A look at architectural design innovations in BSF

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ICT in schools has changed so fast that architectural design needs to catch up. Rupert Goddard describes innovations used in BSF builds around the country – like acoustic ceiling rafts, IMAX theatres and wireless power.

Students of all ages have very high expectations of their schools’ IT provision, expecting it to be at least the same standard as the equipment they have at home. Increasingly, schools are also using wireless (or ‘handheld’) devices and learning platforms.

Using technology in new and innovative ways is central to government curriculum changes, as specified by the Rose report. Students need to get ready for the workplace, gaining the confidence to express themselves through ICT.

‘Personalised learning’ and ‘pupil voice’ have been key policy changes for some time - but technology is making them achievable.

Building schools for the [technological] future

Technology has become such an integral part of education that it has to be addressed at an architectural level.

BSF designs are challenging the old cookie cutter classrooms. In fact, the idea of the classroom itself is being challenged by ICT – teachers now provide much more varied lessons using different kit to groups of varied sizes.

Schools need intimate spaces – where teachers can spend time with one or two students. They need rooms that can accommodate small, seminar-style lessons, traditional classrooms and lecture theatres where 60 - or even 90 - students can be taught together.

Doncaster College’s IMAX theatre – which shows 3D movies - might sound extravagant – but it has incredible teaching potential. Students can take a 3D tour of the human body, for example, or watch nature and geography films with phenomenal detail.

These changes are exciting, but they’re an architectural challenge. It’s difficult to design spaces that accommodate today’s technology - and are flexible enough to adapt to future technologies. Designs also have to be easy to repair and adapt.

The acoustic challenge

A major issue with open plan or flexible spaces is acoustics. Children have a more sensitive ‘signal to noise’ ratio than adults - they find it difficult to distinguish a voice from background noise. The skill of focusing on one sound develops later, so open-plan approaches must be considered carefully.

Recent fashion has centred on opening spaces up – with cavernous atriums and courtyards. But designs should also allow for temporary enclosure with movable walls. Collaboration with the acoustic engineer throughout the design process is essential. Providing areas of acoustic absorption within open plan spaces, like dropped ceiling rafts, is key.

Flexibility and furniture

But movable partitions are often costly - not to mention acoustically unsatisfactory. As a result, furniture has to be chosen carefully to divide and define big spaces.

As technology improves, furniture needs to keep pace. No longer are rows of identical desks and a whiteboard the default solution. Furniture is being redesigned to suit new ways of working. Projection technology means every wall can be used for films and slideshows. Using furniture for multiple functions, such as storage, seating, acoustic control and presentation is the best solution.

Security and technology

Unfortunately, the more technology is installed in a school, the more likely it is to get robbed. More schools are using biometric security measures, like fingerprint scanners and metal detectors, to protect their property from theft and students from bullying. These checks must be incorporated into the school’s reception without compromising the arrival experience.

The increasing use of wireless technology also has security implications. Wireless devices mean very expensive, delicate kit is leaving the building – to be dropped, lost or stolen on the bus or in the park. Fortunately, laptops can be disabled if they are stolen.

On a more practical level, architecture must take into account the ways in which power can be supplied to the devices. Currently, multiple changing points are a major cost and design issue. This will remain a problem until wireless power is approved by BECTA.

Improving the learning environment

Open spaces are larger and deeper - and therefore darker. Levels of natural light must comply with BSF and Academy guidelines. Traditional central corridor plans ensure that classrooms are in the best lit areas – open plan environments are harder to design. This begins to raise floor to ceiling heights, which in turn increases building cost.

Environmental issues

Another side effect of the increased use of technology in learning space is the corresponding carbon footprint. The more technology a school installs the more ventilation it needs. Artificial systems or mixed mode solutions can be used – but it’s another fiscal and environmental expense.

Learning Spaces