UK government bans
curved school buildings


Evelyn Grace Academy by Zaha Hadid Architects

News: there will be no curved or glass walls on any new school buildings constructed in the UK, thanks to a set of government guidelines released this week.

Evelyn Grace Academy by Zaha Hadid Architects

Above and top: Evelyn Grace Academy by Zaha Hadid Architects - photos by Luke Hayes

As part of a bid to standardise school design and cut costs, the 'baseline' templates place restrictions on room sizes, storey heights and building shapes for 261 replacement school buildings planned across the country.

The reports call for "simple, orthogonal forms" with "no curves or ‘faceted’ curves" and having "minimal indents, ‘dog legs’ and notches in the plan shapes". They also state that buildings should have "no glazed curtain walling or ETFE roofs".

The Langley Academy by Foster + Partners

Above: The Langley Academy by Foster + Partners - photo by Nigel Young

These restrictions will put an end to designs such as the curved timber Langley Academy by Foster + Partners (above) and Zaha Hadid's zig-zagging steel and glass Evelyn Grace Academy (top), which was awarded the Stirling Prize last year by the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA).

These projects have been criticised for being too costly by education secretary Michael Gove, who in a conference last year said: "We won't be getting Richard Rogers to design your school, we won't be getting any award-winning architects to design it, because no one in this room is here to make architects richer."

Clapham Manor Primary School by dRMM

Above: Clapham Manor Primary School by dRMM - photo by Jonas Lencer

In response to the reports, the RIBA has raised its concerns, claiming that "the proposed ‘flat pack’ approach is inflexible and will deprive students and teachers of quality environments that are proven to support teaching and learning".

"In these times of austerity of course we need to cut our cloth on all spending, however the government’s proposals for the design and construction of future schools are far too restrictive with too much focus on short term savings," said RIBA president Angela Brady.

All Saints’ Academy by Nicholas Hare Architects

Above: All Saints’ Academy by Nicholas Hare Architects - photo by Hufton + Crow

Here's a press release from the RIBA listing its key concerns:

The RIBA five key concerns over the Governments approach to ‘Baseline Design’ are:

1. A failure to create functional spaces for excellent teaching

The RIBA is concerned that a ‘one size fits all’ approach will place a straitjacket on future generations of teaching professionals and quickly render these schools redundant in the light of developments in pedagogy and technology.

2. Not ensuring discipline and student wellbeing

The minimal circulation spaces have the potential for serious congestion, with the consequential impact on behaviour and wellbeing. The designs for secondary schools include narrow corridors and concealed stairs that are difficult to supervise; in many schools this is likely to result in the need for additional staff supervision to maintain good behaviour and avoid bullying. For example, in Guildford’s new Christ’s College school by DSDHA architects, the corridors were designed to eradicate bad behavior and isolation which was prevalent in the school’s previous 1960s building; the new circulation spaces are compact and easy to monitor; and since moving to its new building, Christ’s College has been named as one of the country’s most improved schools.

3. Ignoring the safeguarding of environmental comfort

The low energy environmental strategy is welcomed but the success of the layout is predicated on optimal conditions that may be difficult to achieve in reality. Relatively minor changes in orientation, internal finishes, or structural systems will significantly affect lighting, ventilation, heat gain and acoustics, which will in turn negatively impact on teaching and learning; eg well-ventilated and well-lit classrooms are crucial to aiding and extending student concentration.

4. Disregarding statutory requirements for accessibility and inclusion

The RIBA has serious reservations about the ability of the baseline designs to accommodate students and staff with disabilities and in general to meet statutory access requirements.

5. Not delivering long-term sustainability and value

The lack of engagement between sufficiently experienced design teams, educationalists and end users risks these minimum requirements being delivered without consideration of the particular needs of each school community. If the baseline designs are not developed appropriately to meet the teaching and operational needs of every school they may not be fit for purpose and therefore will not deliver the value for money solutions that the government intends.

While the RIBA continues to welcome the Government's objectives of achieving increased value for money and identifying ways to rationalize the complex process of design and construction, the Institute is calling on the following improvements to be made the 'Baseline Design' proposals:

» School designs are subjected to independent review by recognised local education practitioners and school leaders to establish their ability to support excellent teaching and meet future community needs.

» The development of the baseline designs take full account of the statutory requirements for access and the current guidance on designing for students and staff with physical impairments and other disabilities, including sensory and other ‘invisible’ impairments;

» The Environmental strategy be subjected to rigorous testing using a range of structural solutions and finishes;

» Designs are tested against a variety of ‘real life’ site situations in order to establish their viability before their final release;

» EFA clarifies which parts of the baseline design are intended to be indicative or recommended as opposed to mandatory;

» The output specification is developed in sufficient detail in order to safeguard functionality and prevent the erosion of design quality in the tender process;

» Clients and schools receive expert advice from qualified and experienced design professionals on the quality and functionality of any contractor’s proposals using the baseline design.

  • iag

    “…because no one in this room is here to make architects richer.” What an absolute insult to the architecture, design and construction industry – and to the educators who engage with them with the intent to deliver functional and inspiring environments for future generations. Depressing.

    • Laura

      As if architects are rich anyway. That kind of idea is what puts people off hiring architects these days and most of the ones I know struggle a lot financially to survive in a profession we’re passionate about. And these douche bags are taking the passion away from us. Incredible.

    • Guest

      What a way to inspire future generations: build boring cr*p. A local school near me just got a new school built worth millions that looked amazing! I know loads of high-grade-achieving students that went there for sixth form because of this. Government is clueless.

  • Steve

    Clearly this is the right solution to the problem as it worked so well in the 50’s-60’s… er hang on. No it didn’t! Back to the future…

  • “All in all you’re just another brick in the (simple, orthogonal, minimally indented) wall.”

  • Theo

    I suppose it was only a matter of time before industrialised education began.

  • chuck norris

    How can you restrict a shape? There goes creative spaces for kids.

  • Memo

    I’ve got a great idea: let’s all moan about what this government is doing to our education system, to design, creativity etc. and do nothing. No wait, why don’t we take what they are giving us and use it as a challenge? Surely there is enough talent in this country to be able to take an incredibly limited brief and still provide something spectacular. Or will we let the government win again as we throw our hands in the air and give up?!

    Rise up, fight back!

    If the government don’t want to employ the big ticket architects, great. Take the insult and chuck it back at them. There will always be another Gherkin or Shard for the big names to have fun with. Give the rest of us a go! Show the children of this country that no one will be put in their place by a government and that creativity cannot be stifled! Inspire the children by rising to a challenge.

    Or not. You could just give up and let them win… again… and again… and again…

    • Happy

      This is designed to fail. Unless we can get creative about the death of buildings keep dreaming, bro.

    • Chris

      Interesting point. Architecture is always about playing with the limitations of your brief. I don’t even understand the need for curved glass anyway. I very rarely see a beautiful building with curved windows. I could go through an entire list of my favourite architecture and not come across a single one with curved windows.

      Then again, I still hate this pathetic attack on architects by the current cabinet. They seem to have an agenda to destroy any area of the UK economy that’s internationally famous.

    • Einsteins Brother

      Yeah but before long architects won’t have the opportunity at all to be able to design anything deemed unnecessary. They will just reproduce “shoe box” designs across the country using cheap materials and cheap labour, resulting in a cheap sh*t building.

  • bruce

    The wheel turns. Wait another quarter of a century and it will be all about how the last 25 years’ public spending was wasted on boring standardised buildings that no-one likes.

  • Akeel

    Stupid UK regulations.

  • Bruce Lee

    I forgot that paying five years of university fees made us all so wealthy.

  • Colonel Pancake

    They should put a ban on bad school design instead.

    • Judith Martin

      Wouldn’t it just be better to put a ban on bad education ministers? That includes the last lot with their willful desire to replace practically every school building – forgetting that the ones people pay zillions to send their brats to are centuries old. A lot of stupid waste there on PFI schemes – not necessarily the buildings but the dubious financing. So here we go again, with less imagination.

  • 137kilo

    Wouldn’t it be easier and less restrictive to set a per square metre budget guideline adjusted to region/school type/inflation?

    • Dick C

      My thought, exactly. Cost is the concern, not shape. This could spur creativity in coming up with cost effective means to produce inspiring forms. Maintenance costs should also be considered.

      • Anna

        I’m really surprised that a right-wing government introduced guidelines that are this draconian and overbearing. Aren’t they supposed to be all about minimising regulation?

  • Michael Gove really does come out with some amazingly brash statements. Good design doesn't have to be ridiculously expensive. Anybody who knows a decent architect knows this. They don't have to be as 'cutting edge' as the ones pictured either, to offer a good-quality learning environment.

  • Chris

    In a perfect world, good design will always find a way; let’s hope that the remaining architects in England can turn these constraints into opportunities and still create inspiring spaces for teaching and learning. Constraints can (and sometimes should) open doors to creativity.

  • Rob

    Idiotic law. That means Libeskind is free to design any school: his design can go through the loophole. Only sharp angles. What idiots.

  • Another example of claims to let go and devolve decisions from the government, yet another bunch of strangling guidelines.

    All in all, it will end up with both local and national architects frozen out and the jobs going to D&B entities that will supply the same cr*p everywhere.

    What was wrong with the old system applied locally? Give the councils the money and keep the DoE insistence on good design and budget quality. Too much like hard work for the civil service!

  • mike eliason

    Legislating form? Asinine. Won’t get gems like this, then:

    • Too many curves! Those kids are gonna turn into free-loving hippies!

  • eltantente

    Who on earth did the government consult when throwing together this backward set of guidelines? I'm asusming they didn't consult the RIBA due to their having to publish a list of concerns. So who/what is the snake in the grass colluding with Gove's attempt to murder the future?

  • Eton College has recently been renovated. It is distinctly ornate and (good heavens!) curvy:

    Perhaps this government should demolish that waste and set an example!

  • andrew

    I agree. If you’ve been naughty where do you go and stand in a round room?

  • Why is standardised school design such a dirty phrase in the UK? If the design is well considered by an talented team it can make a positive difference for the whole community.

    Take for instance the radical and experimental school-building programme conceived by Leonel Brizola, Darcy Ribeiro and Oscar Niemeyer in Brazil in the 1980s. The programme provided a series of high-quality standardised and prefabricated primary schools, known as CIEPs (Integrated Centres of Public Education), which were designed to support and enhance curricula.

    In this scenario the advantage of standardising school design not only reduced costs but set a new global standard of high-quality schools accessible to any student.

    • galessa

      Oh my, here we go for standard Niemeyer mythology. I am not sure if you have ever come to Brazil to see them for yourself, but you are invited to come and stay at my place anytime. I will show you how many CIEPs you may want and let’s see if you opinion will change in face of that standardized concrete shoebox design, with no ventilation, no acoustic isolation or regard for any safety or educational standards, not to mention local cultural demands.

      The “project” was a complete failure from any point of view. No wonder it was properly thrown in the garbage can of socialist third world modern design. I am amazed to see for how how is this pointless myth still lingering… do not buy it, friend.

  • John McGrath

    This is possibly the most stupid policy I have ever heard. It makes pasty tax look half sensible. The worst thing about my school is some of the buildings. These buildings are all straight, dull and dark, they are depressing. Recently my school has put up some fantastic new buildings, all with curves in.

    These new buildings make a better working environment. But obviously Gove doesn’t want this, he wants more godawful cast concrete buildings from the 70s. Well thank you Gove. He may well have banned curves, but he’s still bent.

  • Plebducation

    Why put a constraint on design? Give the architects a brief and a budget and let them do what they are good at. One of the most Draconian government “ideas” I’ve had the displeasure of hearing.

    • Couldn’t have said it better. Surely this would make these ‘rich’ architects actually work for their money.

  • zizi

    ”We won’t be getting Richard Rogers to design your school, we won’t be getting any award-winning architects to design it, because no one in this room is here to make architects richer.”

    If I had to make an example of what the word “ignorance” means, I would probably quote this phrase.

  • The UK government curses hell on students, teachers and environment. I pray to god that our German politicians don’t get a hint of this nonsense. Otherwise any breakthrough in education will be killed by money-saving architecture.

  • choppedsuey

    Wow, I had no idea Mussolini still had such an impact over here…

  • Gail

    Most of my secondary education took place in Portacabins. Maybe this fits in with Michael Gove’s vision for the future.

    Boring buildings = Bored students. FACT

  • At least Gove is consistent, turning the clock back on the education system and the buildings that house it. Will his next Gove ‘n’ mental ideas be as educated and progressive? For social change perhaps bring back hanging, for design inspiration reform Leyland and make the Austin Allegro!

  • Anthony

    Good grief! Is it that we should restrict design and creativity or a design process or create a better budget for buildings? You CAN have a creative solution built for all building types, you just need to be able to create a reasonable budget and stick to it!

    All people deserve great design. For everything!

  • Annie

    Why does this sound like an archive article from the 50s? Next thing there will be three approved types of austerity-suitable furniture and designers will be banned from the country.

  • Isadore

    More likely with these guidelines that the buildings will become obsolete sooner and torn down earlier in their life cycle than they would have been otherwise. Much cheaper to do it right the first time and to set an example through public works on what the general standard should be for all. A very false economy here.

  • Can anyone tell me if this applies to school buildings in Northern Ireland as well?

  • babati

    We won’t be getting the government to make decisions about our schools. We won’t be getting any award-winning politicians to make it, because no one in this room is here to make politicians richer/more powerful.

  • Taneli

    I love this progressive country! What ever happened to that amazing and versatile material asbestos, we should bring it back!


    While there are many options even in this economy it would be PRUDENT OF THE COLLEGE BOARD or whomever to APPROVE the BEST buildings for LONG TERM, TOURISM, AESTHETICS, and most importantly anything that might expand or encourage the mind or someone who could cure MS, paint a masterpiece, etc. is worth the price of the school. Those who see it would be more impresed by first impression as well!

  • More strict government guidelines, to stop creative architecture inspiring others, and the best place to do that is at school! The government really have no idea…

  • Sheree

    Surely getting up each day and going to an inspiring environment has to provide positive input. Good design doesn’t have to cost the earth. Interesting concepts must be possible within a given budget. As for standardised ‘flat-pack schools’ heaven help the students that pass through them! Shouldn’t we be inspiring our children by providing them somewhere they like to be? It’s sometimes hard enough getting them to enjoy school in the first place!

  • janet

    I would like to know what their thoughts were EXACTLY. This feels like a disaster in slow motion.

    The construction industry has advanced in technology and with more focus on sustainability there is a shift in the way buildings are being constructed and how much they cost (life cycle cost) . I can see how mass production might appeal to their pockets now but this industry is very much client/user focused and creative.

    If cost is the concern maybe they should consider sourcing local talent, promote aspiring teams at cheaper rates assuring quality as a result of commitment and pride. Kids have always been visual and moreover they are constantly exposed to technology and design. Educational buildings should reflect that as they are the source of inspiration. (every school aspires to be unique in aesthetics and teaching)

  • Jon

    This is such a narrow minded attempt at cutting costs. Surely a group of grown adults can come up with a more imaginative response than 'no curved walls.' This will merely stifle creativity! Why not either impose a pound per square dimension limit on costs, or encourage schools to in some way give back to the local economy (besides educating the youth of tomorrow) in a similar manner to New York's public space initiative which allowed skyscrapers more floor space if they provided a public space. Schools are not utilised at weekends or during the summer holidays, why not focus more upon effective use of school than the shape of the buildings. As an undergraduate architecture student, it is ignorant decisions like this which are thoroughly disheartening.

  • Sci

    While I generally hate government meddling in the name of cost-saving, this does actually make a lot of sense. Not their rationale for it, since getting a guest-name designer to work up the plans is always going to be a one-off cost, but the general design principles it will reign in.

    There are some simple facts in building design. A big one is that custom parts will cost a lot to replace. A big curved window will cost maybe ten times the amount to replace than a flat window. These are public utility buildings filled with children. Yes it’s got to be a place that makes it pleasant to be and easy to learn in, but it’s also going to be a place with an above-average maintenance cost. Hundreds or thousands will walk it’s halls every day, scratching glass with bag-buckles, scoring names in walls with pens, slamming doors with adolescent fury.. all at BEST. That doesn’t count for accidents or vandalism.

    Another argument in support of this is future-proofing. On one hand a fancy modern design may look impressive, but modern gets dated quickly. But far more importantly, the idea that a lack of curved walls will in some way prevent a school adapting to the future. By this I can only think they mean repurposing rooms or expanding the layout of a school. In both cases, a curved room is a nightmare.

    A curved room requires custom-made contents to take full advantage of the space (eg desks or benches that follow the line of the wall, specialist carpet fitting, moulded skirting boards). Any new use for that room will cost many times more to make use of it, or end up with a layout that makes incredibly poor use of the space.

    Likewise, have you ever tried to extend a room with a curved wall? At some point you have to cut into it. You’ll either be left with walls with bits jutting out in them, or terrible expense trying to work out new curvatures that mesh.

    Box shapes may not be fashionable, but they tessellate. They make good use of space and they require no specialist resources to adapt to.

    The ban on ETFE roofing is a bit odd, but presuming it merely prevents against costly specialist items like huge geodesic domes rather than natural light skylights specifically, then I have no issue with that.

    Basically if they hadn’t blamed the architects for being too rich rather than fashionably deliberate unsustainable design, this story wouldn’t have even been noticed.

  • ElTonico

    Headline, March 8, 2019: "Student suicides at all-time high."