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On our second day we were joined by members of the British Council for School Environments (BCSE).  We met all day at a new Free School that had just taken over a much older school building.  The presentations and panel discussions that day were dedicated to methods of procurement and case studies, and were not terribly different from what we would hear in the United States.  But there was one moment of excitement and confrontation. 

A Tory Member of Parliament (MP) who is on the committee that oversees the English Department of Education described the Building Schools for the Future (BSF) program as a failure.  He said one key reason for that failure is the program is based a false premise.  He stated that the idea that school building design can have a significant impact on education is false.  He said, and I’m paraphrasing here, that everybody knows what matters is the teacher and that everything else pales in comparison therefore the effort to improve education through facility design is misguided and he is very glad the UK has seen the light and moved on.

You could feel the discomfort in the audience, and one Scot rose to challenge him.  In his wonderful brogue, the Scot accused the MP of being a “Philistine.”  I’ve long marveled at how well the English use their language to say the most insulting things to one another and somehow it still sounds civilized, even genteel.  We were treated to a lot of such language that day, laced with many Churchill quotations.  As I didn’t have a speaking role that day, I had no opportunity to share my favorite Churchill quotation, but for the record here it is.  During a debate in Parliament, a female MP told Churchill that “If you were my husband, I’d poison your tea.”  To which Churchill quickly replied “Madame, if you were my wife, I’d gladly drink it.”

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A controversy has erupted about the structural safety of a recently completed elementary school.  The core of the issue appears to be that the standard normally applied to non-critical structures (such as outbuildings) was used for the school building. The difference in what was actually designed and built may be significant, resulting in the possibility that the school may not adequately resist unusual circumstances such as minor earthquakes or extreme windstorms.

A newspaper article focused on the “series of errors” that could lead to a project getting all the way to completion without flaws being discovered.  While that is an appropriate line of investigation, it overlooks a fundamental question regarding the method of project delivery used for the building.  That method was “Design/Build,” which in this case was a single company providing the design and construction services needed to complete the project.  Structural engineering was also provided by this single company.

There are advantages to the Design/Build process when the Designer and Contractor are two separate entities, rather than a single firm. The Design/Build process, when provided by a single company, theoretically allows increased efficiencies through a closer integration of design and production.  However, it is my opinion that Design/Build that is provided by one entity has a significant liability.

That liability is the loss of checks and balances. In traditional project delivery, design and construction are provided by two separate entities and each has a contract directly with the Client. As a result, each party has the right and the responsibility to communicate openly and fully with the Client.  The two halves of the project – Design and Construction – watch each other and can help to prevent excesses, or critical omissions, on the part of the other.  Those experienced with a more traditional construction process can attest that such a method is not always smooth, but it does result in the client being informed and involved throughout.  When a Design/Build team composed of two separate companies provides services on a building project, many of the traditional checks and balances still remain in place.

We will all watch anxiously as this unfolds.  We all hope the taxpayers and their students suffer no harm financially or educationally.  And hopefully the entire design and construction industry will learn how to not repeat similar mistakes in the future.

Later the first day, we visited the Evelyn Grace Academy, designed by famed architect Zaha Hadid.  From the exterior there was no mistaking it was a Hadid project.  Combining sinewy curves with angled walls, the composition was striking.  We were all quite anxious to get inside to see if the interior arrangement was equally innovative. 

We started our visit in the Sports Hall – what we in the U.S. would call a gymnasium.  The most impressive feature was a large angled clerestory.  It started quite narrow at one corner and became progressively taller as it extended down the long wall of the space.  What was immediately apparent was that any ability to control the direct sunlight entering this space was marginal at best.  There appeared to be shade cloth window blinds at the heads of each window.  One of these was pulled down, but was hanging at a slight angle indicating some sort of malfunction.  Even through this one shade cloth, so much direct sunlight was pouring through that it would interfere with proper use of the space in a sporting event.

The interior as a whole exhibited strong detailing, consistent with the architectural theme.  Colors were quite muted and finish materials were ordinary.  One had the feeling that so much of the budget went into the exterior forms that not enough was left for durability inside.

On the first day of our London conference we boarded a bus and headed into London traffic.  It wasn’t rush hour, but in London it’s hard to tell.  It seems to be slow going no matter what the time of day. In general, it took us twice as long to get anywhere than we had planned.  One thing that made the long trip worthwhile was that we passed just west of the 2012 Olympic site, and could see several of the new venues. 

We were headed to our very first school visit – the City Academy – a Free School.   In England, Free Schools are the equivalent of our Charter Schools, but in the UK they are very a recent development.  The building was built new specifically for this program and is located in the Hackney Borough of London. 

The building is three stories high and very open inside, with atrium spaces in both wings.  The atriums were topped with a lightweight double-film plastic skylight.  The two layers of the skylight are kept separated and rigid by a continuously running pump that inflates the space between the layers.  I wonder if we could do that in Colorado, but I would worry about our snow load. 

One thing that strikes any American visiting a school in London is the very tight security.  Every school site has a substantial perimeter fence and the main gate through that fence is tightly controlled.  Although this seems intimidating, it has one major advantage.  By dealing with security at the site edge, London schools can ignore security problems inside the building.  So, all the lockdown procedures and secure classroom issues we as American  school designers have to deal with go away.  The result is that English schools enjoy an astonishing level of visual openness from circulation spaces into classrooms, and the City Academy was no exception.