school buildings of different sorts. The point is not to necessarily adopt practices in any one example, but to use these as a way of having a conversation.

These sorts of conversations can lead to insights which may result in more fundamental changes in the school than a new building, such as developments in teaching practice. They may also lead to finding new ways of using the resources that already exist. In other words you may end up resolving the “problem” in another way, thereby answering the question: “Do we need the building?”

Having had these conversations, and indeed you may well be involving designers in this process because they can help explore alternative ways of using some of the resources, you can articulate more clearly the expected outcome of the building project, if there is to be one. This will not only be a huge bonus for the designers, but for your school too.

What are the sorts of questions you think should be explored?


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