Crumbling Concrete and School Buildings

Crumbling Concrete and School Buildings

Many of you will have read about the recent controversy about the use of RAAC in schools. Like all building materials, RAAC (aerated concrete) has a lifespan, after which it needs to be replaced. Although the topic is mired in political mud-slinging, what is clear is that successive governments kicked the can down the road in replacing RAAC.

In the second half of this article, his last in a series of three on the architecture of Brighton’s most historic schools, local author Richard Bingham considers the RAAC controversy in the context of the history of government funding for school buildings. First, however, Richard writes about Brighton Aldridge Community Academy (BACA for short). An excellent virtual tour of the building can be accessed

The Site and the Building

BACA is the first secondary school we have considered in this series. It is also by far the most contemporary of our triumvirate of schools.

BACA was completed in 2009, replacing the former Falmer School and occupying the same site to the north east of the city. Designed by award-winning architectural practice Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios, BACA sits on top of a slight rise in the landscape, at the bottom of which the sports pitches have been accommodated.

A two-storey building, BACA rejects the monumental Victorian “triple decker” of St Luke’s in favour of a more child-friendly scale. The low profile also serves to hide the school from the A270, smuggling it back into the landscape at the foot of the South Downs. (This is not something that can be said about its much larger close neighbour, the AMEX).

Figure 1. The curving facade of the school and the colonnade leading to the entrance.

The façade of the school is the building’s most distinctive feature (Figure 1). A long, curvilinear frontage is emphasised by the continuous band of glazing, creating a first impression that is strongly horizontal and not a little hi-tech. At first sight, the building might be a viewing deck at an airport.

The curve softens the appearance of the façade, while the irregularity of the glazing plan avoids any hint of monotony. The concave colonnade ushers reluctant pupils gently towards the entrance.

The aerodynamic appearance, the flat roof and clean lines, the black-painted steel columns – BACA presents an image to the world that is unequivocally modern. However, the frontage mixes traditional and modern materials to excellent effect. Although the school was constructed from concrete poured in situ, a pair of symmetrical brick pavilions appear at either end. For the cladding, Project Architect Simon Carter specified a combination of anthracite (70%) and darker bricks (30%). These blend well with the tinted glass but also create a pleasing decorative pattern (Figure 2).

Figure 2. The brick pier at one end of the façade.

Such decorative uses of different coloured brick have subsequently become ubiquitous on contemporary buildings. At BACA, however, the coloured brick has a more fundamental part to play in the school’s design. In contrast to the dark brick of the school’s frontage, the rear of the building is clad in a white brick that echoes the chalk Downland. Architect Simon Carter, now a partner at Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios, suggests that this lighter brick “brings light into these shadier external terraces and teaching areas, creating a softer and more intimate atmosphere in the private areas of the school” (Figure 3).

Figure 3. Architectural model showing both the frontal elevation and the free-flowing rear elevation that overlooks ancient woodland.

It is here, at the rear of the school, that the classrooms are located in a zig-zag ribbon that runs along the outer edge of the building (Figure 4).

This siting of the classrooms in a shadier area of the school is in complete contrast to the two other school designs this series has considered. A major concern at both St Luke’s and Carden was to flood the classrooms with natural sunlight. For the Victorians, this was a result of fears about the health of poor children and in particular their eyesight. At Carden, it reflected the influence of the Open Air Schools movement. This movement stressed the importance of pupils having access to fresh air and sunlight, modelling schools on pavilion-style TB sanatoriums.

Figure 4. A schematic plan of the school. The classrooms occupy the area of darkest shading and overlook the woodland

There is substantial evidence, even at the time, that such concern for natural light was overdone.1Saint, A (1987) Toward a Social Architecture, Yale University PressMoreover, many of us have had the unpleasant experience of being in older, over-glazed buildings – examples of which include the secondary schools built from the 1950s onwards to accommodate the post-war baby boom – that conspire to be both draughty in the winter and boiling in the summer.

At BACA, the designers were intent on providing spaces for classrooms that were “softer”, “intimate” and “private”. It would seem that the previous concern for the physical well-being of pupils has been transmuted into a concern for their mental well-being. (To say nothing of the mental well-being of the staff…)

The Plan of the School

Let us now go back to the “public face” of the building and enter BACA from the front. When we do, the first thing we encounter after the reception area is an extremely spacious, double-height entrance hall.

Grand public entrances such as these “combine circulation and social space” and were one of the signatures of schools built in the early part of the twenty first century. 2Woolnar, P. et al, et al, (2005) ‘School building programmes: motivations, consequences and implications’ University of NewcastleAt BACA, however, the designers have resisted the temptation to glass the roof and so create an atrium.

Internally, the finishings here are admirably high in quality. At the mezzanine level, the solid parapet is clad in narrow strips of blond wood. To one side, a troop of stylish downlighters illuminate the wide staircase with its well-designed stainless steel handrail. Intrusive echoes from such a cavernous space are reduced by the acoustic baffles suspended from the ceiling, baffles that add a splash of pastel blue to the white interior.

To the left and right of the lofty entrance hall, a spinal corridor leads towards the larger spaces that occupy the wedges at either end of the building (Figure 3). Here there are separate halls for dining, sports and assemblies.

One of the challenges of planning a secondary school like BACA is circulation. With every ring of the bell, pupils have to leave one classroom and make their way to another one. Because secondary schools are organised into separate departments – English, Maths, Science, and so on – this means circulating from one area of the school to another four or five times a day.

To allow this to happen, schools often feature long, institutional-looking corridors from which the classrooms are entered and exited. At secondary schools in particular, these long corridors can become crowded and rowdy at changeover times, creating additional challenges for behaviour management.

In the post-war period, many schools had already began to move away from this organisation towards clustering classrooms around a courtyard or central space. Eliminating corridors reduced the overall square footage of a school, thereby bringing down costs, but also reflected a burgeoning interest in what became known in the 1960s as “progressive education”.

In the 1960s and 1970s, progressive educational ideas envisaged a school for the future that went well beyond the confines of the classroom in favour of allowing the individual pupil to follow his or her own interests. Education was to become “pupil centred”. Rather than sit and listen to endless “chalk and talk” from the teacher, pupils would decide for themselves what they needed to learn. The role of the teacher was to facilitate, to put education in the way of the freely roaming child.

For a time, “open plan” schools seemed the best way to organise space. The more complex timetabling and rooming needs of secondary schools meant that it was, however, primaries that led the way in this respect.

The evidence of the effect of such innovative plans on educational outcomes is mixed.3The report ‘School building programmes: motivations, consequences and implications’ (Woolnar, P, et al, 2005, University of Newcastle) reviews the evidence, recounting that many teachers did not like open plan schools, before concluding that the expertise of the teacher is more important than the plan of the building. Although longitudinal studies are lacking, there is lots of other evidence to suggest that attending a newly built school can create a greater sense of belonging and pride, and even an improvement in behaviour, amongst pupils. See, for example, Cardellino, P, (2008) ‘Understandings Of Design Quality: the Case Of The Building Schools For The Future Programme, University of Reading For the moment, it is interesting to note that, in terms of open plan, the design for BACA both has its cake and eats it. A closer look at the schematic plan (Figure 4) reveals that, although the classrooms are still organised into departments and age groupings, they are nonetheless arranged along much-truncated corridors. Moreover, they overlook large, open plan internal areas that have been variously arranged as exhibition spaces, meeting pods and computer suites. It is around these flexible, open-plan areas that the classrooms cluster.

The Third Wave: Building Schools for the Future

We have discovered that, over the course of the last one hundred and fifty years, there have been three big waves of school building in the United Kingdom.

The first – of which St Luke’s was a notable late example – followed the introduction of the 1870 Education Act that made local authorities responsible for ensuring the education of all children up to the age of 13.

The second big wave – Carden School a ground-breaking example – that came in the aftermath of the end of the Second World War and the consequent explosion in population growth.

The third and final big wave of school building began in 2003, with the launch of the New Labour government’s Building Schools for the Future (BSF) programme. The aim of the programme was ambitious: to rebuild or refurbish every secondary school in the UK by 2020, with a total capital investment of £55 billion.

Unlike the post-war schools, which were needed to educate the growing number of British children, the most often cited reason for the Building Schools for the Future
programme was the deterioration in the fabric of school buildings following decades of under-investment. Put simply, the post-war schools were no longer fit for purpose. A Bradford headteacher whose school was one of the first to benefit from BSF money put it thus: “We urgently need these new buildings. The original school, built in 1956, is now in a poor state and many of our classrooms are too small.”4Woolnar, P., et al, (2005) ‘School building programmes: motivations, consequences and implications’ University of Newcastle

A fervent New Labour rhetoric of modernisation accompanied the BSF programme. Much red ink was spilt describing the transformational qualities of these schools in improving educational outcomes. A prominent example of this was the more extensive use of Information and Communications (ICT) in education. The project proposal for BACA drawn up by Brighton and Hove City Council included provision for a specialist ICT consultant to ensure the school was up to date with the latest technology, including interactive whiteboards.5
Brighton and Hove City Council (August 2009), ‘Final Business Case for Falmer Academy’

There is no doubting the achievements of Building Schools for the Future. Between 2005 and 2010, 96 school new schools were completed and a further 13 refurbished. In Brighton, BACA was one of the new builds, alongside the partial rebuild of its stablemate, Portslade Aldridge Community Academy (PACA). In nearby West Sussex, meanwhile, new builds have included Shoreham Academy, the Regis School in Bognor and the Robert Woodard Academy in Lancing.

Especially once the high-profile Academy programme was rolled into BSF from 2006 onwards, the new schools attracted some stellar architects. No less a person than Norman Foster designed the Langley Academy in Slough (2008), while Zaha Hadid Architects designed another flagship Academy, Evelyn Grace in Brixton, south London (2010). Once again, it seemed, school design had become an important area of specialism for many architectural practices.

By the time Evelyn Grace was opened, however, the implications of the global financial crisis of 2008 were clear. When David Cameron’s Coalition government assumed power, BSF was cut down to size. Austerity axed a total of 700 school building projects. While 96 schools were completed between 2005 and 2010, between 2011 and the present day just 19 new schools have been built under BSF’s replacement, Priority Schools Building.6Cooper, K., ‘Are academies the last hope for good school design?’ Architects’ Journal, Thursday 7th April 2016

In the new builds, maximum classroom sizes were reduced. Many of the striking design features that make BACA distinctive – the curved façade, the dog leg extensions where the classrooms are located – were specifically discouraged by the new regulations.7
Frearson, M., ‘UK Government Bans Curved Buildings’, Dezeen, Wednesday, 3rd October 2012

Paul Monaghan, director at Allford Hall Monaghan Morris, a practice that has built many Academies, complained that one effect of the Priority Schools Building programme was the lack of direct influence architects had in the design of educational spaces. ‘‘We used to be in that room during the Building Schools for the Future programme,” Monaghan told the Architects’ Journal in 2016. “The Priority Schools Building Programme has a very stringent budget; most of the results I have seen are like tin sheds. Some of the most famous schools in the country are amazing pieces of architecture but people ignore that.”8
Cooper, K., ‘Are academies the last hope for good school design?’ Architects’ Journal, Thursday 7th April 2016

It is a view shared by Simon Carter of Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios. Talking of BACA, he says, “We look back very fondly on this project. It was built at a time when the government were totally committed to providing exemplary schools and learning environments for students. Although we’ve designed many wonderful schools since BACA, there just isn’t the same level of investment in schools these days.”

Critics might say that the £22 million price tag for BACA was too expensive. They might even agree with Michael Gove, Coalition Secretary of State for Education, who commented at the time: “We won’t be getting Richard Rogers to design your school, we won’t be getting any award-winning architects to design it, because no one in this room is here to make architects richer.”9
Frearson, M., ‘UK Government Bans Curved Buildings’, Dezeen, Wednesday, 3rd October 2012

Alternatively, it might be said that Michael Gove was cynically deploying the popular prejudice against plutocratic architects as a fig leaf to cover up the slashing of school investment, to the detriment of an entire generation’s education.

In June 2023 the National Audit Office published a report that estimated 700,000 British pupils currently attend schools that require major repairs. According to the report, more than a third of school buildings are now past their estimated design lifespan and almost 600 schools are at risk of structural collapse because of crumbling concrete. Pupils evacuated from these schools are being taught in church and village halls.10Weale, S, ‘Pupils in England sent to churches and village halls as crumbling schools close’, The Guardian, Thursday, 29th June 2023.

In September 2023, the issue became a firestorm with the discovery that schools, along with perhaps thousands of other public buildings, might be unsafe because the panels of RAAC concrete they were built with are turning slowly into crumbly Aero.

On the 7th of September, the BBC reported that the list of schools known to have been built using RAAC that had been planned to be rebuilt under Labour’s Building Schools for the Future programme, but which subsequently had their building work cancelled in 2010 under the Conservative government, currently stands at 17. 11, accessed 7th September 2023No doubt, this will rise further.

As the National Audit Office report showed, however, RAAC is only the tip of a very big iceberg. Many of the other schools built using concrete systems are also reaching the end of their lifespan.

In times of austerity, the first type of expenditure to be reined back is big, juicy capital expenditure. The RAAC scandal has thrown a spotlight onto what happens when public buildings are not refurbished or replaced in a timely fashion. The cost of putting RAAC right, along with the cost to children’s education, will only slowly become clear.

It is time to pull together some of the themes of this series of articles about school design.

First, and most obviously, Brighton is built on hills. All three schools had to cope with the demand of an uphill site. At Carden, the earthworks added something like 25% to the project cost, although the stair towers that deal with the remaining changes in level also add striking verticals to what is otherwise a single storey school.

All three schools were also suburban. St Luke’s was the most straitened, its small site hemmed in by the rapidly growing Victorian suburb of Queen’s Park. In contrast, both Carden and BACA occupy more spacious sites because they were originally planned as integral parts of two post-war housing estates built on the outskirts of the city at the foot of the Downs. These two schools could therefore afford to be more low-rise.

St Luke’s was built in red brick, the vernacular material characteristic of the Queen Anne style adopted by the school’s architect, Thomas Simpson. In contrast, both Carden and BACA were constructed using concrete. Carden was “system built”, deploying pre-fabricated concrete slabs and posts that were bolted together on site. BACA’s concrete, however, was poured “in situ”. The architects of both schools resorted to stronger steel frames for their halls, which were the largest spaces in both.

In many ways, the building type of a school has not varied much. The need is still much as it was when St Luke’s was designed: a range of classrooms; larger communal indoor spaces for dining, PE and assemblies; outdoor spaces for play.

However, in other ways the design of schools has changed with changes in society’s views on education. In Victorian times, for example, over-glazing was intended to allay concerns about children’s poor eyesight. Because of safeguarding fears, today’s schools cower behind security fences and clanging gates. Open plan schools have come and gone, but the ghost of pupil-centred education still haunts the open plan areas at BACA.

Sustainability is perhaps the hottest topic in any construction project now. Notably, BACA was one of the early recipients of an award under the Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Methodology (BREEAM). The methodology assesses the compliance of new and refurbished buildings against world-class standards in design, construction and operation. For example, the bricks that form an important part of BACA’s design didn’t have to come far as they were sourced locally.

One final aspect of the recent history of school buildings is the role of local government in the design and building of our schools.

Like all the other Victorian Board Schools, St Luke’s was paid for from the local rates. The School Board that commissioned the school were elected by the city’s residents. Likewise, Carden was paid for by the rates, and designed by the Borough Architect at the behest of elected local councillors. To this day, these buildings remain the property of Brighton and Hove City Council.

The Academy programme is different. It survived the death of FSB and has gone on to become the only game in town. Although the building of new Academies such as BACA has once again been paid for by Council Tax, the schools operate largely outside local government control and occupy buildings assigned to the Sponsor on long-term, peppercorn leases.

BACA’s architects were commissioned by Kier Education, Brighton and Hove’s preferred design and build contractor. Project architect Simon Carter comments that their relationship with Brighton and Hove City Council was positive throughout. However, “our contact with BHCC was fairly limited because the School is an Academy run outside of the Local Authority’s control.”

Academies have therefore been a further means of reducing the role of local authorities in the provision of public services. We seem to have come full circle: from the delegation of education to local authorities under the 1870 Act to the effective removal of that responsibility through the Academy programme. Peter Clegg, senior partner at Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios, described Academies as “another nail in the coffin for local authorities.”12Cooper, K., ‘Are academies the last hope for good school design?’ Architects’ Journal, Thursday 7th April 2016

There are issues here of democratic accountability. Interestingly, BACA’s neighbouring primary school in Moulsecoomb fought for a long time to resist academisation.13Doherty-Cove, J., ‘Moulsecoomb Primary Forced to Become Academy’, Brighton Evening Argus, Wednesday 21st April 2021

For all that, Academies can make excellent clients. And BACA remains an excellent building. The elegant façade, the free-flowing, organic form, the impressive entrance hall – all of these communicate to pupils and staff alike that education is exciting and important. The contrasting brick facades successfully create two different atmospheres for the school’s public and private faces. Internally, the high quality finishes continue to impress, and the design solves the challenges of circulation while also offering flexible teaching spaces that can expand with the school itself.

BACA shows what can be done when a talented group of designers is put at the service of an educational vision. If it is expensive, then that should hardly surprise us.

The proper realisation of a vision rarely comes cheap.

For his next set of articles, Richard will be considering houses in Brighton. He will be writing about some overlooked but interesting examples of domestic architecture, and exploring the way they reflect social history.

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