The hosts of 'Urban Schools' Webinar answer your questions

The hosts of 'Urban Schools' Webinar answer your questions

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As part of Scott Brownrigg’s webinar series, we hosted the webinar – Urban Schools: Designing for High Density on Wednesday 13 November 2019.

In this webinar, Helen Taylor RIBA, Director of Practice, Scott Brownrigg and Sharon Wright, Senior Associate, the-learning-crowd, explored the design of schools in dense urban environments. What are the challenges and opportunities for educators and designers? Is the answer always to ‘build upwards?’

Our hosts were met by a diverse and interesting array of questions, from unisex washrooms and acoustic levels. Here they have been able to answer the questions in more detail:

Q. Is there an optimum size of school or floorplate for a vertical school?
Sharon Wright [SW]: In terms of educational adjacencies, the taller the school the more challenging it is to get the right relationships between learning spaces. Apart from that, we have not seen evidence of a minimum or maximum size in our discussions. It is more related to the site size and being able to meet the educational brief within the footprint.
Helen Taylor [HT]: In order to provide sensible local access to WC’s and other support spaces, as well as adequate vertical and horizontal circulation, our experience suggests there is a tipping point where the balance between habitable and non-habitable space starts to become very inefficient but it is hard to put to a number to it!

Q. What are your feelings on Unisex Washrooms and how do you overcome the design of this?
SW: Different schools want different WC arrangements depending on how they wish to use and supervise toilets. We do not think this is necessarily related to urban schools, more an operational issue for school management. We are seeing more schools wanting flexible designation and unisex toilets in recognition of the need to accommodate transgender students
HT: There is certainly a space efficiency benefit to unisex washrooms in vertical accommodation, as you want to create local provision on every floor without providing additional numbers just to maintain gender segregation, particularly when the gender balance may change annually in a mixed school. Individual “superloos” are one common solution although rather more space hungry than cubicles and a shared hand wash area.

Q. What issues that traditional low-rise schools have are actually resolved by building high rises?
SW: The questions we would ask of any school client are probably the same – getting the brief right and designing to meet the educational vision are key in working with any school. The main benefit of going tall is to maximise use of external space on tight urban sites.
HT: The overall surface area of a school changes as it grows taller so, in terms of maintenance, there may be benefits from a smaller roof area to maintain. As with the Arthur Phillip High School, Parramatta, Sydney school example, building taller may free up space on the ground plane for sports or other practical uses. If the whole or part of the building can be lifted above the ground, there are additional benefits of covered area for play and outdoor curriculum activities. Having to lift and bridge the SHaW Futures Academy building over an underground culvert created a great covered arrival space for the youngest children.

Q. Max acoustic levels required by Building Bulletins must be more difficult to achieve due to the city/urban location of a high-rise school. The ability to open windows for ventilation is also likely to be prohibitive. Does this push high-rise schools down mechanical ventilation rather than natural ventilation?
HT: Natural ventilation provision has to battle with a whole range of parameters from noise and acoustics to air quality, security and safe user-friendly operation. Air quality, security and noise issues actually improve above ground level and the William Jones College Prep in Chicago has opening windows on upper storeys so mechanical ventilation is not necessarily the only solution. Because the external envelope also has to deal with solar gain, wind pressure and sensible cleaning regimes there is no single solution.
The standard solutions for commercial office buildings do not necessarily apply to schools because of differing technical requirements as well as cost. It would certainly be useful to do some comparative technical studies on façade treatments in urban environments.

Q: Do you consider that enough research is being undertaken on the impact of vertical schools on pupils’ health and wellbeing? You will be aware of the fatter, sicker, sadder analysis.
SW: We would agree that more research is needed. The issue is that there are relatively few tall schools around the world – some of them very recently built – so we do hope that this will be an issue for further work in the future.
HT: We would be keen to do more research on this, not just on vertical schools, but also on the other urban typologies we have explored in the book: mixed use, repurposed, dispersed. Schools never work in isolation but they can play a part in having a positive impact on pupil’s health and wellbeing. As I heard from a head teacher at a recent education event, we need to give children an environment that communicates their worth.

Q. The same discussion was probably had about security, cost and maintenance regarding high-rise residential towers/hotels/offices, so high-rise schools seem like an inevitable phenomenon. What can architects today do to speed up this process?
SW: I agree that there is much to learn about the good practice of designing tall buildings from other sectors and this very much needs to be gathered and fed into work on schools. Schools do present additional challenges in terms of safeguarding the young people that learn in them, and in the amount of movement that needs to be managed at key points in the day (start and end, lesson change and lunchtime).
HT: Apart from the day-to-day pupil movement issues, one of the key challenges for schools is operation and maintenance costs when they do not have the same commercial opportunities as residential/hotel/ office accommodation. They do have great potential to share their facilities but need practical support to make that work for them.


Q. Acquiring sites and constructing tall buildings in cities can be very expensive. Do you think new schools can be delivered for free if they form part of a tall mixed-use development?
SW: We are seeing more developer led schemes and local authorities, like LB Southwark, taking a strategic approach to mixed-use developments that can meet a range of needs for new housing, school places and commercial and office space. It certainly seems like an attractive way to make best use of urban space.
HT: Yes, we have seen examples where schools can be delivered for free or even generate further additional income to pay for equipment and facilities however it does depend on having a well-considered beneficial contractual agreement with a developer and being able to maximise the value of the rest of the non-school accommodation.

Q. How do people deal with external space on terraces and rooftops? Can they be easily supervised but provide space for real outdoor activity to take place? Without air quality issues?
HT: Air quality improves above ground level so external space above ground will have reduced air quality issues, although there may be other issues such as wind pressure to deal with. External spaces, like internal spaces, need to have a clear purpose and ownership, suitable FFE, and ideally a direct relationship with an internal space on the same level for supervision and ease of use. There are a number of technical issues to resolve in terms of creating level access and minimising impact from extracts and plant from spaces beneath but these issues can be overcome. The perimeter treatment is usually the key concern for safety and providing for suitable activity. A full height perimeter, whether solid or transparent in some way, provides the most reliable long term solution, as long as they also provide views out, but may be constrained by other planning or daylight issues. Again, there is no single solution but potential scenarios do need to be rehearsed to give the space the best possible chance of long-term success.

Q. With high-rise schools, I would imagine that vertical transmission of noise and vibration is an increased problem, when looking at vertical adjacencies as well as horizontal adjacencies. Does this restrict envelope design like glazing elements spanning multiple floors?
HT: It is vital to think strategically from the outset to manage noise transmission. Technical solutions can help but separating or creating buffer spaces between noisy and quiet facilities has to be the first choice. The envelope design will play a part but acoustics is only one of a number of technical parameters including thermal performance, fire, daylight, maintenance, buildability and cost that have to be considered. As noted above, a technical comparison of existing schemes would be valuable.

Q. Regarding business rates: health care have seen their business rates increase with the additional area. Do schools pay business rates?
SW: Schools do pay business rates. What a school pays will depend on their status, for example, Academy Trusts and Independent schools operate as charities so have lower rates. Even in new school models, we are not necessarily providing additional area.
HT: Government funding is typically based on student numbers and requirements regardless of the building, which perhaps places greater need on urban school buildings to share their facilities with their communities.

Q. With a taller building the larger spaces become more of a challenge, have you seen some good solutions to this?
HT: Structurally it is more efficient to put larger spaces on top of smaller spaces rather than vice versa, although this may put pressure on acoustics, as noted above and may not meet functional requirements. For example, at William Jones College Prep in Chicago there was a regulatory requirement to place the theatre space at ground level, which required some significant technical challenges to be overcome to provide other habitable accommodation above it.
At SHaW Futures the main multipurpose hall was placed on the 2nd floor to be relatively central vertically and to allow the whole hall roof space to be provided for external play.
For this reason, a number of the examples have placed the larger spaces at the top of the building, which creates pressure on vertical access and escape for large groups. Alternatively, large spaces are provided separately, perhaps stacked alongside the smaller spaces. Stacked accommodation may also mean that floor to ceiling heights may be taller or less than they ideally need to be as they are do not stand alone and are impacted by other spaces around them.
The technical challenges can be resolved and the operational solutions need to be as flexible as possible to maximise the value of the large spaces, which may be the most lettable spaces for the school.

Q. What impact does the density of these higher buildings, with potentially some spaces without external windows, have on either the energy performance or some of the newer "wellness" benchmarking for access to daylight or view out?
HT: We are keen to seek some performance data on energy use and wellness but are not aware of any at the moment. With regards to SHaW Futures, we ensured that all teaching spaces and vertical circulation had direct daylight and views out and located the less frequently used or less sensitive spaces (changing rooms, stores etc) in the heart of the plan. At higher storeys, it was also easier to access daylight and views. William Jones College Prep has great views out across Chicago and a real sense of being part of the city.

Q. Do you think that the way new schools in England are currently set up, ie predominantly as part of Free Schools programme, a barrier to creating community beacons and innovating and exploring new ways of designing schools?
SW: We don’t necessarily think the type of school is a barrier to innovation, but the very strict cost and area parameters for DfE funded schools does leave little space, time or money for test new models. That said, we have found some good examples we can build on. The main thing is to learn the lessons about what works and what is replicable, and to be brave in trying new things. We also need Planners to understand that innovation needs to be supported if we are to make the best use of urban land.
HT: Regardless of the type of school, it needs commitment from the client team to make community connections, do things differently and be the innovators.

Q. Is there anything washroom manufacturers could do when designing their products to help architects working on tight educational spaces?
HT: New product options are always welcome. One of the big challenges for tight spaces is robustness. Kids will test everything just by moving around the school at class change with their bags on their shoulders!

Q. How should recreational needs be met in tall school buildings?
HT: Although a lot of urban schools have access to offsite sports provision, that takes time, resources and organisation so it is important to make space for kids to get outside on site for recreation opportunities. It is about making use of every surface area: horizontal and vertical! It is very valuable to have a good external landscape and curriculum brief from the client and getting an experienced landscape architect involved who can identify innovative solutions for the age groups. External storage really helps.

Q. We've been told by health sector clients, in particular, that when they have gone from low/mid-rise to higher they've run into problems with supervision, costs of facilities, tiredness of staff with much further to travel as formats change from open plan to closed spaces, i.e. private/shared rooms.
HT: We have not heard similar feedback from school clients, however we would be keen to gather and share post occupancy evaluation and client feedback.

Q. Are there any findings from the high-rise schools in the States that we can apply?
HT: The key lesson we have taken from the high rise schools in the US was the importance of a close, direct working relationship between the architect and the school operator. The dialogue and educational experience of both parties was really important to a successful outcome. As we also saw in the Singapore example, they were willing to try ideas that hadn’t been done before to deliver their educational aspirations. In the William Jones College Prep example this is still within the local standardised schedule of accommodation and funding allocation but with the designers given flexibility to identify where savings could be made on finishes or fittings for example to meet the target budget.

If you missed the webinar it can be viewed on demand here:

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