The media and the political classes have become very agitated by recent news on the Reinforced Autoclaved Aerated Concrete (Raac) issue. This seems to be a classic case of a can being kicked down the road for decades by successive governments for various financial and political reasons. However, this blog intends to ignore the recent ignominy being whipped up by media and opposition, because I feel there’s a bigger issue at large that relates to sustainability and transcends party politics, although not politics in general. It has a wider history worth that can throw additional light not only on Raac, but the short-termist outlook of aspects of our unsustainable culture.
If you look at most post 2nd World War school buildings and other public buildings and housing, you will see a catalogue of ill-designed, poorly constructed edifices that have not stood the test of time. This resulted from a combination of post-war pressure on money and materials, dubious allegiance to architectural gurus such Le Corbusier and the short-term expedience of local and national governments (of which more later). This is rather harsh in retrospect, as during this time many of the cheaply built buildings were seen as the only way forward to address the mess that was post-war Britain. The cheaply built and quickly constructed prefabricated house (‘prefab’) is a good case in point and many of them persisted well into the 2000s and beyond, despite having an anticipated life of ten years. Today’s remnants can gain listed status and feature in outdoor museums such as St Fagan’s in Wales.
When in 1995 I first became a Headteacher, my school was housed in wartime army buildings which were a remnant of a huge camp built in weeks by the Royal Engineers. Once vacated by the army, some of these buildings were converted into a school as a ‘temporary measure’ in 1950 due to a population bulge and were still 'going strong’ in the year 2005. Other camp buildings housed homeless families until more housing was built by the local authority in the 1950s and 60s. We lobbied for a new school and eventually developed the designs of an innovative eco-building which, after many trials and tribulations, won accolades and awards (this is another story). Up to this point my establishment was known locally as the ‘camp school’: not a label to be relished. It languished on the edge of a very disadvantaged housing estate which at one point had the highest rate of under-aged motherhood in Western Europe (yet another story).
Our camp school had no ceilings until the 1980s and was heated by a coke boiler which belched black smoke and required the caretaker to spend a lot of time in the winter stoking it. The buildings were in a long line which meant the ones nearest the boiler baked while the ones at the other end froze. On a foggy day in January the scene was positively Dickensian, with our school looking more like a dark satanic mill than a cradle of learning.
Although the camp had been built at speed, the buildings were in fact very robust as the unfortunate demolition crew found out when some of them were taken down. They had been built of breeze blocks stuck together with concrete, making them literally bomb proof. However, the virtues of the fabric were restricted to this aspect, as the thin metal framed, single glassed windows retained negligible heat and the metal roof merely kept out the rain and snow having virtually no insulation.
When my junior school took over the neighbouring infant school, we inherited buildings with related but different shortfalls. This school has been purpose built in the 1950s and had fantastic flexible learning spaces, but the construction left something to be desired. The modular CLASP technique was used. Formed in 1957, the Consortium of Local Authorities Special Programme (CLASP) endeavoured to pool resources and share ingenuity. The stopgap solution became a long-term enigma. CLASP took an austere approach to nuanced problems, acting with rampant utilitarianism to get the job done quickly. The consortium agreed on a low-cost, standardised building design that could be easily replicated in minimal time. Using light, prefabricated steel frames, CLASP buildings were simple to construct and easy to adapt. Unfortunately, the thin wooden fillings between the steel frames were prone to condensation, didn’t insulate very well and soon started to rot. To compound the problems, the roofs of CLASP were largely uninsulated and flat, with a tarred and gravelled outer surface. These were very prone to leaks when fried by the summer heat and then contracted by the cold. Our roof actually crackled when warming up and then clicked as it cooled down.
From this you can see why so many postwar CLASP schools became decrepit after out-living their sell-by date by many decades. It becomes clear that Raac is only part of the story.
From 2005/6, the Building Schools for the Future (BSF) programme started to replace the worst of the secondaries. About half of these schools were paid for via the Private Finance Initiative (PFI) that involved paying back investment companies at very high interest rates and also being run by management companies who exerted close control. There are cases where the company even controls how things can be pinned to the walls and how the grounds are utilised. This means, for example, if a school wants to create a pond for biodiversity, it has to ask for permission.
At around the same time the Primary Capital Programme was launched for the primary school sector, initially administered by local authorities, but latterly by a separate body set up by the government called Partnerships for Schools (PfS), which also covered BSF. The PfS was considered necessary because LAs were deemed ill-equipped to deliver the new programmes and had slowed up the implementation process. It seems that all this entailed employing a myriad of consultants which pushed up the costs of the programme considerably and this gave more reasons for it being cut as part of the austerity measures taken by the new government of 2010. This is when Michael Gove became secretary of state of the new Department for Education and advocated a cheaper way of building new schools based on a modular approach (where had we heard this before?). This would mean less money spent on design and more of a ‘one size fits all’ approach. Some of the new schools built before this time, including mine, were truly innovative and built robustly being designed with each community in mind. Certainly, much of this thinking went out of the window with subsequent school builds and rebuilds.
When I became a Head in London, I found that my school had been cheaply built in the mid-2000s and the building firm concerned had gone bust before the snagging had taken place. It heated up so badly in the summer that we needed to deploy portable air conditioners. In the winter the underfloor heating was patchy which meant that in some places your feet would bake and in others children sitting on the carpet would risk hypothermia.
These examples show a stark contrast to schools built in the 19th and early 20th centuries. In the early Victorian period churches started to build their own schools en masse aimed mainly at catering for the poor. There were other charitable organisations that did the same, such as the ‘Ragged School Union’, which aimed to provide education for children working in factories. All these schools were financed through voluntary public subscription, which shows how much they were valued. Many of these school buildings survive to this day, if not as schools, then repurposed for homes and businesses. This is because their fabric was sturdy, being built of good quality brick or stone with thick timbers or steel used for the roof structures which were then covered in Welsh slate.
After the 1870 Education Act, the government provided local authorities with money to build ‘Board’ schools so that there was universal education provision for children aged five to twelve years. Once again, these buildings were built to last and many are still in use as schools, albeit adapted to suit a more modern educational methodology (or is it?- I feel another blog coming on). I remember working as a teacher in such a school and marvelling at the architectural detail, including the parquet flooring and the ornate corridor wall tiles.
This approach to public buildings can also be seen in railway stations, bath-houses, sewage and water systems, parks and libraries. Despite the perception that the Victorian era was dismissive when it came to dealing with the Great Unwashed, this is really a mis-interpretation and over simplification. The Powers That Be recognised that Britain could not maintain its industrial and colonial strength without a well-educated, healthy populous and amongst other public works this required a high-quality school infrastructure and curriculum delivery. They were also wary of revolution, so having everyone ‘schooled’ in a certain way would help to avoid this.
If you visit Tower Bridge in London, you can see how ‘over-engineered’ it is. In other words, the girders and brick-work don’t have to be that thick, but they are because the Victorians wanted it to last (and of course they didn’t have Computer Assisted Design which could calculate finer tolerances). This state of affairs can be seen in every other public building and transport infrastructure built in this era. It encompasses a similar philosophy adopted by designers such as Capability Brown in the late 1700s. When he designed for the Great Houses, he knew that the resulting landscape vistas would only reach their mature best after a couple of hundred plus years. We are the beneficiaries of this thinking. This seems all the more amazing when you consider that average life expectancy between about 1800 and 1900 was between forty and fifty years. Unfortunately, the First World War and aftermath put paid to much of this longer term thinking and the rest is literally history.
Today, progressive architects look at the whole life of a building to anticipate its carbon footprint over time. This includes the origin of its materials, the build process, the running costs and the eventual demise and demolition. Because Victorian schools have lasted so long and well, their actual carbon footprint in terms of embodied carbon has diminished over time. The fact that they will continue to function as schools will continue to make them highly efficient in this respect. When retrofitted for more efficient energy usage, this makes their eco-friendliness even stronger and it seems that they will outlast many of the post-war school builds described above.
So, it seems that we can learn much from certain Victorian attitudes and actions. Their schools, really were ‘built for the future’ and, despite their free-market tendencies, Victorian politicians of all persuasions also recognised that building and transport infrastructure needed to bolster the Public Good and be built to last for the foreseeable future. Although much of this was down to utilitarian expediency rather than benevolence, nevertheless it valued a certain kind of social and economic sustainability suited for the times.
I wonder if their approach to decarbonising the economy would’ve been more energetic than ours if Global Heating and the concept of a finite planet had been better understood in their era? Certainly, when it came to creating the national school estate, they weren’t afraid to throw money and expertise at it. What a pity their legacy is not only the school buildings we still use, but also their rapacious use of planetary and human resources and the beginnings of industrial methods of warfare. I think H.G. Wells had it right when he said in 1942 that;
‘Today catastrophe is well on its way. It is losing no time at all, but education seems still unable to get started, has indeed not even readjusted itself to start. The race may, after all, prove a walk-over for disaster’.
Like other futuristic writers, Wells thought the writing was on the wall for a Business As Usual approach which had created an education system still stuck in the Victorian era. I would argue that largely it still is!
With today’s Climate Change and Biodiversity loss and associated social and economic disruptions, we need schools for the future in more ways than one i.e. not only buildings which are sustainable for the distant future in terms of their construction and operation, but also buildings that house leaders, teachers and learners who are co-creating a sustainable culture to ensure our survival and thriving into the next century and way beyond. Without this approach we will continue to CLASP at straws!