Designing in partnership

Scott Dickson | 07 Sep 2015 | Comments

Architects are sometimes criticised for letting their own vision overshadow the vision of the client and the end user. So how do we make sure our design puts the client (and the end user) at its heart? Our answer: design in partnership. If we think of clients and end users as an integral part of our design team, we can be sure we create the building they need, not the building we envision. A project we worked on recently – Harraby Community Campus – is a great example of how you can achieve more by designing together.

Harraby Community Campus is a unique building, incorporating a three form primary school, two early years nurseries, a community centre, refurbished arts theatre, hot food cafe, children’s centre and a soft play run by Barnardos. The wider project also includes the landscape and flood defence of a 90,000m2 site which also hosts a refurbished four court sports hall, four 3G pitches and a number of educational wildlife ponds and meadows. But what makes Harraby truly unique is that it has been designed in partnership, from the concept to the final design, with the client (Cumbria County Council and Carlisle City Council), end users (children, teachers and parents) and contractor (Laing O’Rourke).

Designing in partnerhsip
Students give their views on the new Harraby Community Campus school design at the pre-engagement workshops

Engaging from the beginning

In September 2013 we hosted a number of pre-engagement workshops designed to inform the upcoming school consultation process. These workshops were created for children, staff, teachers, parents and funders to help develop their visual understanding of the key spaces the campus would need and create a situation where everyone could contribute. We quickly established image references for each key space and identified the benefits of daylight, views and relationships between different spaces. This allowed everyone to think about how their spaces interacted with other users, other spaces and the outside world. These collaborative efforts were crystallized as a set of user guide books that became the project’s visual aims, ultimately defining the qualitative aspects of the spatial design in a simple manner that allowed both children and staff to become confident contributors to the development of their future building.

Throughout the engagement process, we made a concerted effort to translate the technical briefing requirements into a spatial language that could readily be understood by the client and end users. This focussed on the type, size, orientation, material quality, context and philosophy of the school spaces. We also worked with the councils to find other schools with similar philosophies and design aspirations for inspiration and best practice. This research, combined with visits to other exemplar schools, allowed the staff and children alike to develop a real sense of understanding, contribution and ownership of their project which is tangible to this day.

Pre-empting concerns

Keeping the end user involved throughout the process meant we were able to arrive at an end design that pre-empted users’ concerns. For example, the three major end users of the new campus (nursery, school & community) had all inhabited their old buildings for decades and saw their existing surroundings as part of their identity. The buildings left behind were valuable parts of the community in their own right and each user group was understandably nervous about losing their individuality within a new community facility faced with a quantum increase in scale.

The campus is presented as a settlement of little houses
The campus is presented as a settlement of little houses

In response to this, the campus is presented as a settlement of little houses, where the individual expression of the nursery, school and community spaces comes together to form the overall design and identity of the school. This allows the individual identities of the inhabitants to be retained whilst developing a shared look and feel for the whole campus. The theme of ‘a little city and a big house’ has been a constant reference for the design throughout the engagement process and describes the campus perfectly – for the architects, end users and client.

Reconciling vision and end user needs

None of this is easy, and it takes time, skill and perseverance to unify over 300 individual stakeholders with conflicting demands into a vision for a single building, and it’s even more challenging to make sure that vision is of an exceptional architectural quality. We have become skilled in designing spaces, and communicating the qualities of these spaces, so that each end user feels the building is their own, despite the shared nature of the design. There is no challenge in simply giving people what they want, that is the absolute minimum requirement. The challenge lies in transforming spreadsheets into spaces and for those spaces to ultimately enrich the lives of those who inhabit them.

As we put the finishing touches on Harraby Community Campus, it is immensely pleasing to see the result of such a collaborative approach come to life in a unique building, ultimately expressing a sense of community whilst respecting the individuality of each inhabitant group. We see Harraby not as an Atkins design, but as the collective design of the council, school, community and the teachers and children that will use the campus every day.

The client engagement and design of Harraby Community Campus was led by Scott Dickson, Fergal Feeney and Anna Gibb.