Band B of the Welsh Government’s 21st Century Schools and Colleges Programme will bring £1.8 billion of capital funding and a further £0.5 billion via Wales’ new Mutual Investment Model. This new stream of funding for over 100 schools and colleges will no doubt present challenges; some old and some new.
Tight budgets have long been a fact of government funded school procurement but they should not be an excuse for a substandard outcome. Thoughtful design should underpin everything. It needn’t be expensive, but it must be considered and afforded time – an increasingly rare commodity with many project programmes.
There is a real skill to creating something that is visually striking, whilst still affordable, well proportioned, buildable, robust and – most importantly – a joy to use. This is something that we always fight for even as budgets inevitably diminish. Equally, listening to the aspirations of end users and combining that engagement with a progressive and innovative take on guidance standards allows us to create spaces that anticipate changes in the way pupils learn.
Standards shouldn’t squeeze quality
Band B will see designers further ushered towards ‘standardised solutions’ as a means of ensuring value for money. Whilst there are clearly savings to be made through procuring template designs across multiple sites, there are design concessions that must be accepted, and relationship with site context is often the biggest casualty.
Experience of delivering model schools during Band A has prompted us to consider that maybe standardisation should be less focussed on regurgitation of template layouts and more concentrated on the contractor and design teams’ knowledge of, and confidence in, a ‘kit of parts’.
Tried and tested construction details and a consistent materials palette are what really makes the model school and we should reserve the right of flexibility in layout as much as possible. Modular and offsite solutions are likely to add a further dimension to standardised school design that we must remain open to.
It’s not all ‘out with the old’
Refurbishment and remodelling is likely to be much more common in Band B. Most local authorities used Band A to replace their worst performing stock, so the next tranche will inevitably address the schemes that didn’t warrant the full new-build treatment. Reuse offers different challenges and opportunities, particularly in terms of our approach to sustainability.
Our Band A refurb projects like Pentrehafod Comprehensive are a good model, as they allowed us to explore circular design principles by reusing existing building components and consciously designing new elements with ease of disassembly and future reuse in mind.
As Band B heats up, the Welsh education sector still offers exciting opportunities to innovate. Simplicity is the key to reducing capital costs and operational expenditure for our clients. We know from experience that less is definitely more if you get the design right.
James is a design lead for school projects in our Cardiff studio. Having been responsible for the design of over £70m of school projects over the last 10 years, he knows his stuff. Get in touch with James for a chat.