Lyons O'Neill

How has education design evolved to meet client needs?

Whilst every project we work on is a special and significant undertaking, education projects present us with a particularly unique opportunity. Studies have found that well-designed classrooms could potentially boost students’ learning by up to 16%; making any school design a crucial one to get right. With a view of fostering students’ learning to the best of our abilities, engineers and architects must also strive to meet the diverse needs of a range of stakeholders in the process: including governments, councils, teachers and, of course, students. With these needs evolving with every school year, education design must inevitably do so too.

Now whilst many of us might look back on our school days recalling images of outdated, prefabricated buildings, we don’t need to look far for examples of the ways education design has evolved from the cuboid, identikit structures of the past to incorporate new ideas and techniques which allow us to meet our clients’ unique needs.

Take our work to deliver a new school building at St Nicholas SEN School for example. Here, the new school building is being developed on-site of the existing school, which remains in operation throughout our works. To avoid disruption, the structure has been designed to incorporate elements that have been precast off-site for assembly on-site, providing a cost-effective solution that also facilitates an accelerated installation time. As a result, the structure benefits from a braced steel frame with precast hollowcore decks, allowing us to bring the striking, large structure to life as  efficiently as possible and without compromising on aesthetics.

Despite our efforts to challenge misconceptions around the use of materials manufactured off-site, they continue to exist – particularly in conversations concerning school design. It has been argued that misconceptions are due in part to a number of school design standards set by the Education and Skills Funding Authority (ESFA) to ensure buildings are sufficient and cost-effective, resulting in a perception of rigidity in the school design process.

But standardised or cost-effective design doesn’t need to come at the cost of creativity or innovation. Rather, the education sector offers a perfect opportunity for architects and engineers to deliver structures that are modern, entirely bespoke and innovative by design. For example, our ongoing work at another Special Education Needs (SEN) school, Reefway SEN School has been met with a number of challenges which have been successfully mitigated through intelligent and bespoke design solutions.

The site has suffered from ongoing slope stability issues, which, if left unaddressed, could have significant long-term repercussions. As a result, we have undertaken extensive civil and geotechnical investigation to inform our strategy for developing the site. Concluding that a sustainable drainage system (SuDS) would be required to reduce groundwater and ease slope stability, our ideas were incorporated into our design solutions. As a result, we helped our client to meet their sustainability requirements and succeeded in providing a cost-effective, long-lasting design solution which was also fully compliant with national, regional and local policy.

Understanding a site’s context in this way is crucial to forming a design that seriously takes into account the needs of those inhabiting the structure for years to come. Reefway SEN School is also due to be the first of its kind in the area, and will house state-of-the-art facilities for its students. As a specialist school, the design of its physical spaces have needed to reflect its needs and specialisation and creative thinking has helped us achieve just that.

Overall, building for purpose doesn’t mean that engineers and architects are required to follow a tried and tested, one-size-fits-all approach. At Lyons O’Neill, we actively encourage our engineers to take a creative approach to tasks, and as a result, are proud to have achieved a portfolio that is reflective of the diverse needs of our clients.