Allison Arieff has written about how in America, our schools look like prisons.
School design, particularly public school design, is often lumped in with the design of other institutional structures like jails, civic centers and hospitals, to detrimental effect. My high school, for example, had the dubious distinction of having been designed by the architect responsible for San Quentin. (The convicts got the better building.) Schools fulfill a practical function, to be sure, but shouldn’t they be designed to inspire?
Then you go to the UK and- this. It's the latest school from Architype, the UK firm that we recently gushed over with their Enterprise building. And if you think I gush, you should read what the Royal Institute of British Architects writes in their award citation:
A superb example of collaboration between the client, Carmarthenshire County Council, the architect, Architype and the School, working together as one to achieve a high quality, inspirational educational environment for both the pupils and the staff and a source of aspiration to others.
It is the first school in Wales to be built to the Passive House standard, but it is also a great example of the use of wood. The pod building is made of Brettstapel, where instead of nails or glue, the wood is held together by dowels. In this case the wood "been sourced largely from Welsh woodland, comprising of 90% Sikta Spruce and 10% Douglas Fir, with Beech specified for the hardwood dowels." There are lots of good reasons to build a school this way; as the architects note in their brief,
Natural materials are to be employed wherever possible, from the timber frame structure to the internal nishes to the timber cladding, ensuring a healthy environment for the end users and those involved in constructing the building. In many cases the use of natural products, such as timber, allows local resources to be utilised and lends itself to the capture and storage of embodied carbon... The implementation of natural materials throughout the buildings not only avoids using pollutants in the creation of materials and building’s construction, but means that as the materials age they will not emit toxins or pollution.
The Brettstapel is made from a low grade timber that they say "would otherwise be unsuitable for use in construction". By popularizing this technology, Architype is adding value, and "increasing local employment opportunities by using Welsh softwoods." It is something we could be doing all over North America too; read more on brettstapel here.
There are good reasons to build to the Passivhaus or Passive House standard too; operating costs are much lower, and that is a big deal in schools.
The Junior block has been designed as Passivhaus, the most rigorous international building standard. It uses sound building physics to reduce energy consumption by design, and enables simple, robust and long lasting buildings. This provides cost savings from day one, and throughout the life of the building.... By designing out unnecessary complexity and keeping detailing simple and elegant, it is possible to produce Passivhaus standards at no extra capital cost.
The RIBA concludes in their award description.
This is an extremely sensitive, very carefully considered building that focusses on health and wellbeing and sets the bar higher for the schools of the future. All credit to the local authority for recognizing the importance of achieving excellence of design within inevitable budget constraints. Their choice of architect was inspired, the resulting building is inspiring.
It also shows that they don't have to look like prisons.