London told: get creative; build more multi-level and mixed-use schools

Wednesday 15 February 2017 - image supplied by kind permission of Architecture Initiative

London should get creative and look to develop more schools in high rises and alongside other complementary uses.

That was the headline message aired at the ‘Meeting London’s School Needs’ held at the NLA last week.

Jo Finney, Pupil Place Planning Data Analysis Lead, EFA Capital, kicked off, saying that “there was £23bn to spend over the parliament to meet the demands, chiefly, of a rising population, but also reform, including free schools. But, based on data provided by local authorities, London is facing an estimated shortfall in places - particularly keen in the short term in primary in Lambeth, Waltham Forest and Newham, and in Lewisham and Ealing at secondary level.  Those patterns of shortfall will change as more school places are added into the system, said Finney.  Strides are also being made in terms of unlocking new sites, via LocatED - a soon to be launched government-owned property company, whose interim managing director Lara Newman said was creating schemes which are ‘more about the public good’. It is buying sites across London, creating mixed-use projects, marrying housing and schools in places like Kingston and Ealing. ‘We are the biggest buyer of sites in England now’, she said.

Ealing’s own approach, said its assistant director, schools, planning and resources, Gary Redhead, was to set out the borough’s need and then aim to provide it, even working across the border with neighbouring authorities. This was something that had made him unpopular said Redhead, with politicians more concerned with using cash to fund roadbuilding.

But perhaps more high-rise mixed use schemes could provide part of the answer, such as that being designed by Pilbrow & Partners’ Sam Yousef, a primary at the fast-growing South Quay. The scheme runs to six storeys in a 30 storey residential building and features a cascading garden of playdecks. At King’s Cross, moreover, another school at the base of housing had proved so popular, said Argent senior project director Alex Woolmore, that residents had been drawn to the scheme, not away from it. Such projects add a democratizing effect to new areas she added. ‘It adds a reality; it makes it a real place.’ WSO Parsons Brinckerhoff director Bill Price said such ‘air rights’ projects were a real possibility across the capital, and a 50-storey scheme had been built In Chicago, so why not here?

Burntwood School principal Helen Dorfman suggested that the ‘bond’ her staff had enjoyed with architects AHMM had been crucial in creating the right scheme, while Jestico + Whiles’ director Heinz Richardson showed that a series of sensitive expansion projects such as his practice had provided in Hackney could be another way of schools getting the most out of their sites. But government initiatives and a lack of funds risk creating an era of poor quality schemes which will have to be revisited a decade or so down the line, said Richardson.  Thedesign industry, he said, needs to get creative and avoid providing inadequate schemes in the rush for speed, claiming that architects were in danger of being reduced to little more than ‘choosing colours’. Nicholas Hare Architects’ Jayne Bird agreed, saying that the Priority Schools Building Programme had many flaws, making it difficult to create good circulation or high quality given the pressures on funds and paucity of time,

‘It can feel like getting blood out of a stone’, she said. ‘And I feel that the stone is now anaemic.’

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