The Re:Design Option

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The Re:Design Option

Preface ‘Start with what we have’ Looking at how designers can help reveal the hidden potential of our existing school estate, illustrating the important insights of pupils in re-imagining the places they live and learn, and exploring ideas and concepts for different educational building types.

Image: Galashiels Academy c1965


Scotland continues to replace its worst school buildings. Our local authorities continue to meet emerging needs with investment in their school estate. Every time this happens a rigorous process of option appraisal is carried out to ensure value for money. Typically we compare the cost of a replacement new building with the cost of refurbishment – a shiny new piece of architecture measured against a refreshed piece of old architecture. We measure a multitude of important criteria to arrive at a weighted comparison over time. We do our best to make well informed decisions on the basis of the options presented. And the preferred option is often that of a new school building.

However, most of our pupils will receive their education in our existing school estate – a collage of buildings and spaces from several eras. Is the only choice replacement or refurbishment? Or are there other options?


The Curriculum for Excellence places new demands on all of our learning spaces. Supporting the unique needs of individual pupils requires a different way of configuring both organisations and architecture. But we start with what we have. And what we have is a diversity of building types spanning over a century of development. They range in size from domestic scale rural primaries to secondary schools with the population of a small town. They may be constructed from stone or assembled from metal and glass components. And they reflect the concerns and styles of their historical contexts and their local communities.

Each of these building typologies has responded differently to change. Each has revealed their strengths and weaknesses when challenged by the weather, by wear and tear and by new demands. And every one of yesterday’s buildings requires to be a learning space today for everybody in their community. So, how might we use design to make a more significant impact on all of our school buildings?


To change a place, we first need to understand that place. And to understand a place first ask those who use it. In the case of schools this means we start by asking the pupils. Participation is the way we do things in Scotland, and the design of our schools reflects the quality of our conversations with our pupils.

Working with pupils to map their neighbourhood, campus, or school reveals a world very different from maps or drawings, or the experience and perceptions of others in the community. It also provides a rich source of ideas for how these places might be different. Their unique potential springs from the unique way they are seen.

Physical changes to any place can have a significant impact on the special qualities which make it unique. Doing this in a way which is sensitive to the historical, cultural and social context of a place requires empathy as well as analysis.

Asking pupils to apply their creativity to reimagine their physical world produces radical futures grounded in their own communities.


It is easy to underestimate the life enhancing difference that a good designer can make to our surroundings. And it is sometimes easy to forget that design is what designers do. There are many factors which contribute to good design – effective participation and meaningful briefs in particular – but one inescapable factor remains the involvement of a good designer. Designers do not only draw up innovative answers: they also ask unexpected questions. This ability at the early stages of a project, indeed even before it is a project, can transform expectations. This is particularly important when looking at an existing building. To look beyond its current use and layout and see radical new configurations and counter-intuitive solutions which challenge established assumptions.

To build on what’s already there, take it apart a little, and put it back together in a way which is flexible, useful and enjoyable. Good designers see the potential of the world differently. They know how to describe and realise its possibilities – to make their imagination, and our ambitions, real.


We looked at four case studies covering a range of building types and contexts: a small rural primary, an urban primary, a large secondary school, and a Victorian school building. These are real schools, but the prime intent was to use them as a catalyst for illustrating the possibilities of the wider school estate. Whether it was several designers collaborating at a one day workshop, or one designer leading the way over a longer development period, the common outcome in each case was a new way of looking at what a building might be capable of becoming.

To begin to rethink the potential of these buildings the designers asked a range of challenging questions, including: —Is it possible to create a truly exceptional workplace for our teachers? —How do we carve out and celebrate an authentic social heart to a school? —Can modern learning landscapes truly resemble, and be part of, a park? —How can a school building become a civic beacon for a whole village? —Is the school really part of a network of facilities within the community? —Where does the school fit into the wider ecology of the settlement it serves? —Is the school always in fact a civic campus that needs to relate to its town? The starting point for answering all of these is context not architecture: the context of pupils, teachers, learning, communities, and place.

Remarkable Places Placemaking is not something we can turn our attention to after we have redesigned the building – a coda to the real project. Every piece of architecture and blade of grass is a contributing part of a real place. The challenge is to give that place meaning and significance in a way that will help us do remarkable things every day. A sense of place pervades the exploratory work of these designers, and a sense of respect for the intrinsic value of what already exists. They are interested in learning towns not just learning classrooms, in landscapes not just playgrounds, and in the fundamental qualities which make places work well.

Scotland’s local authorities will decide on the future of their schools, new and old, and the future of learning is not just about school buildings. However, engaging with Scotland’s pupils and designers may give us more options by revealing the hidden potential of our existing school estate. We start with what we have, and redesign is one opportunity to take sometimes cherished and often challenging school buildings as the catalyst for creating modern, memorable learning places.

Image: Galashiels Academy Sketch by Paul Stallan 2012