Maximising space with creative design
14 August 2017
Flexible walls and rooftop playgrounds: Pozzoni Architecture’s Alice Parker, explores how design can make the most of tight sites.
As the UK’s population continues to grow and with it, the demand for school places, schools are having to make every inch of their buildings count. Whether it’s a new build, an extension to an existing building or simply a refurbishment project, making the most out of the space available in schools is more important than ever. Simple things like flexible and movable furniture can make a big difference, allowing classrooms to adapt to different activities such as group projects or individual examinations. ICT classrooms could implement flip-top desks so that computers can be hidden, allowing other subjects to be easily taught in the space or science labs that are kitted out ready to be used by either biology, chemistry or physics students. Flexible walls are also an option for creating larger rooms when needed, for example year group assemblies, exams or joint lessons. However, this is often a more expensive solution due to the acoustics required to ensure suitable sound-proofing between the classrooms when the walls are in use.
“Last year, Pozzoni completed a refurbishment and extension project that transformed a redundant office building in a built-up urban environment into a primary school. The roof is now used by the pupils for sports and play activities, as well as arts and crafts sessions”
But when more than just flexible furniture is required, one often untapped option for extra space is the roof. For new builds and extension projects, the utilisation of the roof space can be considered from the early planning stages. Last year, Pozzoni completed a refurbishment and extension project that transformed a redundant office building in a built-up urban environment into a primary school. The restrictions to this particular site meant that outdoor space was limited so we designed a rooftop play area to provide a unique and multifunctional area. The space is now used by the pupils for sports and play activities, as well as arts and crafts sessions. With appropriate safety measures in place, accessible rooftops maximise what would otherwise be redundant space and offers a creative solution to schools on smaller sites.
Of course, not all roofs will be suitable for this kind of transformation and schools will need to look internally for space saving solutions. Hellerup staircases, which offer wide and deep steps, are increasingly popular as they can double up as a walk way or a break-out or lecture space. Another popular option includes adding a mezzanine level to high-ceilinged rooms, like dining rooms or libraries for example, which can potentially nearly double the available floor space. Dining rooms in many schools can be underutilised as they are often only used during break and lunch times. However, they can be fairly versatile and with the use of retractable or bleacher seating, the dining hall could double up as a lecture theatre or a performing arts space.
In recent years, the superblock design for new build schools has been particularly popular with the Education and Skills Funding Agency (ESFA). This model puts larger social areas such as a main hall and dining hall at the centre of the whole school with the teaching spaces wrapped around it. A superblock is typically a two or three storey building but they can be taller for higher education facilities. Its compact and efficient, usually rectangular, design maximises natural daylight to teaching spaces around the edge and ideally has a racetrack or ‘figure of 8’ circulation route. By having the dining hall as a large atrium in the centre of the building, it also allows corridors to have open balconies and glazed teaching spaces to visually connect to the space from the upper levels. This creates a feeling of more space and openness throughout the superblock.
Over the years, we have had to be creative with the use of the accommodation offered to schools and I always look at design with maximum flexibility in mind. The focus today is very much around efficiency, both in terms of the building itself and how it’s used by staff and students. Sites with restricted space will always pose certain challenges but creative design can help to overcome them and create engaging and productive education spaces.