Designing better education from the ground up

4 November 2019

Catherine Mulley, Director at Pozzoni Architecture, considers how strong building design for the education sector can have a positive impact on wellbeing

The relationship between office design, wellbeing and productivity has frequently been explored in the property trade press - but what about the impact of strong design for education?

In the same way that an uninspiring office might have a negative impact on performance and productivity, poorly-designed school buildings can also have a detrimental effect on the way pupils learn and retain information, as well as their overall experience of school life.

At Pozzoni, we believe it is eminently possible to create education environments that boost attention spans, increase productivity and improve grades among pupils. Our experience of designing for children with special education needs (SEN) in particular, has helped us focus on the long-term wellbeing of pupils and staff as we develop our designs for education.

The rise of office wellbeing

We’ve heard a great deal about the impact our professional working environments can have on productivity, as well as the mental and physical health of employees. Employers and employees are waking up to the fact that a workplace can majorly influence the way you work, and 'workplace wellbeing' is an increasingly common theme.

Introducing greenery, letting in more light and creating breakout spaces to encourage people away from their desks are just some of the wellness-led design features being implemented in the modern office workplace. Could the same learnings be applied to other sectors?

Education needs attention

Back in 2016, the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) released an alarming report on the state of the UK’s education estate. It studied the impact that a school’s design can have on learning and the absorption of information, as well mental wellbeing and the overall school experience for pupils.

The report highlighted the extent to which a school building can affect a child’s education. It found that well-designed education environments directly result in better pupil productivity and behaviour. Teaching staff can also be adversely affected by a school’s design; the report revealed that one in five teachers had considered leaving a school due to its working environment, while one in 20 had actually left.

If the marriage of wellbeing and design has become such a mainstream topic in business, why should education miss out?

The value of architecture in education

Even the most attentive pupils and the most motivated teachers will be adversely affected by classrooms with inferior lighting. In the Department for Education’s (DfE) reissued Output Specification from 2019, requirements for natural daylight were upgraded for classrooms and education environments, calling for increased focus on large windows and open spaces within school designs.

Many of the schools Pozzoni has designed, including Blessed Thomas Holford Catholic College in Altrincham, have floor-to-ceiling glass facades, flooding the entire building with natural light. We believe that a brighter, more natural learning environment is more likely to inspire young minds and encourage vital interactions with teachers and other pupils.

With breakout spaces and standing desks becoming increasingly popular in office designs as a means of encouraging movement and maintaining alertness, we are now exploring alternative learning spaces within our school designs – to promote mobility and offer a more varied experience to students. Our clients’ brief is often to prepare young people for the world of work, so the more cues we take from modern professional environments, the better.

Designing for special educational needs

With SEN projects, it’s especially important that every element of a school’s design is shaped around the pupil and their wellbeing. After working on the National Autistic Society’s (NAS) Church Lawton School, we developed a design guide specifically focused on schools for children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).

Designing for autistic pupils means following principles that ensure the finished buildings will be robust, flexible, calm and secure - while maximising external space and minimising the impact of any background noise. Building designs should avoid mixed-use, open-plan or shared spaces, as students with ASD can develop anxiety about what a space is used for.

A student’s wellbeing clearly relies on a multitude of factors beyond the design of their school, but providing an environment where children can feel safe, comfortable and engaged will give them the best chance of success during education and beyond.

This welcome focus on workplace wellbeing, whether physical or mental, should be considered in the design of built environments across all sectors, from offices and schools, to industrial spaces and healthcare facilities. The wellbeing of anyone using these buildings needs careful consideration from all parties, to deliver positive impact in the long term.

We believe that a building’s architecture can have a profound and lasting effect on both mind and body. As the foundation of a successful society, the education sector deserves the very best in building design, to ensure our future remains in safe hands.

Blessed Thomas Holford Catholic College

Blessed Thomas Holford Catholic College

Blessed Thomas Holford Catholic College

Blessed Thomas Holford Catholic College