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Designing supportive, inclusive education spaces

Guest blog by Lesley McMillan, SBID Interior Designer and Chair of the Education Design Council for the Society of British and International Design.

Over the years, I have been involved in the design of a variety of spaces, including education, offices, community spaces and residential. As an interior designer I am involved in lots of different scales of projects. In large or new-build projects we work as part of a design team, informing the interior architectural layout, with involvement in the design and specification of the fixed and loose fixtures, fittings and furniture. In a refurbishment, depending on the scale, we will work as part of a design team in the above capacity, and sometimes additionally undertake statutory consents, such as listed building consent, planning applications and building warrants. We can act as the principal designer, co-ordinating the construction design management considerations of the design team, and sometimes act as the contract administrator for the works on site.

Interior design is not just about designing 'pretty spaces'; although aesthetics is a large part of an interior designer's role, it's much more complex. Interior Designers are the only role that interacts with almost all other areas in the design industry, such as project managers, architects, mechanical and electrical engineers, digital experts, landscape architects, structural engineers, furniture designers, textiles and products designers, and finally, graphic designers.

In the context of an education building, it is about designing a space that supports pedagogy – the method and practice of teaching - and promotes health, wellbeing and sustainability. The design of the best educational spaces results from continuing design collaboration between all stakeholders for optimum experiential and physical design - experiential being the education and physical space. In this capacity, interior design can bridge the experiential and the physical. The design of indoor spaces also needs to be considered alongside outdoor and digital learning spaces. In a way, the indoor space acts as a 'bridge' between the outdoor and digital environment.

In my career, as well as working in private practice, I have been employed in-house in local authority and higher education estate departments. With these roles and as a designer, I also work in a client capacity. I feel extremely fortunate that this has allowed me to work closely with education experts, teachers, professors, students and pupils. We manage furniture and consultant frameworks and input to briefing and authority condition requirement specifications. Working within an education estate allows constant feedback and review of what's working and not working in a space. Newly created/adapted learning spaces also act as a collective of pilot spaces over the estate that both assist in informing the design and specification of new learning spaces and help transition learners and educators into a new learning environment.

I am becoming increasingly interested in and enjoy this co-design aspect of designing learning spaces. I think that the earlier in the process all the design disciplines collaborate with stakeholders, the better, and preferably at the strategic briefing stage, to ensure the infrastructure for physical and digital capability is built in with flexibility to adapt in the future.

Last year I was on secondment at Architecture and Design Scotland, working on an education environment project that resulted in the design of a toolkit that can assist in the assessment, co-design and use of agile learning spaces. On returning to the office during early 'lockdown', I worked with a local authority asset department, assisting with re-opening buildings and measures to support safe delivery and physical distancing. This experience resulted in me returning to visit many spaces I had designed, and I am finding that agile spaces are the most adaptable.

Early years

One of the projects I began my journey as a designer in local authority was new build nurseries. This project accommodated the 1140 hours expansion in Scotland and involved the development of an 'Early Years Environment Vision' with early years and learning estate colleagues to inform new build and refurbishment briefs. With key considerations of welcoming, nurturing, inclusive and agile spaces, I also wanted to ensure from the outset that our design specifications were sustainable, maintainable and flexible, with scope for development.

Primary project

Primary schools are also transitioning into much more agile learning spaces, and I am finding that many of the principles I have applied in early years settings are still applicable, such as:
  • 100% vinyl flooring and rugs (no restrictions for messy play and learning)
  • Display and mark-making opportunities throughout
  • Based on the biophilic design principles in early years, there are calm and natural palettes of materials. (Biophilic means bringing natural materials, rhythms and patterns into the interior design, which promote wellbeing)
  • Reducing sensory overload, which also benefits autistic pupils.
  • I like to develop the wayfinding (signage and room names) with pupils and inspire them to take inspiration from things like local nature and landmarks to develop a narrative.
Consulting with the pupils means that you generally still retain an element of playfulness and colour. Recent examples of engagement with pupils have resulted in 'Tobermory' inspired 'coat houses', sparkly gold paint in break-out areas, and a 'James and the giant peach' learning Orchard. Continually trialling agile furniture can as a pilot space informing future projects and new builds over an estate.

Schools and Community Buildings

These are some further agile primary and high school spaces that I’ve worked on.

In these photos, you will see a variety of inclusive furniture. Some suit learners with additional support needs, such as wobble stools, rocking chairs which can be extremely therapeutic and high-back sofas are often used as a 'safe space' or collaboration area. But it's not just the pupils' wellbeing that we need to consider; teachers' comfort is just as important—for example, considerations such as lower seats that support their backs when teaching the little ones. Also, I've found that standing desks are becoming more popular in schools for pupils and teachers.

The quote here is particularly relevant According to Benedict (2014), studies on how the brain works, and recalls information, showed that the more the environment changes while learning the same information, the more we are able to recall the information better.

Learning is relaxing

The key message I get from pupils is that they want comfort and choice in their learning spaces. Working from home now, many of us who have had to 'make do' with dining room tables and chairs will have new empathy for learners and school furniture. A recent article I read predicted a new 'lab-like' aesthetic would emerge in post-Covid design, with 'scientific' communicating safety. And a desire to develop more hygienic spaces. My opinion is that hygienic spaces can still be nurturing. Many of my design projects include textured and tactile upholstery with microbial properties. Easily cleanable vinyl flooring can still have patterns from nature, and just as using soap and water to clean your hands is the best way to stop the spread of the virus, it can be used on natural woollen upholstery and timber in the same way.

In terms of what's next, I look forward to finalising some interior fit-outs soon, and collaborating with the Shared Learning Design Team at Moray House School of Education and Sport, the University of Edinburgh on a body of research on learning spaces and participatory design.

Lesley McMillan is an Interior Designer and Chair of the Education Design Council for the Society of British and International Design. She also acts as an ambassador for HundrED, a not-for-profit organisation that seeks and shares inspiring innovations in education.

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Posted: 25/07/2022 4:25:40 AM by Kushla Smith | with 0 comments

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