Dunoon Primary School

Chris Malcolm, director at Ryder, discusses understanding the insights of a building's end users.   The blog was written to coincide with the Education Buildings Scotland Conference taking place on 21-22 November.

The insight of those who will inhabit and use the buildings and spaces we design is always an essential component of achieving a successful outcome. The importance is heightened even more when working with a much loved existing building, particularly a long established school in the historic core of a town. These places become repositories of myths and legends for generations of pupils and teachers past and present.  I can well remember as a young pupil taking lengthy diversions to avoid the western stair of our school - it was taken as gospel this was the lair of the infamous Green Nurse, a ghostly apparition who would lie in wait with a three foot long syringe to ambush the unwary child. Were an incoming architect doing a refurbishment on our school to tell us that this stair area would be remodelled to become the vibrant heart of the project, primary 1 would have ran for the hills.

In our work on Dunoon Primary School for Argyll and Bute Council, a B listed Victorian primary school located within the centre of Dunoon, gaining an understanding of how the existing spaces within and around the building are used and perceived by the learners has been key in developing what we hope are empathetic design proposals. From the outset, the project has been a strong model of collaboration, commencing with workshops involving pupils, parents, teachers, the Argyll and Bute team, SFT, A+DS, Historic Scotland, Hub North, the contractor and design team. Looking to establish our collective understanding of the existing place at all levels – condition, heritage, architectural value, character, atmosphere, and suitability -  a range of perspectives began to appear from the learners. They articulated which places made them feel good, the places where they felt secure or vulnerable, and the places where reality and school legend merged. This was best summed up when a pupil asked if there would still be fairies in the school garden when the work was done, in reference to a quiet spot in the school grounds overgrown with plants and off the beaten track where they apparently liked to congregate.

Addressing such a question is important. The great physicist Albert Einstein once stated that “play is the highest form of research” . A strong relationship with play exists in all children and adolescents but manifests in different ways, reiterating the importance of designing areas for retreat, exploration, casual conversation and imaginative reflection. Many instances of important informal learning, personal development and contribution to overall wellbeing occur in these situations. Such spaces are continually requested in consultations but often suffer as result of economic restraints. Similarly, many external play areas become large concrete spaces devoid of features other than a perimeter fence. Children, let alone fairies aren’t likely to linger long in such environments.

When learners engage with the design process, they have physically invested in the design of their school and are more likely to respect their surroundings and be inspired to learn as they enjoy spending time in spaces which reflect a piece of them.  They should be invited to contribute more as token consultation doesn’t allow any ownership of anything – they should be able to follow the design and feel they have actively contributed. By listening to their stories and experiences, we hope that our small but meaningful alterations within and around the existing building at Dunoon Primary help relax the formality of the spaces, yet still retain their sense of magic and Victorian grandeur, creating an environment where new legends can flourish and live long in the memory. That said, I still get the fear whenever I see a flash of green in a school stairwell…