Guest blog: The UK’s first biophilic school – from concept to reality
TG Escapes and MTM Consulting are working in collaboration to pioneer the UK's first biophilic school using modular construction. Duncan Murphy, Director of Education at MTM Consulting, explains why this is an initiative that should capture the imagination of all those with an interest in education, social mobility and sustainability.
Young people in the UK are facing a perfect storm. Their economic future has been disproportionality affected by Covid, pressure from social media is relentless, the education system is rigidly structured around exams and targets... Our society is facing a mental health crisis and producing a generation who lack skills required for the future.
Young people need to be creative, adaptable and resilient if they are to be ready to take on jobs that do not yet exist. They need to be more emotionally intelligent, socially adept and agile enough to take care of their physical and mental wellbeing, whilst being energised to develop into the agents of change that the world needs.
Whilst there is no single, magic solution to the problem, it is well known that reconnection with nature can play a major role in enhancing a child’s development, mental resilience, and their capacity to thrive and learn.
The term biophilia was first coined in the 1970s by German-born psychoanalyst and social philosopher Eric Fromm, to mean a ‘love for humanity and nature, independence and freedom.’
There is now a growing body of scholarly interest and architectural innovation involved in promoting the benefits of biophilic building design. At its core, the principle is to incorporate nature-based elements into a building's blueprint at every available opportunity, thereby offering its occupants a place in which to truly connect with nature.
A study between Aarhus University in Denmark and Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in the US showed that children who grow up in greener surroundings have up to 55% less risk of developing various mental disorders. Biophilia, or a love of the natural world, is programmed into human DNA and appropriate architectural design can serve to nurture our deep-rooted need to connect to nature.
Biophilic design in classrooms has been shown to boost children’s wellbeing both physically and mentally, thereby improving cognitive ability and emotional wellbeing. Furthermore, the addition of sensory elements from the living, natural environment can inspire curiosity, imagination and discovery whilst offering a significant boost to learning by way of increased attendance, improved behaviour and added focus.
A meaningful relationship with nature has demonstrated positive, harmonious benefits for young people as evidenced by a variety of scientific experiments. One such study by Dr Aric Sigman showed that children who were consistently exposed to nature scored higher in concentration and self-discipline than other students – and they also performed better in core curricular subjects.
Equally, another piece of research by Human Spaces found that by optimising exposure to daylight, pupils’ aggregate attendance can potentially increase by more than three and a half days a year, whilst test scores can improve by between 5 and 14% and their speed of learning might be boosted by as much as 26%. A further experiment revealed that a timber classroom can reduce the heart rate of occupants by 8,600 beats per day in comparison to a traditional classroom, indicating significant stress relief for pupils and teachers alike.
TG Escapes, a well-regarded construction firm in the education sector, aspired to design an entirely biophilic school that would be sensitive to the environment, cost-effective and practical to build using modern methods of construction.
Initially, they have designed a new, single-entry nursery and primary concept school. Constructed almost entirely from timber, the school will have a low-embodied carbon value, be highly sustainable and net-zero in its lifetime. Furthermore, it will be more affordable to build, maintain and run than traditionally constructed buildings. In addition, renewable energy generation will be built into the design at every opportunity.
The layout comprises separate pavilions for various school functions, connected by covered walkways and canopies which are arranged to envelop a central landscaped, terraced area with an outdoor classroom at its centre. This design promotes optimal interaction and connection with nature. It encourages sociability and play, whilst maximising the opportunity for outdoor learning, exercise and fresh air in all weathers. The inaugural concept was recently awarded 'Public Sector Innovation of the Year' at the 2023 MMC Awards.
TG Escapes and MTM Consulting believe that a healthy relationship with nature is a cornerstone for robust mental and physical wellbeing, both of which ultimately enhance a young person’s ability to concentrate and optimise academic attainment.
Now that a design for the school is complete, our next step is to identify a suitable site – and launch an appeal for partners so that we can deliver a ground-breaking project offering social mobility and sustainability in a blueprint of education for the future.
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