At NORR we recognize that the learning environments in which we are educated have a special prominence in all of our lives. They are not ordinary places. They are important places which have the capacity to directly influence the development of our young people and to assist in their learning in a hugely positive way.
But 21st century learning environments are constantly changing, continually evolving. Consequently, so are our buildings. In particular, our schools, at least here in Scotland, have seen significant change over recent years. Timescales are quicker and budgets are leaner. Procurement has evolved, briefing has developed and the learning landscape has dramatically changed. In my experience, efficiency and value have now become crucial considerations in creatively addressing these disparate changes.
In tackling our design work, we always seek to deliver tangible value; not the lowest cost, but genuine value for our clients, achieved by problem solving through effective design. Delivering this value is not often easy. In fact, it is usually a challenge.
There are many reasons for this. Some (less experienced) client bodies and most contractors often conflate cost and value. They are not the same. Good value can mean many things, of which reduced costs may only be one small part. National educational policies may often dictate how learning is delivered and that, in turn, can have a direct impact on building form and area and, therefore, also have a profound influence on cost. We understand that different educational clients require different educational solutions for their projects, and we always aim to deliver what our clients wish, however our recent experience has shown clearly that embracing new ways of learning unquestionably delivers enhanced value.
How does NORR do this?
By providing a blend of different types of space for different types of activity; by eroding the institutional corridor to make every single piece of space work hard for the benefit of the user, and by providing digitally enhanced collaborative learning spaces which bring people together in a far more stimulating, far more creative way of sharing knowledge and delivering learning, encouraging pupils to think for themselves, to problem solve in proactive and creative ways.
This was brought home to me in our most recent project, West Calder High School, arguably the most radical high school environment yet completed in Scotland. It certainly fully embraces the culture described above. So much so that, whisper it, half way through construction I became a little, well, nervous. Would it work? Would its users embrace this brave new world? Would it deliver learning in the way that we all hoped? Luckily we had a fantastic client, one unwavering in her commitment to collaborative learning. She was utterly convinced it would. I shouldn’t have wavered. She was right. Not only does the new school operate even better than we anticipated, but teachers and learners actively compete to use the flexible spaces we have created to extract maximum benefit for the learning process. They feed off each other and make learning fun.
Young people love that, and you can see it on their faces and hear it in their voices. They want to be there. They look forward to coming to school. Attendance has improved, absences have reduced and the pupils have fully embraced the wonderfully diverse opportunities that their exciting new school provides. They love the building and the building loves them.
Now that is true success.
As designers I don’t think we could ask for anything more.