Q&A with Sean Lockie: Baseline Guides

Jonathan Henley
I caught up with Sean Lockie, director - carbon and sustainability, to discuss the Baseline Guides; published by the EFA early in October 2012 to a flurry of media and political attention.

Many of the headlines focused on the reduction in size of secondary schools by 15%, instead of communicating the real benefits and advantages of the guides.

To alleviate these misconceptions we asked team leader Sean Lockie to shine a light on the new baselines and explain how they will help deliver improved and affordable schools in the future.

Q: So Sean you and your colleagues delivered these guides in a record 10 weeks. That’s quite an achievement in itself, and for such a mould-breaking piece of work. Tell me about them and why they are needed?

Sean Lockie: Following the James review last year on capital spending for schools, the Education Funding Agency (EFA) was keen to look at new models which could improve efficiencies. The James review previously concluded that there were too many different approaches to school capital investment and claimed savings of almost a third could be achieved under a new model.

The EFA wanted to produce new ‘baseline’ guidelines for school design which used the learnings from Building Schools for the Future (BSF) but also applied the best expertise from other industries, such as retail and banking in terms of economies of scale and standardisation. These new guidelines would both produce better learning environments and be much more cost effective. A big effort went into looking at what makes a good teaching environment, and things like daylight, ventilation, not being stuffy, too hot, or too cold, absence of glare and good acoustics all of which together have a significant impact on attainment.

Faithful+Gould teamed up with Cundalls to bid for this work, making sure the designs delivered an improved environment and were practically buildable and affordable. The baselines are critical in that they are the direction of travel for all new school designs going forward. They give a set of templates which can then be tailored to each individual site.

I think we were selected because of our expertise and track record in energy benchmarking for schools, having previously been a strategic advisor to the DfE in sustainability, and technical advisor on a vast number of Building Schools for the Future projects.

Q: And why was Faithful+Gould invited to take the lead in acting upon those recommendations?

SL: We bid for the project from the OGC technical advice framework and were lucky enough to be selected.  I think we were selected because of our expertise and track record in energy benchmarking for schools, having previously been a strategic advisor to the Department for Education (DfE) in sustainability, and technical advisor on a vast number of BSF projects. Having Cundalls in the team also helped.

Q: What was the composition of the team you led? How did their expertise complement your own?

SL: We had a team of ten people working on it, all experts in their field. We needed individual specialists on elements such as daylight, ventilation, acoustics, fire, circulation, plus of course a structural engineer and M&E engineers and cost consultants.

Q: Can you describe the most challenging aspects of producing these baseline guides?

SL: By far the hardest aspect was to deliver all this environmental and fabric performance, while still trying to keep within the challenging capital cost parameters. We spent a lot of time designing out redundant features, which really helped bring costs down, and by applying a simple, yet evidence based approach.

Q: How were these obstacles/issues/challenges overcome?

SL: We looked at 100 schools and visited the three which had the best performing buildings. We made sure that the practical lessons learned from these three were incorporated into the new baselines, along with the theoretical modelling. It was critical to get this balance between the theoretical and practical, so to make 100% sure the baselines were deliverable. There was a wide range of energy performance within this sample and we wanted to understand why some schools were doing so well and consuming half the energy of others.  The solution is to keep it fairly simple, have good floor-to-ceiling heights, lighting controls, control the depth of the room and expose thermal mass. We also gave advice on optimum glazing ratios. 

We were also lucky in that we had a very motivated and informed client and design team which led to a strong collaborative atmosphere. Often there were 10 or 15 of us sat around a table looking at a particular design feature, with everyone contributing ideas and solutions. It made for some very challenging discussions, but the process really helped get the best result.

By far the hardest aspect was to deliver all this environmental and fabric performance, while still trying to keep within the challenging capital cost parameters. 

Q: Tell me about some of the new guidelines?

SL: The most important aspect was to treat the actual teaching areas as sacrosanct, so if cuts needed to be made, they wouldn’t be made from the teaching areas. Then it was about looking at fabric, products and design to ensure both learning benefits and cost savings in construction and usage.

For instance, how to maximise daylight, but ensure that light is diffuse, reducing the need for blinds to reduce glare. Having exposed thermal mass in classrooms helps control the temperature in the classroom ‘mopping up’ heat in the summer, making the space cooler, and releasing stored heat in winter. Having suspended acoustic absorbers and wall panels helps sound absorption. General teaching classrooms should be no deeper than 7.8m to reduce ventilation problems and ensure enough daylight reaches everyone. Ceiling heights should be 3.3m, to increase the sense of space, improve daylight uniformity and to aid ventilation. Balustrades should be open or translucent to allow light to distribute to lower floors. Large atria need smoke ventilation to enable escape on balconies. Floors should be concrete to contribute to thermal mass, but have a resilient floor finish.

Q: So what are the end benefits?

SL: By delivering these new baselines the EFA are helping to ensure that all new primary and secondary schools will provide pupils and teachers with the best possible learning environment. Fresh air is circulated, there is more controllable daylight and thermal and acoustic properties maximised. All of these features will ultimately help the education of the children, while at the same time delivering massively improved environmental performance from the buildings.

And at a time of economic austerity and reduced budgets, the average price of a typical secondary school will be £7m less than under BSF. As Peter Lauener, EFA chief executive said: “More for less is the theme of what we are trying to do with education capital.”

Q: Subsequent to their launch by the EFA, it seems that professional opinion became divided. Yet now the benefits of the baseline guides are now becoming more widely appreciated. What have people been saying?

SL: Rob Charlton, chief executive, Space Architecture, said: “As a profession we need to use all of our skills to develop buildings that can provide more for less, and if this means a level of standardisation or pre-fabrication, then so be it. We need to see the big picture and be willing to compromise.

Architects know better than most the depths of the recession. We need to invest in our young people and find clever solutions to give them the basics they deserve. The baseline designs are there to demonstrate what can be achieved within the area guidelines. The designs will prevent us going on a wild-goose chase designing buildings that cannot be afforded or delivered. Here, the government has set clear parameters, something that BSF never did.”

Stephen Hockaday, director of education infrastructure at Laing O’Rourke, welcomed the new baselines, adding: “We are targeting the new funding rates and are confident in achieving them, making every effort to drive efficiencies through the use of building information modelling (BIM) technology and design for manufacture and assembly to produce schools that perform to the new environmental standards.”