When one design fits none
A new range of standardised school buildings is likely to fail on all counts
Including systems named after such radical figures as Paxton, Newton and Keynes, Wilmott Dixons’ Sunesis range of standardised designs comes pre-billed as a revolution in school design.
Design Council Cabe’s positive design reviews of the first buildings to be proposed using the Keynes system, have made it clear that the watchdog has no intention of standing in the way. But how much uptake of standardisation are we really going to see? In naming one of their systems after Keynes - an economist who famously advocated governments spending their way out of economic downturns - Wilmott Dixon might certainly be accused of wishful thinking.
But even if significantly increased funding does come on-stream, it remains far from clear how many schools are going to prove capable of accommodating standardised solutions. The sites in Rugby and the Isle of Wight, for which the first two Keynes system buildings have been proposed, are not complicated and yet even Cabe has had to acknowledge the cack-handedness with which the projects’ external spaces have been handled. The systems are sure to be tested significantly harder when schools with more built-up sites try to use them.
Of course, there will be those who argue that in the present climate, we have to prioritise delivery over quality - that the standardised solution is all that we can afford. But are standardised solutions necessarily cheaper? Looking back to the schools produced in the 1970s - the last time that standardisation was promoted as an ideal - it is clear that reality was always more complex than a Soviet-style centrally implemented solution could ever cater for. In truth, no two “standardised” schools were ever the same.
So who does benefit from standardisation? Ultimately, only the handful of contractors large enough to be able to develop and market their own systems. It is therefore a procurement culture entirely at odds with the principle of competition. That fundamental failing threatens to ensure that the next generation of school buildings will not only be inadequate to their purpose but significantly more expensive too.