Open Sidebar

Education Week – Wednesday: Time – A Precious Commodity?

by Matt Hayes, Partner, Lee Evans Partnership

Why is time considered to be such a precious commodity?

Perhaps it’s a reflection of the times, but it feels that the ‘free time’ promised by advancing communication technologies back in the days of dial up modem and 2G data networks still seems – despite the huge advancements and efficiencies in these areas – tantalisingly just out of reach.

Similarly, in architectural design, as we moved from a predominantly two-dimensional ‘CAD’ dominated design world, to a three-dimensional ‘BIM’ driven ‘utopia’ the promise that more time would be spent ensuring that buildings were better designed, more fully coordinated and a fully considered package before they were even constructed also seems to be slipping away.

A growing tendency to over promise and under deliver seems to have slipped into the very fabric of the design and engagement process. This is demonstrated perfectly by the ever-shortening period of time allocated to the design stage for new educational buildings, in particular those procured under central government frameworks.

Typically, a six-week period is allocated for the design team to move from RIBA stage One (feasibility study) to RIBA stage Three (planning application stage). Those in the business know that to design an entire school building from scratch in readiness for the scrutiny of conscientious planning authorities, six weeks is a very short amount of time to deliver. That equates to just 30 working days (although weekends inevitably become working days in order to reach the required level of detail necessary in such a tight timeframe).

In the days of the Government’s ‘Building Schools for The Future’ (BSF) programme, this design stage was placed at twelve weeks, which was challenging enough. But for some inexplicable reason this already challenging timescale was halved… One can only imagine that a defective algorithm indicated some cost benefit in the lifecycle financial model of the project to initiate this reduction.

But why raise this issue of ‘time’ at all? – it’s not to promote a wave of sympathy for architects or engineers, but rather to highlight how this particularly affects the most important user group of all, namely the educators, pupils and carers who seem to have been entirely side-lined in the whole process. It could be considered fair enough to flog the design team in order to make them design a building with a life expectancy of typically 60 years in six weeks, but to expect a client group – who typically have zero experience of the design process – to have meaningful involvement in something as significant as a whole new school is, in my opinion, frankly absurd. Coupled with the fact that they are also expected to do their day jobs whilst engaging with this turbo-charged, caffeine-fuelled design sprint does beggar belief.

Increasingly, the speed in which something is designed, procured and constructed seems to be more lauded and considered to be of higher value than whether the actual built outcome is successful. There was a brief moment around 10 years ago when Post Occupancy Evaluation (POE) looked like it might actually become ‘the norm’ and be used as a reflective tool to enable measurable outcomes to be assessed and evaluated, thereby providing valuable feedback into the design loop. That hope evaporated along with the idea of transformational learning when the decision to standardise design, and thereby standardise teaching and standards, was adopted.

A couple of years ago there were whispers on the grapevine regarding design algorithms being used to undertake feasibility studies. Perhaps this is a sign of a future which may be even more bleak than the post BSF reality we have been existing in for the past 10 years. However, the last 16-months or so during the COVID-19 pandemic have forced us all to re-evaluate how and why we do things the way we do. They have shown how crucial and central schools are to the very fabric of our communities, and when access to them is restricted and the physical engagement they provide is removed, people will and do suffer. Only time will tell the extent and legacy of this suffering, but it certainly does appear that whilst the learning can, at a push, be delivered remotely, the benefit of attending a physical, actual educational building is huge.

So perhaps time is indeed a precious commodity. The last 16-months are gone forever but perhaps the lessons from the enforced changes to our lives and liberties might enable a resetting of the clock; a clock which will continue to tick irrespective of how fast it is wound. Let’s hope that the measure employed to evaluate a successful building project is its legacy… not the time it took to design, procure or build it.

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