Philip Watson

UK & Europe

Philip Watson is an architect and UK Design Director for Atkins D+E. He is also sector leader for education (from primary to higher education). Philip is considered an industry leader in the realm of design for education environments, is a regular conference speaker, is an associate lecturer at Leeds University, and is also widely published.

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There’s no single contributing factor that’s causing this and there’s certainly no single solution. In The Guardian last week I was reading one journalist’s opinion that teachers need to be better equipped to identify and address mental health issues within their classes. Having teachers more knowledgeable in this area can only be a good thing, but the truth is we need a more holistic approach to truly and sustainably improve student wellbeing. 

A key factor that can often get overlooked when thinking about mental health and wellbeing is the impact our built environment can have on us. By designing spaces to incorporate plenty of natural light, fresh air, views outside and giving children a sense of community and ownership, we can make a real positive impact on the wellbeing of students. 

Designing buildings with these considerations in mind requires a little more effort but the payback in terms of both performance and health is potentially enormous. Surely it’s better to spend some time up front to ensure we get our building design ‘right for wellbeing’, rather than trying to fix our children’s health and wellness problems after they’ve already taken root?

Buildings shape how we interact with each other socially and this is especially important in the school environment. As designers we can create learning environments where staff and students feel comfortable, have a sense of belonging and feel connected to the people around them. Equally, we can ensure we don’t contribute towards stress levels by putting them in environments that are restrictive, have poor lighting, too many people and too much noise. 

An excellent example of where we’ve been able to put theory into practice and deliver real, measurable improvements to student wellbeing is Atkins’ design for the Harraby Community Campus. Here our team of designers created a flexible learning campus for students and the surrounding community, with the provision of independent and shared learning zones, both indoors and outdoors. The feedback we’ve received on the impact our award winning design has had on the children has been fantastic. You can hear for yourself here

By incorporating principles of good design for wellbeing – and prioritising what will actually have the biggest impact on student’s health and happiness – we could start to make real strides to actively improve, instead of reactively treat, wellbeing in our schools.

You can find out more about how Atkins are putting wellbeing at the heart of design here.

UK & Europe,

Figures recently shared in the Guardian show that the number of students seeking counselling at university has rocketed by 50% in the last five years, putting services under increasing pressure.

This is in part due to increased pressure for students to get high grades and subsequently good jobs in order to warrant their increasing debts and indeed, pay them off. Interestingly, experts also have attributed a large part of the increase to a new willingness among young people to ask for help, particularly noting an increase in the number of young men approaching counselling services. This increase reflects a wider societal shift, with millennials more tuned into their own wellbeing than they’ve ever been before. For them, it has become a priority, rather than a nice to have, and they will make a decision based on how happy or healthy a job or university will make them feel.

As architects and designers we have an essential role to play in creating spaces that actively improve the health of people using them. This is particularly important in high pressure environments such as universities, where students can spend extended periods studying indoors. By designing spaces to incorporate plenty of natural light, clean air circulation and giving users a sense of community and ownership, we can make a real positive impact on the wellbeing of students.

However, making people happier and healthier is more than just a noble ambition. Students with greater access to daylight have been found to achieve 5-14% higher test scores and learn 20-26% faster, creating a real incentive for universities to start taking wellbeing seriously. Now, having inspiring and uplifting buildings is a necessity if universities are to distinguish themselves from the competition and attract the best students.

I welcome this shift and it’s something myself and the wider architecture team at Atkins have been considering in our projects for some time now. Bournemouth University is an excellent example of a project where we’ve applied our WellBriefing service, a tool that engages with building users to incorporate their wellbeing needs into the design brief right from the outset.

Designing buildings for the people that use them not only makes economic sense, it’s key to creating a lasting legacy. This is even truer in institutions like universities that are nurturing our future generations; we have an obligation to help improve young people’s wellbeing wherever we can.

UK & Europe, North America,

I read a worrying article recently. It said that our teachers’ health and wellbeing is at an all-time low. It gave some even more worrying statistics: that 79% of teachers feel anxious about their workload and one in ten have been prescribed anti-depressants.

These statistics are shocking and made me question, as architects and designers working in the schools sector – what can we do to make a difference to teacher wellbeing in the workplace?

The article suggested to teachers that there were five ways to boost their wellbeing: mindfulness, love and friendship, exercise, psychotherapy and learning. But there is something we as architects can do to help teachers before they get to breaking point – we can ensure they find themselves in the least stressful and unhealthy environments possible. 

Designing for wellbeing in a school environment is as much about designing for teachers as it is for students. We need to design schools that encourage teachers to move, to connect to one another and their surroundings, and to feel ownership about the building where they spend much of their time. We also need to give them the best physical environment – lots of natural light, good ventilation and comfortable temperatures – so that their surroundings never interfere with their ability to teach and their students’ ability to learn.

These are basic principles we can apply to every school we design so that teachers can focus on what’s important – providing effective and innovative learning environments for our children – instead of being put into environments that actually acerbate their already stressful jobs.

At Atkins we’ve started to apply these principles of design for wellbeing in all of our school designs. Lime Tree Primary Academy and Harraby Community Campus are great examples of this. And we’ve even taken this one step further by creating a tool – WellBriefing – that engages teachers before the school is designed to understand what elements of the design are most important for their personal wellbeing. The idea here is to really understand what environments teachers need to thrive, not only in delivering the best curriculum they can, but in actively improving their own health and wellbeing. This way we as designers can make sure we’re not part of the problem, and are, just maybe, helping to stop mental health and wellbeing issues for our teachers before they start.

UK & Europe,

I’m sure many people would see this article and say “Surely it’s your job and not the space you’re in that makes you happy at work!” but clearly, people don’t perform at their best when the physical environment becomes a barrier to doing their job. And if we really want to improve UK productivity, it’s not something we can ignore.

We need to get the basics of air quality, light, noise and temperature right in our workplaces as they have a significant impact on our ability to function effectively. In fact, research has found that good ventilation can result in 11% productivity gains, while distracting sounds can result in a staggering 66% drop in performance.

But it’s not just about the physical aspects of our built environment, it’s about how the workplace make us feel. People need a working environment where they feel comfortable, have a sense of belonging and feel connected to the people around them. However, the Ipsos poll found 30% of Brits currently consider their workplace impersonal, almost twice the global average.

Providing employees with better working environments can also play a large part in helping to ease the huge personal and economic burden associated with mental health illnesses, such as depression and anxiety, estimated by the World Health Organisation to cost UK employers £30b each year.

What the Ipsos survey (see graph from The Telegraph) underlined for me is that in the UK we do not truly understand the importance of our built environment and the impact it has on us. It’s a real wasted opportunity and with the average person spending 90% of their life indoors we’re all suffering as a result.

Northern European cultures more readily recognise the importance of our environment to our wellbeing. This coincides with countries such as Norway and Sweden having labour productivity rates over 2%higher than those in the UK. Of course there will be many factors  influencing these figures but I do believe that this is, at least in part, a result of these countries considering employee wellbeing in their workplaces.

Another interesting correlation from this study appears to be the link between open plan offices and dissatisfaction. With half of UK workspaces now being open plan (twice the global average), that’s potentially a big problem. But this shift in office design hasn’t just being driven by cost saving and the need to reduce square footage, it’s also been part of a well-intentioned attempt to promote flexible working, collaboration, and interaction. So, how do we balance the two?

As designers we need to understand that ‘flexible space’ doesn’t just mean open plan. It means providing a variety of spaces that support a range of activities and then getting the blend of these right. We have a duty to get the psychological as well as the physiological aspects of the workplace right, for the benefit of staff and the improved productivity that UK companies will benefit from.

To find out more about how Atkins are putting wellbeing at the heart of their building design click here.

UK & Europe,

Remember how excited you were at school when it was break time? Now imagine that feeling – of being active, playing and simply being outside – lasted for most of your school day.

One of our schools, Lime Tree Primary Academy, has actually made this a reality for the 363 youngsters who go there. As a ‘forest school’ they now receive a good part of their curriculum outdoors, and it’s a great source of pride to me that our building design has been a part of making this possible.

We designed the building to create a physical and metaphysical forest, where the line between the outdoors and the indoors is blurred. There’s columns clad in tree bark, green and sky blue cladding inspired by leaves in the sunlight, and classrooms full of natural light connected by ‘forest clearings’. Students have so many spaces to explore and learn without being in a traditional classroom, and they can feel like they’re outdoors even when they’re indoors with the avenues and ‘forest clearing’ breakout areas.

So is it all just fun and play and no work at Lime Tree? A recent study actually found that students’ memory and attentiveness is better in schools that have more green space. And that’s certainly what they’ve found at Lime Tree. As Alison Dean, head of school, told us, “Some of the learning that’s gone on outside is what’s memorable and what stays with the children”.

We visited Lime Tree recently to see how this works in practice and how the building is actually being used, and it was beyond what we’d imagined. We took some video while we were there, which you can watch here. It’s incredible to see how the teachers are ‘taking the lid off the classroom’, and it’s great that we were part of making it happen…seeing the impact we’re making, that’s what makes me want to come into work in the morning.


UK & Europe,

We expect a lot from our education estates. They must be flexible, sustainable and efficient; they must play their part in meeting targets and delivering strategies; they must communicate an institutions’ values and ethos; they must inspire.

When looking at the challenges faced by universities across the UK, the impact of carbon reduction commitments and funding constraints is well documented. But what about the impact of a changing learning landscape? How is digital learning and new technology shaping the physical environment?

There’s no doubt that providing the right types of spaces to enable new ways of learning is becoming the biggest challenge facing estates directors, designers and educators alike.

In terms of course delivery, the balance is clearly shifting towards more student-centred courses supported by online resources. Last year, The Open University saw a 10% rise in student numbers, while the growing demand for massive open online courses (MOOCs) resulted in a 300% increase in supply, including courses offered by Russell Group institutions such as Kings College and Edinburgh University.

In addition, the use of virtual learning environments and social media is becoming common-place within traditional university courses. Lecturers are exploring new ways of delivering their courses, recognizing the need to keep apace with students who demand and respond to innovation.

‘Flipped lectures’ are an example of how this is manifesting; where content – often in video form – is reviewed beforehand and the ‘lecture’ itself becomes an opportunity to debate the issues, maximising interaction between students and tutors. This approach has been driven as much by the demands of the learner as advancements in pedagogic styles.

We hear a lot about the ‘student experience’, with Universities desperately trying to improve their rankings in how students view their facilities, with the ever present goal of increased income from student fees. A new Leesman survey of Higher Education environments showed that almost half of students are dissatisfied with the types of spaces provided for study on their existing University campuses. In particular, the availability of different types of study spaces was rated poorly in terms of effectiveness to support their education.

The effectiveness of communal areas and social learning spaces were also scored low whereas the majority of those surveyed felt that the resources provided were effective. This suggests that access to learning material, digital or otherwise is not enough on its own. The types of spaces provided for learning also play a significant part in student satisfaction. Technology on its own is not the solution – providing a big open plan space with wifi will not address student needs or enhance the learning experience.

But what does all this mean for the physical estate? Students increasingly want a choice of environments to satisfy their learning preferences. Often, this also means improving opportunities for their social interaction too – whether that’s in intimate settings or communal areas. We must not forget that the draw of university is often as much about wanting to be part of the social life it affords as the education it can provide. What we are witnessing is the death of the traditionally used campus: one where people move between individual spaces that are defined only for specific activities; a lecture theatre, a cafeteria and individual study rooms, often with students spending a very small percentage of their time within the campus.

The future campus needs to be a more ‘blended’ estate where spaces afford more than a single function. We need spaces for learning and socialising; furniture which supports different teaching configurations; we need variety and flexibility.

Delivered effectively, this approach can give a reduced overall estate, improving utilisation and giving more useable area per student. Crucially it can also improve the effectiveness of teaching and learning and greatly enhance the student experience.

Accurately predicting the long-term future of learning – or indeed the evolution of technology – is nigh-on impossible. What we do know, however, is that students are more discerning about their education and that digital resources will continue to shape curricula.

I’ve no doubt that we will see a move towards consolidated campuses that are more efficient in their use of space, energy and, ultimately, resources. If we collectively keep our eye on this goal then the demands for future learning are much more likely to be met.

UK & Europe,