The Psychology of Buildings and the Impact on Education

The Psychology of Buildings and the Impact on Education
The Psychology of Buildings and the Impact on Education




School has a huge influence on a person’s formative years. They are places that directly support or inhibit learning and with pupils spending an average of eight hours a day in the school environment more attention needs to be paid to the infrastructure of the school building itself. With the collapse of the previous government’s Building Schools for the Future programme and the introduction of design templates, school buildings are increasingly under threat of becoming drab environments that do little to inspire learning, which in turn could severely impact on the education a child receives.

In the recent years, discussion concerning education has tended to ignore school buildings as physical entities and the relationship between the physical place and learning. With such little discussion focusing on this relationship, it is difficult to convince others of the importance of getting the surroundings right especially when there seem to be more important educational matters in need of attention.

Currently, the government are in the process of introducing design templates into new schools, which will allow them to build smaller and cheaper schools. Under this system, new schools will be 15 per cent smaller than those built under the previous government, squeezing space for corridors, assembly halls and canteens. It is part of a plan by the education secretary, Michael Gove, to cut school building costs by 30 per cent and save up to £6million per school compared to Labour’s Building Schools for the Future project.

Resorting to these kinds of measures will most likely be at the expense of the quality of our learning environments which will have a negative impact on the education a child receives. Applying this so-to-speak ‘cookie cutter’ approach to new building is dangerous as there needs to be a balance created between the need to deliver a good quality inspirational learning environment, to a prescribed budget, and that of seeking design awards with a ‘money no object’ brief.

Having worked on many educational projects, it is impossible to underestimate the positive impact that an exciting environment creates both for teachers and pupils. In any working or learning environment the quality of the space has a dramatic impact on people’s sense of wellbeing and concentration. For example, during our remodel Kidderminster College in Worcestershire the first experience on entering the college was arriving into a dark and intimidating reception space which was devoid of any significant quantity of natural daylight. On top of this the area felt busy and claustrophobic as it was simply trying to do too much.

This space was not inducive to learning as it was cluttered and dark. It noticeably changed your feelings as you entered the space and your emotions about the environment were not positive. Light and space are two of the key components to a good school building so we undertook a radical redesign of the college by redefining the logic of space. The building had originally been designed as a square of classrooms around the ground floor reception which was enclosed by a flat roof directly above the ground floor. The floors above looked out onto an outside terrace masked by a part open tensile fabric structure which filled the void three storeys high. As a result the flat roof shielded any daylight from penetrating the ground reception and the steel and fabric structure above blocked any light from reaching into the main circulation routes around the building. Significant areas of the building suffered from light deprivation and the absence of any real heart to the college, students were left without social space and forced to congregate in dark areas around the classroom corridors between lessons.

It was a clear from the outset that there was a lot that needed to be delivered on a very limited budget, and with lack of light to all levels being a significant problem we sought to focus our efforts there. We lifted the roof level to enclose the central core or the building so that all the principle corridors then had a direct view over the reception space below. A new glazed roof then poured daylight through the centre of the building and illuminated most of the previously dark corridors and circulation spaces. In order to both meet the budget restraints and maximise the effect of the natural lighting, the finish was kept to a blank neutral canvas to play on this.

Another example of how we have used space in a positive way was our transformation of the four-storey Piano Building in Kidderminster, Birmingham into a contemporary entrepreneurial academy. The listed building was originally built in 1867 as a textile mill warehouse and the space was fairly nondescript. It was a very tall, open space with no features other than the columns and external windows. If the space had been left as it was, it would have been a very open, intimidating learning space.

Being an academy that focused on fashion, design and gaming, we wanted to create a space that would allow the students to feel that they had ownership over it too, a creative space that could be adapted and that learners could influence. In order to facilitate this we had to try not to be too clever with the design where it dominates what the space would look like. This then enables the students to work with a blank canvas and through their own work and creativity they are able to put their stamp on the internal environment. Ultimately we wanted to feed the college curriculum as much as we could through the building so each space had a strong sense of its purpose.

Through our work we have learnt that school space is changing and the government needs to recognise this too. The concept of walking down a corridor and stepping into a classroom through a single door is now redundant. Nowadays, we need to focus on creating exciting and inspiring spaces; there is far more interaction between students and teachers and the learning space needs to reflect and foster this. It is a daunting task to isolate the range of physical factors that negatively impact on learning but simple things like light, space and heating can dramatically transform a school building. These three basic needs are what need to be incorporated into every teaching space to enhance learning. Of course, that is not to say that a child cannot learn in a limiting environment but you are not maximising their opportunities.

Undeniably school buildings and facilities affect learning but more research still needs to be carried out in to what extent it does so. It is unclear what variables are needed for optimal academic outcomes but we already know that good light, heating and a safe space are needed to learn and this can all be achieved through existing technology and materials. It simply just needs adequate funding and maintenance which is unfortunately what a lot of the education authorities and schools simply do not have. There always comes a point when a building becomes dated and needs extensive rebuilding to become an inspirational learning space but you do not have to completely start again to make transformational changes to the existing building. Ultimately you can do very small things to a building that do not involve demolishing half of it and still deliver transformational results.

Ian Watts is the Principle Designer at McAndrew Watts Architecture and Interior Design Consultants. For further information please visit

Ben Crowther
Ben Crowther