What makes a great learning environment? Sam Brown, O’DonnellBrown

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As part of our focus on education and learning spaces we spoke to architects and designers about developments in learning environments. Here we hear from Sam Brown, O’DonnellBrown

What makes a great environment for learning, and why?

We think it is important to put ourselves in the place of the people using the spaces, to be emphatic designers, and whilst different schools will need different approaches, there are some key principles which will always be relevant.

We need to create delightful environments for learning – adaptable spaces that can enhance free thinking or encourage focus. Technical aspects are critical: lots of natural light, good acoustics, no glare, good air quality, a comfortable temperature, and choosing robust, low maintenance materials. Inside/outside spaces, with clear visual links, and direct access to high quality external playspace, are so important.

But this all needs to be balanced with a bit of intrigue! When we designed the Swanlea Sixth Form for London Borough of Tower Hamlets, the use of timber cladding internally and externally created a new and unique identity for the sixth form – the pupils feel proud of ‘their’ new building.

If we can achieve all this (and then some…), then we are creating spaces which can really compliment great teaching, and have a positive effect on the way children learn – to quote Mr. Churchill “we shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us”.

Swanlea_6th_form College (detail)

Swanlea Sixth Form for London Borough of Tower Hamlets by O’DonnellBrown.

What are the three most important aspects of school design today?

  1. A clear brief: whilst this is true for all projects, with a school it becomes critical as we are designing the place that children will spend most of their time – we need to ensure we are providing the best solution.
  2. Understanding the bigger picture: making sure we create long term solutions instead of short term fixes.
  3. Collaboration: working closely with clients (both user and funding) and the wider project team to ensure thoughtful, high quality design is championed throughout.


How do you think learning environments will evolve in the coming years?

In recent years, project procurement, and structures of delivery, have sometimes shifted the focus off design, or indeed really limited our ability as a profession to contribute – so in coming years, we want to see education and architecture brought back together, with more opportunities for architecture to really aide evolution through exceptional design.

Optimistically, if we can reset the agenda, to seek out and demand the very best, innovative designs (whilst maxmising ever depleted resources of course), then we will be in a better position to respond to the ever adapting needs of school communities and every project, whether a small extension or new build school, can have a big impact through learning environments that are truly inspiring.

How do you see the role of technology in shaping the future of learning environments?

By its nature, technology changes at a fast pace, and our learning environments need to change to keep up. They will become more pupil centred environments, orientated towards ‘cloud’ IT and personalised learning – rather than teaching undifferentiated groups, with such wide ranging interests and talents, teachers will be able to gather smaller groups and connect with individual students.

The architecture will have to have the flexibility to adapt to this – the ‘classroom’ of the future could be anywhere – an exciting prospect!

Have you seen any international exemplar projects/approaches to learning environments which you think we could learn from in Scotland?

There are numerous projects to choose from which push the boundaries for how architecture can directly and positively influence the way children learn.

The Tokyo Kindergarten by Tezuka Architects – is a great example of a project that applies innovative thought, responding directly to the Montessori Method of learning through discovery, to create a free plan design.

The project integrates a group of existing trees, offering opportunities to climb and, in their local context, shading from the sun – we acknowledge in Scotland a similar approach would more likely offer shelter from the rain!

The synergy between the external and internal elements of this project is quite inspirational and something we can definitely take lessons from – particularly in the context of looking at different approaches to classroom design, and creating meaningful external play space on urban site.

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