Kids’ plans ‘blocked’ by private finance

Ask pupils to propose changes to the design of their school and the response from some might be to ask for a quicker route to the exit. But in fact the kind of suggestions pupils come up with are often far more constructive - and unexpected. Synthetic grass, more pegs for coats and bags and even a soil-less garden are among ideas received by architects working with Scottish schoolchildren.

Pupils should be consulted over new school building design, claims the government. But a leading ecological architect warns that this risks being little more than a box-ticking exercise under the current system of public private partnership (PPP).

The note of warning comes after the Scottish Executive funded the Lighthouse, Scotland’s architecture and design centre, to produce a guide for involving pupils in school design. The book has come out of a GBP300,000 project where architects go into schools which are about to undergo refurbishment or new builds to consult with pupils about how they
would like the finished project to look.

Anne Cunningham of the Lighthouse says some successful collaborations have already been built. She describes the project at Dunblane High School, where a group from the pupil council was given a specified area of the school to look at and a budget to observe.

“They were working on a social area at the entrance to the school and they wanted it to have a sophisticated feel, ” she says. “Often schools are designed to look quite childish, as designers think of the pupils as children, but they didn’t want that. They also wanted an area where they could relax.

“They pointed out that at school they are often dashing from subject to subject and they would like to have somewhere to sit and think through what they have learned and also a circulation space.

“Two members of the pupil council went on placement to JM architects and were involved in the design. The architects then became advocates of this design and fought quite hard for it within the consortia. The other members of the consortia had agreed to this project before they started.”

Akey aspect of the book’s recommendations is clarifying how any consultation with pupils will work. “One of the things we are doing is having a brief for the consultation, ” she says, “so that the students are not being asked to consult on things they can’t influence.”

Cunningham says that architects had learned from letting pupils evaluate their designs in all of the projects Lighthouse has implemented. “One architect was planning a seating area with no room for coats or bags and the pupils pointed this out. The Sir E Scott Secondary in Harris was planning a seaweed garden and the children turned round and pointed out it would attract the midges and would smell.”

Cunningham feels that consultation would be taken seriously by all concerned, and rejects criticisms of the approach. “I can’t see that if you do more and better research that you won’t get a better building, ” she adds. “One of the important things is that it gives the community a strong sense of ownership and that means it is less likely to be vandalised.”

But one of Scotland’s leading ecological architects, Howard Liddell of Gaia Architects, says that the current procurement system of PPP means that most children’s ideas are unlikely to be followed through.

Liddell is currently building a school in Acharacle in Ardnamurchan where he says pupils have been involved in consulting and evaluating designs from early stages. “If you are going to do this kind of consultation you have to be able to follow it through and keep faith with it, ” he explains. “Otherwise it doesn’t send the right message to the community
and it is a waste of time.

“Most contractors talk a good game about implementing the consultation before they get the project but as soon as they have it you can forget anything that is going to take extra resources away.”

On a fact-finding trip to Scandinavia Liddell and colleagues looked at a range of schools, built though traditional procurement, architecture competitions and PPP. All rated the PPP schools as at the bottom of the pile and the traditionally procured ones at the top.

“A survey by the Royal Incorporation of Architects and the Educational Institute of Scotland found that the first raft of PPP schools built in Scotland had a less than 10per cent satisfaction rate on heating, lighting and insulation, ” he says. He also sees little reason to believe contractors would do any better on the issue of implementing pupil design.
He says he is developing techniques such as writing a very tight legallybinding brief to ensure children’s ideas come through.

Involving the clients is always part of sustainable design, Liddell argues, and so pupils are being involved in the Acharacle project.

“They wanted water incorporated into the design, so we are going to put a stream through the building. We are collecting the rainwater on the roof, ” he says.

Initially the children did drawings and wrote poems and talked about the culture of the area. “Music is very important to them and they wanted the hall designed for playing music as well as assembly and sport. It is going to use locally-sourced timber, as the site is surrounded by pine woods. It wouldn’t be true to say they came up with that idea but they certainly endorsed it, ” says Liddell.

But he adds it was unusual that his firm were in a position to make sure these ideas came though in the finished product. “I was employed to write the brief and I wrote it so tightly that the contractor was bound to do certain things, ” he explains. Liddell was then awarded the job of designing the building. Gaia is also to be kept on for two years after handing over the keys, to advise the community how to get the best out of the building. “I have been fighting for that for years, ” he says.

Some of the projects the Lighthouse has funded have not yet yielded tangible results. At Elgin High School, consultation found pupils were concerned about the toilets, where they said there was bullying.

“We were told about some children who bunked off school simply because they didn’t want to use the toilets, ” says Julia Fenby of the Lighthouse. The pupils’ design for safer toilets was passed on to the council. “They will form part of the information that is given to a future contractor, ” according to Fenby, who says some councils and schools are more
enthusiastic about consulting children than others.

At the Sir E Scott Secondary, landscape designer Liza MacKenzie has been working with pupils on a new design for the grounds and sports pitches. “The school have been really enthusiastic about making space for this to happen and seeing it as part of the children’s education, ” she says.

“At the beginning, all they wanted was synthetic grass. But we had someone come and talk to them about biodiversity and show examples of landscape design and got them thinking about what they really wanted and thought was important. We used games to break down the barriers between the children and the design team.

“In the work we did we discovered the meaning of Tarbert, which is from a Norse word meaning ‘pulling long ships’ and we designed a landscape with a series of lines to reflect that.

“The pupils also wanted a machair bank for the local f lora and fauna. One idea that came from the pupils and some of their teachers was to have a hydroponicum to grow fruit and vegetables in water, as it can be hard to grow them in this area.

“My role was to learn something from the children. I can think of no real disadvantages to the process we employed.”

The Scottish Herald
January 17th 2006