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School refurbishment

The design quality of a refurbished school can make the difference between a successful project and an expensive failure. Here we offer introductory advice to help teams avoid common mistakes and get the most from their refurbishment projects.

Waingels College

Waingels College. Copyright Sheppard Robson Architects.

Refurbishments present many challenges for schools and their design teams. Existing classrooms are often dilapidated, buildings fail to support modern teaching methods and many schools have a negative overall image, discouraging parents and local residents from getting involved.

A good refurbishment does more than simply improve the physical condition of the school – it improves the teaching environment for students and staff and encourages parents and local residents to take a more active role in school life. 

A bad refurbishment can leave a mess of extensions and temporary buildings that are expensive to maintain and hard for users to find their way around. It can be easy to spend the entire refurbishment budget on a design intervention that fails to achieve the school’s objectives. Such projects leave a legacy that is a burden to students, staff and local people.

Five ways to achieve a better refurbishment

  1. Be clear about your priorities 
    You should solve the most important problems of your school design before considering other, more eye-catching, improvements.
  2. Improve your school’s layout
    Projects should focus on improving the physical organisation and layout of the school. You should consider these when planning improvements.
  3. Recognise the character of your school
    Refurbishments should aim to unify the appearance of your school and offer a positive message to local people.
  4. Consider focused improvements
    Proposals should allocate budget to improving furniture, fittings, school grounds and building services - not just the buildings.
  5. Don’t forget the bigger picture
    Good school refurbishments are driven both by the needs of the school and the wider community.

Where you make the difference     

Two critical points in a refurbishment project can make the difference between success and failure:

  • The design brief explains the approach that you want your design team to take and outlines what is important about your school. It needs to balance thinking about the school’s vision with what is practical and affordable.
  • The design stage is a series of interactions between you and your design team where you discuss the design proposals. You need to ask difficult questions throughout the design stage to make sure that the project delivers what your school needs.

Further reading

New from old: transforming secondary schools through refurbishment

Explaining how to realise the potential of your buildings and give them – and your school – a new lease of life.

10 criteria for succesful school design

As a design proposal develops, it is important to test it - against the specific brief for the project and universal principles of good school design.

School design at CABE

Technical advice for designing better schools as well as case studies of excellent examples.