Closely associated with a natural environment is a healthy environment. It is now widely known that
a healthier environment, with more natural light and ventilation, aids concentration and therefore learning, but we are still designing school classrooms that are not as healthy as they could be, with too little ventilation and too much unnecessary artificial lighting and heating. They are filled with unhealthy cheap materials, for example, carpets that give off chemicals known for their carcinogens and the copious use of medium density fibreboard (mdf). We are still solving the practical problems of the last forty years in classroom design; this fundamental building ecology still needs to be solved and should form the basis for any classroom of the future.
The dilemma here is that it is as much about how the classrooms are used as how they are built. The teachers and the children need to feel comfortable, and a combination of never having been shown how to use the technologies properly and the need for immediate comfort, sometimes negates the positive effect of the natural technologies. Children
have a higher resistance to cold than adults and our experience during this project is that most classrooms are too hot.
The design of Ballifield classrooms prioritized the less visible sustainable technologies associated with a healthy environment. Specifying healthy materials is still a price lottery and we are working within the framework of very tight budgets. Good quality ‘new’ materials and interesting shapes are undoubtedly more expensive than the ‘bog standard’ approach to specification. There were a number of difficult choices to be made between different forms of technology in this respect. We lost the battle with rainwater recycling but kept the healthy breathing wall and recycled insulation. We achieved the healthy natural carpet on the balcony but lost on the type of natural paints we wished to use. We lost the wind power operated laptops but managed to encourage recycling, by making it explicit in the fabric of the classroom.
Schoolchildren are knowledgeable about their environment and vocal, as the consultation process showed, but they need to be convinced that the adult world takes sustainable issues seriously. What better place to do this than in the classroom, with the classroom as the raw material for this rhetoric. At Ballifield the sustainable issues and the construction itself became a teaching device – apparent and visible. If the children can see how their recycled newspapers and plastic bottles from home can be used, recycling seems more worthwhile and understandable.
As part of an early evaluation we are writing a classroom manual with the children on the materials used and the structure and construction. Important information and instructions are being inscribed on the walls.
The paradox we are left with is that Government spending limits per school prohibit most sustainable technologies being employed, and the de-skilled and conservative construction
industry still finds it difficult to implement these new technologies. Until sustainable materials are common currency and therefore inexpensive, we will have to carry on proving their worth.