Tuesday, 1 March 2011

BSF: The value of piss-poor design

Somewhere near you, a new school has arisen. You probably can't tell that it's a school unless you know, but you'll be aware that an interesting architectural form has appeared in your landscape. And this is the manifestation of Labour's avowed commitment to Education, a School for the Future; but a Labour future, in which form bears no relation to function, a gimcrack, disfunctional, uneconomic future of failure and premature redundancy. What you are seeing is not a building designed as the optimum environment for the education of children but a structure that is an act of architectural Onanism, self-referencing, designed for the day of the design practice's portfolio photo-shoot, with little regard to economy, longevity or indeed teaching.  

The standard of design of BSF schools is generally piss-poor. It's the result of allowing utterly mediocre design practices free rein with the public purse in the absence of prescriptive and focused design briefs. Thus where there should have been a requirement to keep the volume of circulation and 'void' space down to 15% of internal volume there was none, allowing structures with vast empty internal spaces, building envelopes far bigger than they need be and astronomical costs for space heating and maintenance. The 'pretty' and  the 'designer' have triumphed over the practical and the proven in the choice of fenestration and doors; already windows and roofs are leaking and failing, doors are falling off or disintegrating and the LEAs are replacing the designer bling with closers, door furniture and ironmongery that actually works. 

They've designed classrooms with vast areas of glazing and the electronic whiteboard installed at the South end, guaranteeing that not one of the children blinded by the sunlight will be able to see a thing unless the LEA comes along behind to retrofit blinds and shutters. They've designed spaces that simply can't reach a minimum design temperature because actual children keep coming into them and going out of them. They've designed windows that can't be cleaned except by erecting scaffolding, roofs that can't be weatherproofed, floors that can't be cleaned of the staining and marking that school floors are subject to and walls you can't push a drawing-pin into. 

The one facet they've not stinted on is the external envelope; this, after all, is the picture that will star in their practice portfolio. So whole varieties of interesting cladding, whether it serves any purpose or not, and whether it creates a risk of component failure or not, is tacked onto the walls and no two lines are straight. Anything as mundane as gutters, downpipes, wastes and vents that will spoil the portfolio pic are hidden away from view where they fail unnoticed until an entire section of wall gives way. God forbid they should actually be visible where they can be inspected and maintained. Some designers have even done their best to disguise the entrance doors where these risk compromising the purity of a facade, thus leaving bewildered parents and visitors wandering around the building looking for a way in. 

The cost of this architectural Onanism is vast. Billions. There are few BSF schools that couldn't have been built at half the cost with a life of 60 years and a tried and proven layout; the old standard layouts produced by the London County Council architect's department need only minor tweaks to work in the digital age. Over the next decade when I predict some 10% will prove unusable and will close, a further 50% will need expensive remedial capital works and most of the rest will have spaces boarded off or demolished, we will start to count the true cost of Labour's folly. BSF was nothing more than an exercise in transferring our taxes to the corduroy-lined pockets of an undistinguished and second-rate design cabal. 


English Pensioner said...

When I retired, we were thinking of moving, I went to a presentation about a new retirement home complex. One of the great points being made was that everything had been "architect designed", and looked excellent in the sketches. Most of us oldies present were somewhat sceptical, and one pensioner remarked to the effect that as far as he was concerned "one architect designed home was more than enough for anyone in a lifetime, and he wanted a builder designed property", before walking out. (Although the latter may have been the result of the refreshments which were tea and biscuits, not the G&T that we were expecting)

Mike Spilligan said...

I've experienced some of this myself, including "integrated" ash trays (when those were still permitted) which could only have been emptied by turning the building upside-down.
But, really, Mr R. - and you know this already - it's the teachers inside who should count most of all. However I suspect that a lot of LEA people will be impressed.

Anonymous said...

Do they still design science labs on the top floor, with benches fitted along the external walls? It's a great way of ensuring that the children can't see the teacher or blackboard if they sit correctly at their workbench. And when they try to remedy this problem by sitting on the workbench instead, they risk leaning back against the window glass, and falling out onto the concrete forty feet below.
Meanwhile, sturdy old-fashioned brick schools are being demolished, when they could have been upgraded.


Weekend Yachtsman said...

"sturdy old-fashioned brick schools are being demolished"

Not round here they're not. The town where I work (the shipbuilding district of what was once the greatest shipbuilding city in the world) is littered with enormous beautiful red-sandstone Victorian buildings that were formerly schools - they still bear the embossed inscriptions of the local school boards, and the doors bear the words "Boys" and "Girls" cut into the stone lintels.

Most of these marvellous buildings has been converted to offices - usually for some useless bunch of drone from the city council. The rest are all boarded up.

Meanwhile their replacements - shoddy 1960's steel and glass rubbish, architect-designed every one no doubt - are already falling to pieces.

Pogo said...

If these schools are anything like the new one here (which looks like a high-tech, electronics factory), in which a couple of my friends have the "pleasure" of teaching, they'll have classrooms that aren't big enough to take a full class of kids and a staff room that will hold at most 50% of the staff.

A brilliant example of the architect's art. :-)