architecturally designing the best education

Webber Architects has been involved in various projects in all streams of education from childcare centres to universities. Our most recent project was St Kevin’s Primary School in Cardiff.


Recently, in primary and secondary schools, there has been an increased shift towards open plan learning spaces and informal teaching methods. Research demonstrates that not all students can absorb the same amount of information in an identical classroom setting, and that in certain demographics, informal settings benefit learning capacity far greater than the formal seating arrangement of classrooms in the past. An informal setting allows the teacher to group comparable students into their preferential learning environment and at times results in several groups in differing learning environments within the one space.

The continuing development of IT and learning technologies as well as acceptance of designer-orientated informal furniture also contributes to the shift in classroom structure. Wireless technologies, such as computer tablets, and the rate at which IT technologies supersede previous hardware demands a built environment which allows flexibility and ease of retrofit.

Webber Architects has recently refurbished years K to 6 classrooms at St Kevin’s Primary School, Cardiff. The design brief was to create an exemplar classroom that assists the introduction of open plan teaching methodologies to stimulate the local School community and demonstrate it’s success as a cost effective outcome to refurbishment of existing facilities.


To generate prototype classroom layouts we used a model based on our previous research into the changing pedagogy of teaching. The layouts are based on three types of teaching; formal teaching (‘modelling’), semiformal teaching (‘guided release’) and informal teaching (‘released learning’) methods within the classroom.

blog diagram 1

We adopted theories driven by the new Board of Studies syllabus and by our own pedagogy model. We also identified the following nine Architectural outcomes to be addressed by the design:
• Acoustic Treatment
• Durability
• Flexibility
• Supervision
• Control
• Innovation
• Interaction
• Environment
• Traditional and Future Teaching methods

The Architectural outcomes were used to define formal, semi-formal and informal learning spaces within the existing classrooms.  Different subjects require different type of teaching, as can be seen below, and this was used to determine each classroom layout.

blog diagram 2

Careful consideration was given to the planning arrangement so that multiple teaching scenarios and classroom sharing can occur concurrently. Informal spaces were located away from formal teaching areas to avoid inter-group distractions.

A central visual connection and circulation path which links the years K to 2 classrooms via glazed operable walls is defined by suspended, acoustic ceiling clouds. The user brief was to inter-link the three classrooms to allow the transition and blending of students of varying ages and academic abilities during progression through years K to 2, as well as allowing advanced students to share learning experiences with more senior classes.

Inter-linking the classrooms also improves efficient use of  technology, so a single computer station or projection screen can serve multiple classes. Too often this expensive technology remains under-utilised when provided in every classroom and library in the School, and this approach reduces the expense of superseding with newer technologies.

Geometric patterning reminiscent of the School’s colours defines informal spaces within the years K to 2 classrooms. From years 3 to 6, this geometric patterning is relocated to the teaching wall, symbolising the shift to a more formalised teaching environment.

A design requirement directed by the School‘s Principal was to remove the teacher’s station in each classroom. This encouraged the teacher to move around, using available learning spaces while interacting with students. This limits a teacher’s ownership of a classroom to allow better resource sharing, easier swapping of rooms between years and provide access to differing learning spaces. To facilitate this, a mobile seated workstation with inbuilt storage was proposed to allow ease of relocation.

st kevins before

st kevins after

Open plan classroom design is not without is challenges and criticism. Several architectural and functional issues need to be addressed during the design and sometimes can only be managed by the teaching environment.

Behavioral management of students will remain a primary issue which is often managed by classroom teacher. A shift in the teaching methodology currently being taught at university is seeing a new breed of staff with the skills to provide education in a range of formal and informal spaces. However it may take some time for these teaching methods to make their way into the majority of the school staff population.

The use of colours and textures in a space can affect the behavioral state of the room’s occupants and architectural research backs this theory. Bright palettes of multiple colours and shapes intended to inject energy and vibrancy into a space can have an unsettling overhang for some students, in particular those with special needs. The design at St Kevin’s limits excessive use of colours and shapes to informal areas, where furniture and people conceal and reduce the effect. The simple colour palette selected (blue and yellow) compliment the school colours and uniforms and the furniture selections in mid tones also mirror the finish selections. Quiet spaces in the classrooms and elsewhere in the school cater for students who require downtime to settle. Lower suspended acoustic clouds, and soft furnishings and floor coverings allow students to sit, relax and read in an informal environment. Artificial lighting is zoned and provided with dimmers to allow full control of light levels.

Acoustics within the classroom can be a significant issue, which is exacerbated by the introduction of informal teaching methods. While firm management by the teacher can reduce or eliminate the issue, introduction of acoustic treatment to surfaces as well as soft furnishings and wall and floor coverings aid the control of reverberation within a space. Acoustic ceiling clouds combined with carpet flooring and a generous ceiling height within the classrooms at St Kevin’s assist in the management of acoustic reverberation.

The introduction of operable walls and partitions meant an absence of available wall space for furniture, fixtures, storage, and the reticulation of building services. The design outcome involved declaring a single solid wall in each classroom, the ‘teaching wall’. The ‘teaching wall’ includes the whiteboard, smartboard and is for teaching of formal subjects where the teacher becomes the focal point of the class. Where this wall space is unavailable, a mobile smartboard/whiteboard is utilized. Other wall space has multiple uses, including a built storage unit which doubles as a presentation space or theatre seating arrangement, and a computer station which transforms into an interactive display screen or movie area. Mobile storage units on castors offer flexibility in furniture layout and can be relocated with ease to form room-dividing screening or quiet spaces.

Budget is a contributing factor in designing a flexible classroom layout. The latest technology and designer furniture does come at an alarming cost when catering for an entire school. However clever design and the incorporation of feasible design solutions, such as geometric patterning in wall, ceiling and paint finishes, is the key to a successful and all encompassing design. ‘Disposability’ of cost effective loose furniture and fixtures in some instances can come at a reduced cost to replace the items over a shorter lifespan as opposed to the maintenance and up-keep of an exclusive fitout.


We have received positive feedback following the occupation of the new classroom model at St Kevin’s, and look forward to our next project to implement our design expertise in this area.

Tim Hayes                                                         Jon Webber

Tim Hayes Thumbnail365WEB Staff Shot LR RGB 05 FA

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