The process of consultation

Before the design stages of the project began a programme of consultation was devised. This was carried out by diploma architecture students at Sheffield6 with us, the architects. The intention was to make this consultation a key part of the briefing process for the classrooms and to involve the children in designing the process of building and to make them more aware of architecture generally.

The head teacher, the teachers and the pupils were supportive and generous with their time during the consultation process. The children aged between 8 and 10 were genuinely delighted at the prospect of being invited to participate in the design process and to add to the architectural debate, but it was difficult to know where to begin the consultation process with young people on a subject area they have not been formally taught. The workshops varied depending on the teams and the schools. An introductory session used cartoon strips to introduce the job of the architect and flash cards showing some interesting images. The students looked in detail at the built environment with the children showing slides and more specifically looking at inspirational school buildings. In four sessions they modelled an ideal classroom, surveyed favourite places and places to avoid, walked through an ideal school and answered a hundred questions. The aim in all these exercises was to allow the children to be expressive. Drawing was encouraged at every stage. The children kept notebooks and carried out further exercises at home for the following sessions.

The teachers provided a strong influence on the children and it was sometimes difficult to stop the teachers enforcing their ideas; through design we were trying to break down both the children’s and the teachers’ preconceptions. When a child was asked what they should do, the teacher often told them, rather than the children thinking about new possibilities. Research on how design is taught and learned in schools cites the attitude of the schools and the teachers towards design, as the greatest reason design is marginalized:‘it tends to be treated as an artsy frill rather than something that has real impact on our lives’.7

It was in the children’s words that many of the most interesting ideas came forward. This again conforms to recent research indicating that drawing is not habitually demonstrated as a useful tool for organizing and representing ideas. More usually drawing is seen as a ‘servicing agent for the real work of writing stories’.8

In most of the workshops asking the children to imagine and draw a new classroom, the children associated the future with ‘high-tech’ gadgetry and technology in general. However, during an exercise investigating children’s favourite places and least favourite places, the nature of their ideas became softer, smaller and a lot more natural. This inclination proved true when a pilot evaluation on Ballifield, after the children had moved into their new classrooms, showed that 57 out of 60 children drew the red box bays for sitting in as their favourite part of the classroom.

The consultation process was undoubtedly creative and educational for both the school­children and the architects and most importantly it raised children’s awareness of design issues in the building of classrooms. However, it was clear from some of the more general comments we received from the children that we weren’t specific enough in our questions in the early sessions. The children were knowledgeable and useful about more practical issues, such as having views and light and water in the classrooms, and it was clear they were interested in a less institutional environment. The consultation process is a way of drawing out the tacit expertise in children as opposed to the explicit expertise of the professional. In the later consultation after the classrooms were finished we could be very specific and we got very precise answers.

Findings that came out of the early consultations and workshops were totally consistent with the results of a poll of school children in the Guardian9 asking them what they would like to see in their classrooms. The most popular were a ‘home from home’ and a safe environment, quiet study rooms, drinking water easily available, better toilets, and storage lockers. Also, the desire for exciting new ways of learning and a magical atmosphere were articulated in various ways. It was more problematic asking the children to actually imagine spatially and formally how this could be achieved. The children’s response, understandably was to make the classrooms look like something else – an anthropomorphic response – for example a space ship or an animal. Later, when more specific tasks were asked for, for example at Ballifield the children were asked to imagine the entrance space as a forest, they engaged with the ideas immediately and came up with imaginative ideas and designs incorporating rainforest canopies and all kinds of hanging wildlife.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the consultation served to instil a sense of excitement, expectation and anticipation. Knowing that it was really going to happen and the classrooms were actually going to be built, and the fact they had been asked their views, had an enormously positive effect on the whole school.

However, whether we as the architects actually engaged and used the consultation work as effectively as we might have done brings up a critical point. The findings of a lot of creative participatory work are not filtered effectively into the briefing process – a more traditional ‘top down’ approach takes over exclusively. We had a genuine desire to use the material generated in the consultations, but the different agendas of the students doing the workshops with the children, and the architect’s role in the consultation process limited the study. A carefully thought out method of communication between all parties is imperative to the effective passage of information from user to professional. A report written by the students involved in the consultation was exhaustive, but difficult to extract specific information from – a common problem of too much information not being prioritized or
being too abstract to be incorporated into the building directly.