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John Edwards

UK & Europe

John is an associate architect at Atkins and has built up a high level of expertise in the design of educational buildings. He is skilled at understanding priorities and articulating design possibilities to find the best design solution. John has a range of experience including leading and collaborating on numerous projects, both nationally and internationally, and working within refurbished and listed building contexts.

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There’s no doubt that for the idea of the Northern Powerhouse to become a reality we need better infrastructure in the North, and we need it fast. But how do we build the schools, houses, hospitals, rail stations and other buildings we need across the region quicker and cheaper, without sacrificing quality?

For me, the answer is simple. We use Design for Manufacture and Assembly (DfMA). If you look at the education sector, they had (and still do have) a similar problem – a lack of infrastructure meant students in some areas were being left behind. So they addressed it by using standardised design and offsite construction to build schools more efficiently.

The collaboration of Laing O’Rourke and Atkins on the Yorkshire PF2 schools project combines Laing O’Rourke’s Design for Manufacture and Assembly (DfMA) capability with Atkins’ design and technical expertise on large build programmes to deliver high quality buildings and infrastructure quickly and efficiently. This partnership shows the need for engineering companies and contractors to work together to deliver the Northern Powerhouse, with early collaboration with all stakeholders to balance the interests between creating an inspiring environment, while maximising the capital investment.
The DfMA approach we’ve taken in schools is based on smart, predefined assemblies that can form any number of arrangements and layouts. Combining these with other pre-assembled components, such as façade panels and stairs, forms a unique building that reflects its end users’ specific needs, as well as its local environment and context.

Once the designs are completed, the specifications for the pre-assembled components are fed directly to Laing O’Rourke’s manufacturing facilities where both standardised, structural and modular components are manufactured in a controlled factory environment. This assures much higher quality, greater design integrity and more reliable and resource efficient delivery than traditional construction.

The social, environment and economic benefits of DfMA that we’ve seen in the education sector equally apply to building the Northern Powerhouse:

  • Safer, cleaner delivery with improved health and safety performance on site and a safer, operational asset over its lifetime
  • Higher quality construction with guaranteed quality assurance levels achieved on the end-product
  • Speed – innovative construction projects delivered faster than traditional construction, enabling an earlier return on investment
  • Earlier adoption of the latest innovations, fully tested and approved prior to commissioning
  • Greater sustainability through advantages in thermal and environmental performance, lower operational maintenance costs and less waste generation in the construction phase
  • Less waste and greater onsite recycling of materials delivers a ‘greener’ construction outcome
  • Greater efficiency in site logistics with fewer vehicle movements reducing disruption to the surrounding communities
  • State-of-the-art manufacturing facilities adopting lean automation processes utilising the latest technologies, providing the necessary scale and capacity to meet all project demands.

Meeting the needs of the education sector so effectively has helped Atkins and Laing O’Rourke become a leader in the field of school design and construction, delivering creative and attractive learning environments that are cost-effective to build and run.

Schools have a vital role to play in building the Northern Powerhouse, ensuring the region’s young people have the qualifications, skills and attitudes to take advantage of this economic and political vision. This includes catching up with the national rate for early years attainment, closing the gap in GCSE attainment and meeting the projected 2.4 million person demand for level 3 qualified workers by 2020.

As I said in my previous article ‘Mind the Gap’, the success of the Northern Powerhouse needs to start with schools. And in some ways, maybe it needs to end with schools, with learning taken not only from the bright young minds of the North, but from the innovative construction methods that could help build Northern infrastructure quicker and better.

UK & Europe,

The thinktank, IPPR (Institute of Public Policy Research) North, recently highlighted that less than half of the most deprived children in the North achieve a good level of development before their fifth birthday (see the BBC article here). The North’s relatively poor attainment in early years stands in stark contrast to attainment nationally, with children in the North performing even lower than the poorest children in London.

To me this shows that we can’t have prosperity in the North until we give our children and young people a better start in life. It shows that we need to invest not only in heavy infrastructure like rail, but in people and education. To make the Northern Powerhouse a reality, we need to make some real improvements to the development of our knowledge and skills, starting with our very youngest.

Central to this effort will be providing better schools in the North – places that inspire our future generations and help them reach their fullest potential. This is already starting to happen with initiatives like the Yorkshire Priority Schools Building Programme. But how do we make sure we make the most of these investments in our schools?

One thing we need to look at is how new and improved educational buildings can help foster and support integration between education and the community. By providing places that unite young people with their communities, we can improve academic performance and personal development, and enable lifelong education and local partnerships.

Horizon Community College in Barnsley is a good example of this. Atkins’ design for the college incorporates an array of sports facilities for school and community use; a 420 seat theatre attracting professional theatre companies from around the world; and a dance and recording studios fit for professional artists. This has created a strong, mutually beneficial link between the young people at Horizon and the Barnsley community.

In order to design for community use, we also need to make sure we are listening and responding to the specific needs of people in Northern communities. To do this, it is essential that we involve as many potential user groups as possible in designing their future schools, identifying issues and responding in the most appropriate way.

A great example of this is Harraby Community Campus, a unique building that incorporates a three form primary school, two early year’s nurseries, a community centre, refurbished arts theatre, hot food cafe, children’s centre and a soft play run by Barnardos. We engaged with the community users of this campus from the very beginning, viewing it as a school designed and created collectively – by the council, school, community and the teachers and children (you can read my colleague Scott’s article on ‘designing in partnership’ with Harraby here).

In the long run, educational buildings have the potential to act as a catalyst for regeneration of the North, serving as open and accessible buildings that provide facilities not only for the community, but for businesses and other organisations. 

UK & Europe,

The challenge of building ‘sufficient, cost effective, great schools at pace’ was set by the Education Funding Agency (EFA) and the James Review in 2010 to address the limited availability for government investment in the ageing school estates across the UK. However, from the beginning people questioned if achieving this without compromising design and construction quality was at odds with providing the tailored approach to education the UK aspires to.

I don’t think this has to be the case. I believe we can reconcile our need for cost effective, but tailored schools through standardised solutions that combine modern, beautiful, bespoke designs with the flexibility and scalability we need to deliver world class education, now and in the future.

"Did you know? Standardised school design in the UK dates back to 1872 and was part of our response to the introduction of compulsory education in 1870."

Today, the words ‘standardised designs’, combined with reduced budgets, increasingly prescriptive performance criteria and shorter design programmes, still send a chill down the spines of architects. Some critics find the standardised approach inflexible, and feel it could deprive students and teachers of quality environments that support teaching and learning.

But at the same time, our need to deliver schools quickly and at lower cost has, if anything, increased since 2010, so how can we make standardised design a welcome, viable solution?

In partnership with Laing O’Rourke, Atkins has developed an approach to standardised design that promotes more efficient schools without compromising on quality. Some examples of where we’ve done this that I’m most proud of are below.

Inspirational ‘standardised’ schools

Lime Tree Primary Academy
Lime Tree Primary Academy – A creative and bespoke design for a ‘forest’ school with a highly specialised environment that prioritises outdoor learning and direct engagement with nature.

Yorkshire Priority Schools Building Programme
Yorkshire Priority Schools Building Programme – Flexible designs that facilitate links between departments and encourage cross curricular activity within an efficient building form suited to constrained sites

Dean Trust Ardwick
Dean Trust Ardwick – Prototype school characterised by a generous ‘street’ that provides a central focus to the school and distinct ‘fingers’ of accommodation that create identifiable curriculum areas incorporating areas for informal learning and exhibition.

Schools like these show that prefabricated technologies can work educationally, socially and environmentally, and will ultimately change how people perceive standardised design.

But we need to continue to push the boundaries of standardised design, and I think we can do this in five ways:

  1. Experiment more to create a greater variety of typologies suited to the increasing range of teaching styles and technologies. The present day education system is still undergoing rapid change and will continue to do so, and standardised solutions need to be able to adapt to this.
  2. Find out, from evidence, what contributes to a successful school environment and recycle the lessons learnt back into the design process.
  3. All new projects should involve a closer working relationship between designers, educationalists and building users to provide effective, design-led solutions. Working with a wider network of people will always bring unexpected perspectives and ideas. A good example of this is how we worked with local councils and schools to design, in partnership, Harraby Community Campus; read the story here.
  4. Create sustainable and comfortable learning environments, reducing the reliance on complicated mechanical and electrical systems, reducing environmental impact and running costs whilst providing a welcoming place for students to learn.
  5. Work closely with our construction partners to see how modular systems could be continually improved to better suit each individual site. A high architectural standard on the outside of a school is often perceived as a high quality education on the inside.

So that’s how I see us moving standardised design forward – what do you think? Can standardised schools be the solution to our schools capacity issue? What can we learn from schools like Lime Tree?

I’m interested in hearing your thoughts so please leave comments or questions below.


UK & Europe,