Building schools: could do better


When the Scottish architectural practice ARPL set out to design a new 1,000-pupil secondary school for Kingswood in Tallaght, south Dublin, one of its primary objectives was to create a “functional, stimulating, innovative and exciting learning environment for students, staff and the community . . . a city in microcosm”.

ARPL ended up winning a Department of Education competition for the project – the first such contest since 1973 – much to the surprise of many Irish architects, who would have given their eye teeth to secure such a prestigious project. Dublin-based de Blacam and Meagher Architects and the Coady Partnership were joint second.

The fact that there were 154 entries in the competition reflected the importance of quality design in school buildings, according to Minister for Education Ruairí Quinn, who said he “wanted to bring fresh thinking and creativity to the design of our schools . . . given the changes that are under way both in terms of curriculum and how our students are taught”.

In September the Minister forecast that more than 100 school buildings would be constructed over the next five years to cope with a huge rise in the number of children who will need school places, and stressed again that this challenge was also a “real opportunity to seek innovation in the design of these new schools”.

The runners-up in the Kingswood competition are expected to be commissioned to design other schools. They include Grafton Architects, which won the Silver Lion at this year’s Venice Architecture Biennale and the first World Building of the Year award in 2008, for the Bocconi University in Milan, as well as Michael Kelly Architect and BDP Dublin.

Quinn is a trained architect himself, even though he has not practised for many years, so one would expect that he would be keen to promote quality design. Yet there is widespread dismay among architects about the way schools are procured, with design quality ranking way down the list of criteria.

According to Paul Keogh, a former president of the Royal Institute of the Architects of Ireland (RIAI), the current procedures are “basically unsound”, because they rank the cost of architectural services ahead of quality, awarding a total of 75 marks for fees, hourly rates and resources and only 25 marks for the architect’s ability as a designer. As a result, he says, some architectural practices “have cracked the ‘secret code’, thus giving them an advantage in winning tenders”.

They do this usually by bidding fee levels as low as 2 per cent of a building’s estimated price. This would in no way cover the cost of design unless the architects involved were skimping.

“There is now a widespread recognition in Government circles that the fee-tender levels currently required to secure public-sector projects are unsustainably low, whether to deliver effective professional services or quality design outcomes, and I believe there are massive potential legacy risks to the State in persisting with the existing models.”

Keogh maintains that the obsession with fees, as opposed to design, runs counter to the published Government Policy on Architecture 2009-2015, which is “committed to ensuring the architectural quality of all buildings procured through State funding, and to enhancing the importance of both architectural quality and the achievement of value for money”.

The Architects’ Council of Europe also says procurement “must be based on quality, as this is the only way to guarantee development towards a more sustainable built environment. It has to be ensured that procedures permit the selection of the best proposals, having regard to sustainability, architectural quality and lifecycle costs.”

EU procurement rules say the awarding of contracts should be based on “the most economically advantageous tender”, including quality, price, technical merit, aesthetic and functional characteristics, running costs and so on. And the World Bank says the weighting for cost “should normally be 20 per cent” for anything other than routine projects.

Keogh detailed all this in a memo to the RIAI’s council last month, arguing that the institute should insist on an “80/20 split”, giving a total of 80 marks for quality and 20 marks for cost. He suggested that a two-envelope method be used in assessing tenders, “so that selection is not unwittingly biased in favour of the lowest fee”.

Quinn also needs to examine the school-design briefs given to architects by his department, which are far too prescriptive, as two final-year architecture students at the University of Limerick have found. Everything is fixed, including the size and layout of classrooms, staffrooms, science labs, computer rooms, toilets and corridors.

The students, Jennifer Kingston and Sinéad Stack, who have looked at the issue in detail, argue that briefs given to architects should reflect the fact that the whole curriculum and methods of learning have changed in recent years. “As we see it, this needs to be overhauled to allow for information technology and expansion of the curriculum,” they say.

The two students, who believe strongly that architects and progressive school principals should be allowed more scope for creativity, are now finalising a report for presentation to the Minister in advance of a day-long colloquium on postprimary-school design at the Department of Education’s conference centre on December 13th.

The Minister might also consider holding an open competition for really experimental new schools, free of the generic design constraints currently imposed by his department’s specifications straitjacket. Scandinavia, for example, has primary schools on the ground floors of apartment blocks, as well as outdoor schools, even in midwinter.

A return to hedge schools, perhaps?

Case study

The new Church of Ireland school in Enniskerry, Co Wicklow, is an example of the Department of Education’s latest generic design for primary schools and a mirror image of another new school in Moynalty, Co Meath, according to Canon Richard Rountree, the rector of Enniskerry.

Powerscourt National School, on an elevated site near St Patrick’s Church of Ireland and its graveyard, is a modern building designed in-house by the department’s architects. It includes a double-height multi-purpose hall, rendered in light blue, with a sloping monopitch roof.

Tony Carey, a former brewing director of Diageo in Dublin and a resident of Enniskerry for many years, says he is “not alone in being deeply disappointed at the architecture” of the new school, which is “inappropriate for this highly sensitive location in a heritage village”.

He points out that the building is clearly visible from an entrance gate of Powerscourt Demesne and says its generic quality raises issues about the design of schools in Ireland today, arguing that more sensitivity should be shown for specific sites.

In a letter to Minister for Education Ruairí Quinn earlier this year, he said the department should “consider an alternative colour for the present blue walls and draw up a planting scheme of trees to screen off the school, particularly from the thousands of passing tourists”.

Carey received a detailed reply from the department, which said the building had been “designed and orientated to address and connect with its surroundings”, with the slope of its highest roof echoing the Sugar Loaf mountain, in the distance.

The Minister’s private secretary, Ronnie Ryan, also noted that the school was one of the first two in Ireland to achieve a passive energy standard. “It is intended that boundary planting will soften any perceived visual impact from the church grounds.”

“Most of the negative comment has been about the blue on the top,” says Canon Rountree. “But the Moynalty school is all white, which makes it look very tall, so I think our new school fits in quite well.”

He says the school had been in planning for 15 years, as the village’s old school could no longer accommodate a growing number of pupils, some of whom were taught in a prefab in a former orchard to the rear. The building is currently vacant and on offer for “suitable new uses”.

The new school is much larger, with two pairs of classrooms on either side of the multipurpose hall, which has its own entrance and can be used independently for public meetings and other events. More trees are to be planted behind the granite boundary wall, the canon says.

The Regency Gothic former Church of Ireland school, built in 1818 by Lord Powerscourt, is believed to have been the oldest in the State until it closed, last Easter, and nearly 80 pupils moved to the new school. Its style perfectly matches the alpine ambience of Enniskerry.

As for what should happen to it, there are divided views. Canon Rountree hopes for a “mix of community and commercial uses”. But Tony Carey says it would be “ideal as a visitor centre for Wicklow national park”, especially as a bus terminus is right outside.

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