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Building Excellence: Exploring the implications of the Curriculum for Excellence for School Buildings



Professor John Worthington
Co-founder DEGW
Graham Willis Professorship School of Architecture, University of Sheffield
Professorial Fellow, University of Melbourne

Architects design spaces, but it is the commitment of the users that makes them enjoyable places. Enjoyable cities result from the design of meaningful spaces, which stimulate the public to interact to make memorable places.

The city acts as the school, transmitting messages, expressing values and providing a context for learning. In the summer of 2006, central London was transformed by the appearance of the Sultan, his elephant, 1 and a 5m tall wooden princess, who appeared from a rocket ship in Lower Regent Street, perplexing passers by. These characters progressed through the streets around Trafalgar Square and St James, allowing onlookers to imagine their own fairy tale. The city, for all ages, became the backdrop for a magical personal learning experience. The city was the school. Similarly, schools are becoming a microcosm of the city and every day life. School support activities can be used for practical experience, and vocational courses, such as hairdressing, can be opened to the community.

This article explores the changes that are occurring in learning and the ways in which buildings can be seen as assets rather than millstones. Underlying the goal to use the school building as an asset are three themes for reflection.

Firstly, acting sustainably. Through 'lean thinking' 2 we can use existing resources more effectively, e.g. share ownership of space, extend the times of opening, use others' underutilised resources…the list is endless.

Secondly, managing paradox. 21st Century life is not binary. We recognise the desire to be secure and accessible, private and communal, central and dispersed, slow and fast, local and international. Information and communications technology has given us the means to achieve this.

Royal de Luxe's The Sultan's Elephant
Royal de Luxe's The Sultan's Elephant
Produced in London by Artichoke, May 2006
Photo by Matthew Andrews, courtesy of Arts Council, England

Finally, moderating and communicating change. We are living in a world where 'change has become the norm rather than the exception'. 3 From our work at DEGW on rethinking the workplace, it's clear that users are not in fear of change in itself, but of having change thrust upon them.

Change has become the norm rather than the exception

Buildings as a Catalyst for Change

Buildings, and the process of procuring and adapting buildings, can be a powerful focus for initiating change. A move is far more than just exchanging one place for another. It can be used as a means of engaging in a dialogue to reappraise ambitions and reinforce expectations. The school and its community can engage with the building process at many levels. DEGW has identified four levels of decision-making that can help us to manage the inevitable unpredictability associated with the longevity of buildings and the shorter cycle of technological change.

The layering of decisions, and the separation of the building delivery process into shell and fit-out, is becoming increasingly accepted across a variety of building types. The educational building programme is also recognising the value of structuring the briefing and decision-making process to match long and short-term concerns. Design decisions are not only the prerogative of the designer. Users are continuously making design decisions as they move scenery around on a day-to-day basis to match changing demands. The building shell becomes a container for short-term adaptable scenery. (Fig.1)

A sustainable building shell is 'generic' in its configuration so that it can adapt to different teaching approaches, whilst providing a sequence of spaces that inspire the user to reconfigure the layout to meet their needs. The Dutch architect Herman Hertzberger, in his Montessori school at Delft (1960), created standard repeatable classroom units that when combined made a unique and memorable place. Hertzberger described his ambition to create "…the possibility for personal interpretation by making things in such a way that they are indeed interpretable … Not only do we interpret the form, the form simultaneously interprets us; it shows us something of who we are". 4

Montessori School, Delft

Montessori School, Delft
© Herman Hertzteberger


This has a life span of 50-75 years and consists of the basic structure (foundations, supports, floors, roof and cores). The long-term success in adapting to unforeseen demands is dependent on a few critical design decisions concerning floor to floor heights, configuration and size of floors, depth of spaces, location of cores and the permeability of the structure.


These may have a life span of no more than 12-15 years before they are obsolete. The services adapt the basic building shell to specific activities, depending on the sophistication of the functions and environmental control required.


Also known as fit-out, and with a life-span of seven years, scenery fine-tunes the building to the demands of users and functions, through the choice of the appropriate partitions, finishes, lighting and furniture. While not the major cost element in the overall construction budget, the scenery is often the primary element in reflecting user needs and fulfilling client and user expectations.


These form part of the day-to-day management of the building, and involve the adaptation of the scenery to meet continuously changing requirements. It is increasingly seen as important to intensify the use of resources by managing space and time effectively, which makes the continuous reconfiguration of space a central requirement.

Fig. 1 Four levels of decision-making

Fig. 1 Four levels of decision-making

Fig. 2 Learning integrates the community

Fig. 2 Learning integrates the community

Not only was the school infinitely variable in how it could be used, but the standard classroom units could be combined to allow the school to grow and change. Thirty years later Hertzberger built a very different model of the school: the Polgoon, Almere. The school consists of two blocks: one for classrooms and a taller block for offices, gym and playspace. The classroom block consists of a street under an arched structure with standard rooms on each side. This is a different structural solution, but involves the same brilliant synthesis of generic repetitive spaces which create a special place when combined.

Existing buildings can have similar attributes. Montem Primary School in North London, a four-storey school built in 1895 to house 1180 pupils, was described by 1960s school inspectors as inadequate and unattractive. However, the building shell was generous and the location convenient. In 1968 the building was remodelled to provide for 780 pupils and 2000 part-time adults, with community use in the evening. The combination of room sizes, generous floor to floor heights and spacious horizontal and vertical circulation allowed for mezzanines to be added, and partitions and doors to be removed, to create an open flexible teaching environment. The school today thrives as a central focus for the community.

New buildings afford different opportunities. At Hellerup in Denmark, the process of designing a new building was seized as an opportunity to rethink pedagogic principles. The principles of teaching were debated and set out as the ambitions for the building and the design and briefing process were overlapped dynamically, saving time and resulting in an adaptable building shell which stimulates learning and supports creative teaching. Herman Hertzberger at the Apollo School, Amsterdam (1980-83) shows that stairs can be more than circulation, by providing inviting forms on which to rest, chat, read a book or join in assembly.

Buildings, well considered, can provide support to users by being:

  • efficient, by achieving more with less, reducing running costs and using space well;
  • effective, by improving staff and student satisfaction, adapting to new ways of teaching, attracting community commitment and improving learning outcomes;
  • expressive, of the values of the school and the community. The building, its fit-out and the way it is managed, can be used to transmit ideas and knowledge.

Ownership, governance and management are key. The paradox of the 21st Century school, needing both security and accessibility, can be achieved through careful design, good management and redefined ownership. A clear zoning of space sets the expectations, and should include private (personal) space, privileged (shared), semi-public (communal) and public space. The latter should be accessible over 24 hours and owned by the community, with established and agreed etiquette for use. This understanding can be reinforced by discrete technology and design which supports discrete supervision through overlooking.

The Extended School

Learning has become the glue that integrates the community (Fig. 2). As functions overlap and boundaries blur, the sharp distinctions between when, where and how we learn are changing. The extended school provides a range of services and activities to help meet the needs of children, their families and the wider community. Services may now include childcare, adult education, parenting support programmes and community-based health and social care. The school is in use well beyond the formal teaching day.

Apollo School, Amsterdam
Apollo School, Amsterdam
© Herman Hertzberger

Boundaries between the school and the community are dissolving, so the 'locked school gate' may be a relic of the past. Technology is extending opportunities and changing student expectations. The 'net-gen' teenager is digitally literate, highly mobile and a generous contributor. At the same time s/he expects to be always connected and to receive instant gratification, variety and fun. Learning is both formal and informal, with teachers being both a resource and a provider across a set of spaces that are both centralised and dispersed.

The emerging 'new learning landscape' combines formal, timetabled space for lectures, classes and tutorials with informal, freely available space for group project work, solo study and browsing (Fig. 3). It contains a combination of support hubs, formal learning spaces and lifestyle facilities, spread across the city. Learning spaces can be specialised, tailored to specific functions; generic to adapt to different demands; or informal. The objective of the successful school is to assemble the appropriate portfolio of spaces which can be managed efficiently and effectively to meet their local needs. A radical rethink of space could yield major gains. Whilst school classroom use is on average 80% during the core teaching period, school premises are only used for 18% of the time available.

This is an opportunity to rethink:

  • use of space and time;
  • utilisation of support, social and circulation spaces;
  • opportunities for sharing with other users;
  • use of specialised spaces owned by others;
  • ownership and management of space.

The city can become a resource for learning. The Apple Mac shop is a centre for knowledge transfer; the library open and accessible, as at the Orchard Shopping Mall in Singapore; and businesses are increasingly prepared to host learning through work experience.

View from library Ardnamurchan High School
View from library
Ardnamurchan High School,
Highland Council

The school is becoming part of the city fabric both organisationally and physically. At the turn of the century the new neighbourhoods of an expanding Amsterdam brilliantly wove the school building into the built form of the streets and perimeter blocks. Once again we are recognising that we may no longer be able to afford single storey school buildings surrounded by generous playing fields. The urban school is finding new solutions by stacking classrooms and using rooftop playgrounds. In Christchurch, New Zealand, Discovery One takes the city as the 'distributed school', using the city facilities for sports, libraries and recreation. Learning occurs anywhere, without restriction on curriculum, pace, style or subject. The mobile phone is the link between facilities in the school, city or home. Community mentors and local businesses supplement more traditional learning resources. The project is founded on self-directed home-based learning for 5-18 year olds, who are organised in groups of 18-24 students.

Users are continuously making design decisions as they move scenery around on a day-to-day basis to match changing demands

Fig. 3 Learning Spaces ( DEGW©)

Fig. 3 Learning Spaces


Traditional categories of space are becoming less meaningful as boundaries blur and space becomes less specialised. Educational space needs are designed primarily around patterns of human interaction rather than the needs of particular subjects or technologies. New space models are focused as much on enhancing the quality of life as on supporting the learning experience. Circulation becomes the focus for interaction and informal learning.

Space is planned to:

  • support mobility, with touch-down settings, an abundance of power outlets, and movable furniture, and a rich variety of settings;
  • enrich pathways, by designing for chance encounters, encouraging the creation of ad-hoc workplaces, and providing opportunities for creative interaction;
  • blend and blur activities, for working, talking, eating and relaxing, by overlapping information-based work with entertainment, food and leisure.

Success comes through engagement, continuous commitment and attention. Space can be more than an irritant left to others. Space can be the catalyst for achieving pedagogical goals and improving performance.

John Worthington
Co-founder DEGW

John Worthington is a founder of DEGW, an international firm of designers and workplace strategy consultants, holds the Graham Willis visiting professorship in architecture at the University of Sheffield, and is a professorial fellow at the University of Melbourne. John's specialist interests are the design and briefing process, with a specific interest in urban design and estates strategies.

DEGW Learning Environments is working with higher education institutions, cities and the corporate sector in Europe, North America and Asia Pacific, on estates strategies, briefing and research led policy studies. In the UK recent projects in the schools sector include Project Faraday for the DfES (creating exemplar science spaces and a pedagogy-based science briefing process for Building Schools for the Future) and Space for Change for the National College for School Leadership (creating tools and methodologies to support school leaders going through organisational and building change).

Before and after images The Cardinal Newman Restaurant
Before and after images

The Cardinal Newman Restaurant - a transformed space

Isabelle Boyd, Head Teacher, North Lanarkshire council

Cardinal Newman High School is an enhanced comprehensive school in North Lanarkshire. The main focus of our enhancement is 'enterprise'. We strive to develop 'can do' attitudes in all of our young people. The cornerstone of this development is a Junior Hospitality Academy, for which we have a purpose-built facility and a close working partnership with Motherwell College. The training kitchen and restaurant at Cardinal Newman High School were designed by GCA of Calder Street, Coatbridge, using funding from North Lanarkshire Council. They transformed an underused common room into a state of the art professional training kitchen and restaurant. The architect has also worked with senior students in designing a new common room and outdoor work space.