Blog: Engaging Learners, Changing Spaces, Improving Wellbeing – Mark Ellson, Holmes Miller Architects

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The Education Buildings Scotland Conference seeks to bring together different sectors across the learning estate to celebrate what works in re-thinking spaces for learning. It allows them to share insights on what’s possible to support improvement. A&DS has invited a number of design professionals to share their ideas. The focus of the blogs is on the voice of young people. In this blog Mark Ellson, Education Director Holmes Miller Architects, writes that the architect’s job is to listen, and to listen attentively. 

I recall hosting a small design exercise at a rural school in Aberdeenshire, where Primary 4 pupils were engaged in the design of a new restaurant as part of their wider course curriculum. As an architecture student at the time, I filled the introduction of the session with my ideas and inspiration, eager to convey my creativity and passion for design to this young audience. As the design work commenced however, it was evident that the minds of the pupils were far freer in conjuring up ideas and opportunities, with a particular pupil causing some pause for thought. On the page in front of him was a large letter ‘R’ for ‘Restaurant’, drawn to resemble a building floor plan. The immediate reaction, of course, was to discount the pupil as having interpreted the design instruction in too literal a sense, but humorous none the less; until he explained the rational. He quickly outlined that the entrance would be at the top of the letter, this would provide a larger area for people to congregate. The bar would be positioned as the middle of the ‘R’ providing a large surface area for serving drinks, with a roof light above bringing light to the centre of the big space. Diners would then be shown to tables that were drawn within the legs of the ‘R’. When questioned about the suitability of this dining arrangement, he quickly corrected that the two legs would allow separation of ‘smoking’ from ‘non-smoking’ or indeed in today’s society, ‘families’ from ‘couples’, clearly focussing on user comfort at the forefront.

Refining Problems

This experience has been maintained throughout my professional career, resisting any inclination to muffle or discount the thoughts and expression of pupils or stakeholders. More often than not, the design aspirations being conveyed are not the attempt to design the impossible, but a deep-rooted expression to resolve or refine a problem or experience they have faced, either within their current school or nursery, or within their family life. To draw on this, the architect’s job is simply to listen, and listen attentively.

Across our educational projects, we strive to adopt this principal of listening and interpreting, focussing on engagement at design commencement rather than retrospective review and presentation, with countless examples of ‘pupil inspired’ co-design occurring organically as projects emerge. With the Scottish Government’s 1140 hours programme* now occupying the thoughts of our local authorities however; from a design perspective I find myself, again, listening to children. This time my own. My girls, at three and five years of age, are poles apart in narrative on their return from pre-school. Our youngest focusses on the adventure of the playground and the achievements gleaned in the sand-pit. Our eldest laments the structure and coordination of the playroom, preferring the reading corner, the craft area, the colouring tables [clearly an architect in the making!]. For me, the conclusion is anything but architectural expression. It is the ability to distil the unique and often disparate requirements of children and teenagers into a building that caters for all. It requires spaces that meet the most demanding and sensitive of needs, whilst aligning with the generalised requirements of the school curriculum. We are fortunate to have the opportunity to create these spaces of innovation and creativity, but we need to ensure that we listen.


Mark Ellson, Education Director, Holmes Miller Architects

Image (detail):  Lego artwork by Evie Ellson

* The Scottish Government is committed to increasing the Early Learning and Childcare (ELC) entitlement to 1140 hours per year for all three and four year olds in addition to eligible two year olds (based on free school meal entitlement criteria) by the end of the next Parliament (2020).

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