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Tracking quality in school building projects
Although quality targets may be discussed at the start of a school building project, they can often get neglected as deadlines approach and costs rise. But a new, free-to-download Quality Tracker acts as a constant reminder of such targets. RIBA explains how schools can benefit
Quality in construction is a quicksilver concept, especially in complex project environments such as upgrading a school. One stakeholder’s understanding of it is rarely the same as another’s. In any case, ambitions for quality are curtailed by time and cost.
For example, a head teacher’s top concern will be for spaces that promote good behaviour in the pupils, support the teaching staff, and improve educational outcomes, all without blowing the budget.
Compare that to the building contractor, whose concern might be simply to meet the brief and comply with regulations while maximising its profit. If it is operating the building for 25 years under a PFI contract, there could be reasonable overlap between its aspirations and the school head’s. If it isn’t, the two are likely to be quite far apart.
This is a problem for the dilapidated schools estate, which, in a climate of limited resources, needs to squeeze every penny of value out every pound spent on its upgrade.
The issue is all the more pressing in the wake of the Edinburgh Schools inquiry in 2017. It found that the poor workmanship that led to the dangerous collapse of a wall at Oxgangs school were widespread and systemic. How can new school buildings hope to facilitate improved educational outcomes when they barely meet minimum regulations?
Risks to quality
Partly in response, the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA), along with the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors and the Chartered Institute of Building, have just produced a digital tool called the Quality Tracker to resolve the situation. A slight misnomer, it is in fact a protocol for tracking risks to quality.
The system works like this. Clients decide to use it, thereby setting up a chain of custody for passing on quality risk information transparently to the whole project team. As new parties join, each commits to using the system. At the end of every project stage, the team agrees where the project stands in relation to the risks. On completion, the information, which is summarised in a simple red-amber-green scorecard, is passed on to the first new owner, tenant, or asset manager.
From schools’ point of view, the benefits are that it gives clients a tool to keep risks to quality – and thus the importance of quality – in the project team’s sights for the duration. The chain of custody format and focus on risks mean that objectives can’t so easily be bulldozed by pressures of time and cost. What’s more, it is deliberately simple and straightforward to set up and maintain.
The guide that accompanies it argues that since the construction industry’s understanding of how to achieve long-term quality is incomplete, tracking it is difficult. Instead, it flags up risk factors that, according to the collective experience of consultees, reduce the likelihood of achieving good quality.
How does this relate to school procurement?
The DfE’s Priority School Building Programme (PSBP), the chief source of public funding for capital works in this country, has tried to cut its coat according to its cloth. In contrast to the Building Schools for the Future programme (BSF) it replaced in 2012, PSBP’s governing credo is to award contracts to the lowest bidder so long as minimum standards are met.
These standards are embodied in generic baseline designs, supported by a couple of briefing guides (Building Bulletins) that set out minimum expectations for the performance of teaching spaces.
The baseline designs aren’t meant to be blueprints for the actual design of new buildings. How could they, when pre-existing conditions at specific sites are all so different? And yet they have been interpreted in that way, leading to the evolution of many different proprietary one-size-fits-all designs that are trimmed to fit once a contract is won.
Architects diagnose several problems with this. Caroline Buckingham is an architect with extensive experience of school projects. These ‘schools-in-a-box’, as she calls them, mean that designs can no longer respond to schools’ bespoke visions, which is ‘stifling’ quality.
Another architect, Caroline Mayes, Stride Treglown’s head of schools and colleges, agrees, identifying linking spaces – corridors, halls, and stairs – as one of the few ways to add value. “When the design of teaching spaces is so inflexibly specified, they’re all we can use to tailor a school to its site.”
Mayes also highlights structural barriers to quality. She believes that being given a mere six weeks to design a school from scratch is simply not long enough, and rather ironic when the same time pressures appear not to apply to the Department for Education in negotiating contracts, for example. Also, the fact that under the PSBP the ultimate users are often not the decision-makers is a problem. “Because centrally managed rules are applied rigidly, they are not always right for individual schools,” Mayes said.
In the six years since its launch, the PSBP may have improved the cost per new school and speeded up delivery, but it is far from clear that it has produced the quality we want. Speed and economy are meaningless if new school facilities are not also cheap and easy to operate and long-lived. And even then, all the public goods that arise from better educational outcomes may not materialise. In short, the jury is out on whether the PSBP is value for money.
Post occupancy evaluations
One way to check would be to learn from past experience. Although there is a contractual requirement to carry out post-occupancy evaluations (POEs) under the PSBP, so far the resulting information has yet to be shared with industry.
In 2016, the RIBA published their Better Spaces for Learning report, which concluded that the PSBP could provide better value for money, and that data in POEs would reveal how. Caroline Buckingham was one of its authors and, through their Design Liaison Forum, is still pushing for the ESFA (Education and Skills Funding Agency) to share POE information more freely.
POEs tend to investigate things that are comparatively easy to measure, such as electricity usage, temperature control, and running costs, but this is only part of the picture. Many other intangible factors are at play but, because they are not so easily measured, are discounted from assessments of quality.
For instance, research in 2014 found for the first time that certain specific aspects of visual style in primary schools – such as the shape of rooms and the use of colour – combined with aspects measured in POEs, make a statistically significant difference to educational outcomes.
This highlights one of the biggest problems for the construction industry: how can it aim for quality if it is still learning what causes it?
For formal processes like the Design Quality Indicators (DQIs), this is problematical. DQIs are used to articulate the client’s starting ambition for quality and thereafter to monitor how well those ambitions are being achieved during the course of the project. They are useful. Trouble is, if we don’t know the full causes of quality, how can it be monitored?
Opening the conversation
That is why the Quality Tracker tracks risks to quality instead and why the RIBA and its institutional sponsors have such high hopes for it. Nigel Ostime of Hawkins\Brown Architects chaired the Working Group responsible. “It forces the conversation. It shines a light on the tripwires that typically reduce the chance of good quality.”
Value for money is clearly a worthy objective. However, there is suspicion that the swing towards lowest cost has been at the expense of minimum quality. The Quality Tracker can swing it back again.
Buckingham said: “It’s not about bells and whistles. It’s about delivering a learning environment. We want to go beyond merely fit-for-purpose to give staff and children a little bit extra by being creative about the solutions. That’s what’s been lost with the PSBP.”
Hawkins\Brown’s recently completed Ivydale Primary School, which was commissioned under the BSF programme, emphasizes the point. It won an RIBA London Region Award. In a video about the project, head teacher Helen Ingham said: “We’ve seen an immediate improvement in behaviour just generally around the school. It’s absolute proof to us that actually the school environment makes a huge difference to how children learn.”
The Quality Tracker is currently being piloted. If you are involved in a capital building project, the RIBA urges you to take part.