Designing for wellbeing
There is mounting evidence that our built environment can have a hidden effect on our physical, mental and emotional wellbeing. Independent standards such as the WELL™ standard and the Home Quality Mark (delivered by BRE), which look at design factors that have an impact on the well-being of occupants and building users, are gaining popularity.
‘Good’ school design has especially come under scrutiny in recent years. The Government and the Education Funding Agency (EFA), the body responsible for making decisions about where school investment is targeted, have succeeded in delivering schools to incredibly tight budgets. However, this stringent approach has proved to be hugely restrictive with design and construction time-frames for new schools. A one-size-fits-all approach means that opportunities to create classrooms that enhance the pupil and teacher experience and respond to local contextual factors are being cut; evidence suggests that this is detrimental to both pupils and staff.
Startling statistics on school performance
According to a national EFA survey, only 5% of the 59,967 school buildings studied were classed as performing as intended and operating efficiently. This startling statistic only serves to illustrate how many of the country’s schools are not fit for purpose – few are able to provide truly optimised educational environments for pupils and staff.
Better Spaces for Learning – RIBA recommendations
In their Better Spaces for Learning report, the RIBA advocates a fundamental change in the way school design is approached, offering the following recommendations to ensure school designs are optimised:
1. More flexibility when approaching the design of a new school
Each project and each school offer a unique set of challenges and opportunities. It is, therefore, important that design teams are given more scope and freedom to deliver the best outcomes and value (in the long-term) possible for any given project.
2. Implementation of smarter, more considered building management
A combination of inappropriate processes and a one-size-fits-all approach means that many school buildings are being fitted with complex and expensive mechanical and electrical equipment that would not be needed if the right design solutions were adopted.
Simpler, more environmentally and user-friendly building management systems could save costs while providing more comfortable environments. Achieving this more efficient and effective system will be crucial if the Government is to meet the challenges of the future.
3. Enhanced information flow across the value chain
Incomplete or inaccurate briefs are a major source of delay and frustration – to ensure all parties understand what is expected from the project, as well as being able to deliver the best possible solutions to the brief, there needs to a be a much more consistent and accessible delivery model available to those bidding on contracts.
The positive impact of timber
Research indicates that timber teaching spaces can have a positive impact on students compared to traditional classrooms. The most referenced study was one led by Holzcluster Steiermark in Austria in 2010, called ‘Schule ohne Stress,’ (School without Stress)(1).
The School without Stress study compared the behaviour of four different classes, two in classrooms constructed with timber and wooden interior furniture and two control classrooms with standard interiors that contained materials like linoleum and plasterboard and laminated chipboard. Over the course of a year the stress levels, sleeping patterns and heart rate of pupils were measured. It revealed that pupils in the timber classrooms were more relaxed, slept better and experienced a significant drop in heart rates.
According to another study, Patterns of Biophilic Design: Improving Health & Wellbeing in the Built Environment (2014)(2), timber buildings can result in ‘improved mental engagement, alertness, concentration, physiological and psychological responsiveness’.
1. Schule ohne Stress, Steiermark, H, 2010
2. 14 Patterns of Biophilic Design: Improving Health & Wellbeing in the Built Environment, Browning, W et al, 2014
Case study – Mellor Primary School
Embedded in its woodland setting on the edge of the Peak District, Sarah Wigglesworth Architects designed an extension to Mellor Primary School which provides a series of imaginative indoor and outdoor learning spaces that forge new connections between its pupils and nature.
The project was built using natural and reclaimed materials with low-embodied energy and benefits from the efficiencies of modern methods of construction. Prefabricated insulated timber wall cassettes span across the repeating glulam frames. These cassettes were manufactured off site and lifted into place to form the roof and walls, helping to keep construction timescales and budgets to a minimum.
The habitat wall is the centrepiece of the design. Sarah Wigglesworth Architects worked together with the pupils to create imaginative and ecologically diverse cladding compartments to provide homes for birds, bees, bugs and bats, delivering tangible opportunities for learning through a genuine connection to the natural world.
A solution for schools
There is no doubt that timber can provide design flexibility and beauty to any school build. Incorporating timber into design can also enhance the longevity and overall long-term value.
Over the past few decades, the quality and engineering of wood has undergone a revolution. Progressive manufacturing techniques and specialist coatings are making engineered timber incredibly durable and cost-effective over its lifecycle. It’s increasingly being re-evaluated as a modern-day first choice for both structural, interior and exterior applications in public building projects.
With budget pressures being a major concern for Local Education Authorities, many could be persuaded to invest in materials that have a lower initial build cost, but it is a priority to specify materials, like timber, that can last a long time and provide excellent value for money in the long term when designing for education.
The importance of fenestration in design
Windows are a fundamental component of the fabric of any building. Not only do they allow us to view the environment around the building but also allow sunlight to enter the building, providing warmth and light.
They insulate the building’s fabric both thermally and acoustically and provide controlled ventilation, which is essential for maintaining indoor air quality, as well as resisting the uncontrolled ingress of air and water. Windows also form part of the physical security of buildings and contribute to the safety of pupils and staff by providing a potential escape route in the event of a fire, as well as protection from falling and impact injury if the window contains low-level glazing. With such a big role to fill, ‘good’ design of schools really does need to give relative attention to window design and specification.
The impact of window specification on performance
When it comes to fenestration in schools, wood window frames are being increasingly recognised as versatile and providing long-lasting solutions.
However, it’s crucial that the specification decision isn’t just made on the aesthetics of the windows, as the type of timber used and how the window is designed and manufactured play a significant part in providing longevity and ease of maintenance.
For example, the Wood Window Alliance (an organisation run by the British Woodworking Federation) advocates the use of:
• Only engineered or modified timber;
• Flexible, micro-porous protective coatings applied under controlled factory conditions;
• Factory controlled drained and vented glazing systems suited to double or triple glazing units.
A focus on wood windows
Independent research by Heriot Watt University demonstrates that wood window frames made to standards set by Wood Window Alliance have a long-service life, often longer than other common window materials.
In their study Whole Life Analysis of Timber, Modified Timber and Aluminium-clad Timber Windows, they looked at the Service Life Planning (SLP) and Whole Life Cost (WLC) of wood window frames compared with other types of materials. The specification they used for wood windows (i.e. the standard set by the Wood Window Alliance) highlighted that modern, factory-finished wood window frames had an expected service life of between 56 to 65 years in average UK conditions – providing exceptional value for money over their lifetime – double that of a PVCu equivalent.