Is heritage important in education buildings?
May 23, 2019 \ Heritage & Conservation
by multiple authors
Education buildings span a vast range from nurseries and primary schools to the university campus and represent a historical record of our attitudes to and aspirations for learning.
In our recent Monday Morning series, we have been pairing up speakers from different sectors to discuss projects and topics that overlap. This week we focused on our education portfolio, which is often grounded in our heritage work.
The theme for discussion was what makes education buildings in heritage settings important and useful today? To stimulate a discussion, we proposed placing our projects on a scale that measured the value of their IDENTITY against their FLEXIBILITY. This exercise demonstrated that buildings that had a strong identity were often rigid and fixed, and buildings which were flexible had a lack of identity and were faceless.
Schools have seen their lifespan shorten from the Victorian schoolboard buildings that still pepper Glasgow today. The 1960s modern slabs and podiums made it to middle age, before being replaced by the more recent programme of mega boxes under giant industrial roofs. Some of these are barely 20 years old, and bits have started dropping off.
“If we constantly wipe out and rebuild, we lose the multi-temporal quality of a place. If we don’t adapt and flex with changing times, things stagnate.”
Old buildings provide continuity, stability, and identity; and if a building is loved and embedded in the collective memory of the population, it can survive for centuries. However, in some cases this can manifest as rigidity, becoming a barrier to change.
As waves of change in education and teaching sweep through those buildings, how does our environment adapt? A building with spaces generous enough to adapt to new patterns of use will survive if their continued use and maintenance doesn’t cost too much, but how do we sustainably accommodate this need for flexibility and change, while retaining identity?
In our education portfolio, we have numerous buildings from different periods that we have adapted in this way. On a spectrum of flexibility vs. identity, we mapped our projects and discussed our interventions.
In our work we apply a proportionate relationship to heritage, sometimes maximal intervention as at Glasgow Caledonian University; and sometimes minimal such as Martyrs Kirk at the University of St. Andrews. The extent of our contribution is shaped by our understanding of what is appropriate to the context. This is critical when working with an existing building, to meet the aspirations of the client.
The key principles outlined in our heritage work in the education sector begin to reflect our ethos in all our heritage work. Where a project is fundamentally informed by an understanding of the context of its site and history, while at the same time addressing modern challenges and advances – we strive to create intelligent and sustainable designs which fulfil the client’s brief and desires.
It is critical we understand our built heritage is a resource, and with less than a dozen years to prevent the damage we’ve done to our planet becoming irreversible, we have a responsibility to build more durable buildings. Construction is inherently disruptive to the environment; therefore, it needs to be applied carefully, in response to need, designed for the weather and in a way that contributes positively to the continued existence of our place on earth.