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Design Brief: Classrooms for the Future

18 Jul 2005

Sarah Wigglesworth was one of four architects involved in a pilot scheme to design new schools which brought together the University of Sheffield and Sheffield City Council. She talked Prospect through the specifics and the fundamentals of designing for education.

“This project came out of a longer research project by the university into designing and building for education. The Department for Education and Skills had a bit of money left over at the end of a budget and put a tender out for local authorities to pitch for a research project. Sheffield City Council put together a project which put together architects from the university, to work on the conceptual side of things, with city architects who would work on implementation. They would work on a series of different design projects for education. We ended up with four schemes: Prue Chiles worked on the Ballifield School, Mark Dudek with the Education Design Group at Yewlands, Evans Vettori Architects at Brunswick.
“There were lots of discussions between the four designers about a strategy that could answer all these problems faced by schools. However, we did find it difficult to agree and although we did come up with a joint statement it acknowledged that we were addressing specific design solutions.
I many ways ours was the easiest site, as we did not connect to an existing school. The building is very simple in that it’s clad in a soft plywood, the kind you can buy in B&Q. The idea was, however, that these were examples – we signed away our copyright and that it could be built into a school elsewhere and be applicable for a different kind of pupil. Indeed, I just found that Derbyshire Council have used this school as a template for a primary school, which would’ve been great, had they shown me the courtesy of asking whether it was okay to use the plan.
“Because the client was constantly aspiring to the best design, and because the school was for children with special needs we did push the boat out. That’s actually why I approached Susan Collins, the artist. Within the DFES’s brief was an instruction to incorporate information and communication technology into the classroom, so essentially we had an office communication grid in the floor plate, but we needed an artist to speculate on what else we could do with this. (That’s what artists are really good at: speculating. We were right on top of the lake so we thought; well, let’s push the building out into that. They’ve got moorhens, badger sets, geese, so we tried to bring that world into this building. Windows are carefully placed. There are holes in the floor, a camera obscura, web-cams in the reeds, an underwater camera and even a remote controlled boat with a camera attached to it.
“I think you can make general remarks about designing for education. I think it’s fairly accepted now that learning can take place anywhere no matter what the age. What we must do now is to make learning attractive. Learning can be grim and I certainly wonder about the standard of some of the buildings at Sheffield University where I teach. Architecture isn’t the only means of making learning attractive but it is hugely important. I certainly think that in lower-end, primary, nurseries, maybe even higher education, you want to treat users with dignity and make it worth their while coming.”

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