Light & Air

/ Karen Nugent / Creative Workspace

How do we design good spaces for learning? In answering this question it should be no surprise that it is an age old problem, reconciling the needs of the pupil, teacher, room and outlook.

The image of the classical gymnasium is familiar as one of the first architectural manifestations of education, built around the mental and physical health of young men. It was into this athletic setting that the philosopher appears seeking pupils.

The cloister is perhaps it's polar opposite, an internal world closed off and inwardly focused. The seated scribe in his cell, bent over a manuscript. The cloister offered space to perambulate and its open side fresh air and light. Practical labour and silent reflection became the order of the day.

The idea of the cloister was adopted by the emerging universities, creating safe enclosed but ‘open to the air’ quadrangles. Now we value them for embedding spaces to wander physically and mentally and perhaps solve a problem.

These lofty examples were of course elite spaces for the few. As the idea of mass education spread, spaces for learning became embedded in the fabric of every town, in the form of the village school. Developed as a variation on the village chapel with big volumes, top light and high window cills so there was no distraction from the teacher on raised podium. A closed and controlled space for concentration.

Progressive ideas in the 20th century sought to break down these boundary walls in the form of veranda schools, an experiment in opening up balcony spaces between the classroom and playground an idea that perhaps culminated in the early 1920s in the form of the open air school by Jan Duiker in Amsterdam. Pairs of classrooms are stacked in a multi-storey cube with open balconies on each corner. The framed structure designed to free the corners and allow the slabs to float.

George Baines in Oxfordsire was a subsequent education pioneer who sought to breakdown classroom walls, extending and testing these innovative ideas. He was head teacher at Eynsham school designed by Oxfordshire County Council but influenced by Baines and the architects David and Mary Medd, the layout is activity focused and child-centred. Children started and ended the day in home bays of mixed age groups and then moved around bays for woodwork, construction, mathematics, cooking or quiet reading. It was considered the most innovative school in Britain of its time. Paradoxically the single story forms and focus on activity perhaps lead to deeper plans and more internal spaces.

So what now? After huge investment in the school estate, recent reports by the Scottish Futures Trust in Scotland highlight the need to be vigilant in the design of our school environments in particular in relationship to light and air and how it is controlled.

Broader educational studies reinforce these aspirations by advocating the fundamental need to integrate internal and external settings. It might come as a surprise to many that we spend 90% of our time indoors and 10% outside so there is much work to be done to adjust these figures to a healthier balance. Of particular and growing concern is growing evidence of the role pollutants play in our children's lives in particular formaldyhyde. It is such a problem leading industry suppliers have developed plasterboard that absorbs formaldehyde and have been testing it in schools. Our focus on designing healthy spaces must be even more acute in spaces for children.

Our recent work at Dollar Academy , Fettes College , Glasgow Academy and Erskine Stewart Melville Schools, seeks to bring light and air into our buildings in the form of carefully considered large windows, rooflights and ventilation chimneys. In themselves they are no answer to reconstructing the curriculum to find a better inside/outside balance, but minimally they remind us of the world outside which must be a good first step.

Our work with schools over the last 15years has taught us the challenges of maximising facilities achieved for fixed budgets and the tight prescriptions of plan constrained by existing buildings and density of use. Our solutions push at the edges, allow the light to penetrate the section and through partitions, magnifying its impact. Finding ways to get the air in and out we have developed a language of chimneys and dormers that enrich the form and embed the flow of air in the fabric of the building.

Documenting our findings is the next step.

Dollar Academy