SCHOOL DESIGN FOR THE POST-COVID WORLD
As the Covid-19 crisis continues, Andy Homden looks at implications for new school design.
When we look back at the experience of Covid-19, there can be little doubt that 2020 and 2021 will be seen as tumultuous years – a period when already rapid processes of change in education were accelerated.
Being so close to events at the moment, it is difficult to bring the true pattern of change into clear focus. Nevertheless, important ideas are already emerging that we must try to understand when designing new schools, which will operate in the post-Covid world.
Essentially, Covid has supercharged three trends already affecting school design:
- Dissatisfaction with designs that still seem to imply teacher-centred learning.
- The desire to design schools in an environmentally friendly way.
- The importance of visibility and flexible use of space.
What are the implications of the pandemic as it interacts with these three forces?
First, and most practically, there are new constraints to consider. These are obvious enough. Covid was not the first pandemic to threaten schools (think SARS, MERS, Bird Flu) and it won’t be the last. School design, surely, must therefore now accommodate
- Better access to hand washing
- Vastly improved (natural?) ventilation
- The ability to move students around school safely
- The ability to organise teaching bubbles – for adults as well as children
- Greater frequency of cleaning
- Vastly improved access to outdoor areas
- More thoughtful drop off and pick up systems
Contemporary, student centred pedagogical ambitions have been confirmed by the pandemic and will continue to affect school design as confirmed mainstream thinking. ‘Blended’ learning was already present in many schools in the form of both the flipped classroom and the use of personal devices. Now, as a result of lockdown, online learning is an accepted – though not a completely satisfying – paradigm and will continue as campuses reopen in some form or another. Looking to the future, accommodating the necessary IT infrastructure on campus to support online learning becomes correspondingly important and must be carefully planned for. Facilitating student access to a much wider range of resources online – one of the great silver linings of lockdown – will surely continue when schools return to predominantly on-campus learning.
From conventional use of space . . .
Covid has also reemphasised the need to escape limiting, single usage of school spaces. Why? Think of what students have lacked during lockdown in terms of specialist school areas – science labs, dance areas, performance spaces, art and design suites, libraries, sports halls. Schools must fit in as many of these as they can and design them in such a way that sensible and secure access can also be given not only during the school day, but in evenings, at the weekend, and even during future lockdowns.
If a circulation space is only a corridor through which to move and nothing else, a school is not giving the best it possibly can to its students. Covid has therefore dramatically reemphasised the need for enhanced flexibility in the use of newly designed or refurbished spaces.
. . . . to flexible use of space
Thoughtful school design has been prioritising the flexible use of space for a number of years. Single-use spaces act as a constraint on scheduling an increasingly diverse curriculum. Large, fixed spaces such as a conventional auditorium may look prestigious, but they limit learning. In place of a large auditorium, consider a series of spaces, carefully integrated in three dimensions to accommodate performance, assemblies, the expressive arts, storage, dance and rehearsal in order to provide a much wider range of learning opportunities.
Notice ‘storage’, which is woefully inadequate in most schools. If you are going to accommodate the loose furniture and equipment needed for flexibly used spaces, accessible and thoughtfully designed storage spaces become correspondingly important.
We have all surely rediscovered the importance of being outdoors during recent periods of lockdown. Providing outdoor access from Early Years classrooms is mainstream design thinking, but it is still incredible that recently-built schools do not give direct access from a kindergarten classroom to an outdoor learning area. But don’t leave it there: primary and secondary interiors should also have greater connection to the external environment.
Blocking access to outside spaces with solid concrete is not only physically confining, it is psychologically debilitating. ‘Inside-outside‘ spaces transitioning from areas completely inside to those that are fully outside are, by contrast, uplifting and stimulating. Direct access to good outdoor spaces – and not just on the ground floor – liberates a school and allows it to breathe, socially and physically.
Landscape planning is also too often an afterthought in school design. It might be objected that being outside is ‘too hot’ or ‘too cold’ or ‘too wet’. The Forest School movement would beg to differ, and there are generally simple ways of extending the season for outdoor work and play. Think covered decking, verandas, native trees and electric wall-mounted fans in hot climates. Simple measure like these shorten the ‘indoors only’ season – even in desert regions.
Natural, sustainable design
If Covid has emphasised the need for natural ventilation, working with architects that have been influenced by local traditional concepts also becomes worthwhile. Natural air flow and cooling is important not only for health, but also for sustainable designs and drastically reduced running costs. Think wind-towers in the UAE, building on stilts in SE Asia and the use of natural materials such as adobe, terracotta and even thatch to extract latent heat in a variety of locations.
Accelerated design journey
So where does that leave us? Covid, while requiring us to strengthen features that protect health, has also propelled us down the road of new design thinking by confirming the trend for the flexible use of spaces, encouraging us to take outdoor educational access and sustainable design more seriously, while confirming the move towards blended, student-centred learning and the infrastructure this requires.
Thankfully, there is no turning back.
Many thanks to Roger Schultz, Director of Schools at the Alice Smith School, Kuala Lumpur, and his staff for the conducted tours of Primary and Secondary campuses, and for permission to use photographs taken.
Further reading from the Alice Smith School
Many thanks to Jennifer McGinty, Head Teacher at Lamenier and Sacred Heart School for showing us her wonderful school and to Create Education for permission to use their photographs.
Andy Homden is a former international school headteacher, and a specialist in the opening of new schools. He is the CEO of Consilium Education, which provides a range of consulting services for school start-ups and project planning.
If you would like to have a conversation about the issues raised in the article, please write to Andy at firstname.lastname@example.org
For more information about the start-up services provided by Consilium Education, please see
This article was first published in International School Leader Magazine and is republished with the kind permission of ISLM Editor, Anne Keeling.
FEATURE Image: Create Education, ventilation schema at Lamenier and Sacred Heart School.