The future of school design is in process

I was asked the other day: How do I see the future design of school buildings?  I thought hard about it because hasn’t all that has got to be said on the future of school design been said? After all we are surrounded by organisations trying to make predictions – 2030 and 2050 seem to be two favourite year markers.

Waitakiri Priamry School, Christchurch

Waitakiri Primary School, Christchurch, New Zealand. Opened in 2014. Combined two schools after the Canterbury earthquakes in 2010 and 2011. the community was involved in the process of developing the new school.

It seems to me that while design will continue to stimulate debate and prompt innovations perhaps a more interesting and deep rooted innovation lies in the process rather than product. Like many innovations, it isn’t new, it is a reapplication in a context that enables it to happen.

Fifteen years ago I co-wrote a book: “Managing the Brief for Better Design”. One of the central themes of the book was dialogue between the different stakeholders in the production of the built environment. It was also about the role of design – “briefing is design, design is briefing”- was the mantra that I and my co-author repeated as nauseam.  I still run it out when asked to talk about briefing. Using design to probe problems and their solutions seemed fundamentally important then, and it still does now

In “Managing the Brief” we also said that briefing is a process that starts before the project has been identified and continues after the project has been defined and the solution (generally a building of some sort) has been built. The point was, and I believe still is, that the built environment provides a supportive framework for learning and teaching. To do that there has to be a real understanding of the needs of the users (teachers, students, parents, the community interests) and the client which may be different from the school(s). To understand these needs demands a dialogue. The process of design can be used to explore the questions as well as the solutions. This is what good designers do.

Looking over the horizon I can see much more interest in this with education clients (for example, the Ministry of Education in New Zealand) now more often allowing dialogue to happen with teachers and students, and others before the discussion about the building. In many cases such discussions are a revelation to the organisations (schools or clients) about the way that they operate too. In other words, it is never just about the building.

Something to think about

If you are about to, or want to, reconfigure the spaces you use, be prepared to probe deeply:

  • What you do, how you do it and when you do it.
  • How might this change in the future (next week, next year, in five years…)
  • Then ask yourself, how do the spaces and technology you use support this now and how should it do so in the future?

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