Industry interview: The evolution of design

  • 4th April 2024

In this Q&A, Peter Courtney, a director at LSI Architects who heads up the company’s work in the education sector, shares his experience and predicts how design approaches will change to meet the very-specific needs of the industry


Peter Courtney is a director at LSI Architects and heads up its work in the education sector

Q: Can you tell me about your career history and how you got involved in designing educational facilities?

A: My career started back in the early 1990s as an architectural assistant at Todd Architects in Belfast, after which I spent five years at The Parr Partnership in Glasgow alongside undertaking qualifications at the Mackintosh School of Architecture.

I joined LSI Architects in 2008 and became a director in 2016.

Early on in my career as a qualified architect I worked for a practice which had been commissioned to design the first grouped government-funded schools programme in Scotland.

I was project lead for the first of these schools, creating a new-build primary and secondary school for over 1,000 pupils in Falkirk.

Over the last 25 years I have been privileged to be involved in more than 150 education projects, ranging from nurseries through to higher education projects.

A moment in my career that confirmed my passion for designing educational facilities followed the completion of a primary school project in Cambridge.

Myself and a colleague were invited to attend an assembly where we were personally thanked by every pupil from reception to year six who had each drawn their own version of the completed building.

We recognised then the real positive impact that the improved facilities had on every individual, and I’ve carried that experience with me ever since.


Q: How important are buildings in the overall delivery of education services?

A: Creating the right environment to enable effective teaching and learning has demonstrable influence over the quality of the student learning experience and approach to education.

The decisions we make as designers of a building are directly relevant to this. For example, ensuring the provision of good natural light can promote physical and mental comfort while concurrently reducing eye strain.

The quality, shape, arrangement, and diversity of learning spaces plays a crucial role in facilitating a harmonious integration of physical and digital learning experiences.

Views both into and out of spaces not only encourages improved behaviour, but also establishes a sense of connection and enables effective passive supervision.

Incorporating biophilic design principles and establishing a connection to nature and outdoor spaces has been shown to improve attention spans and alleviate anxiety.,

The creation of suitable areas for staff wellbeing likewise are becoming increasingly important as, without happy, healthy and motivated staff, there can be little chance of creating a successful educational environment.

We need to continue to encourage a new wave of teaching practitioners into the education profession who are passionate about improving educational outcomes for generations to come.

And, in my view, buildings where children come to learn are among the most important within our society because it is where they will meet other children from different backgrounds and learn to interact and collaborate with each other.

The skills and knowledge acquired in school contribute to shaping students into responsible citizens and therefore the learning environment must be conducive to nurturing these qualities.


Q: What have you learned is most important when designing education buildings?

A: We adhere to the belief that the successful design of any education environment starts with getting the basics right and placing pupils’ needs at the heart of the design process.

In my opinion the most-important component to this is to listen and prioritise clear communication.

Doing this well at the outset of the project is fundamental to developing a thorough and responsive brief.

In my experience this is always a solid foundation, and through meaningful stakeholder engagement, the project can develop successfully.

It is also fundamental to get the internal environment right in terms of acoustics, temperature, light, layout, finishes, technology, and equipment.

This has been especially evident in our extensive work in the design of specialist educational environments, where utilising tried-and-tested construction methods and robust materials to create appropriate, adaptable environments that are sensitive to the specific needs of the students is critical. [Image Brent Knoll]


Q: How has the design approach to educational settings evolved since you first began working in the sector?

A: There has been increasing evidence of the benefit and value of a well-designed educational environment.

As a result, there are considerably more guidelines to follow and regulatory requirements than there were a couple of decades ago.

The recognition of the importance of placing the pupil or student at the heart of education design, and greater acknowledgement that a learning environment can, and should, inspire and stimulate, create a sense of belonging, support independence, and promote happiness and fulfilment has enabled designers to design learning spaces that are more flexible, innovative, and more inspirational for young people.

In recent years, however, budgets and programmes have become more constrained. But this has led to even more innovation, through standardisation of processes, components, materials, and construction techniques.

Ada College, designed by LSI Architects, is centred around flexibility and adaptability in order to respond to new technology and the skills that will be required in the workplaces of the future

Q: How do you think design approaches will evolve in the future?

A: The education sector is rapidly evolving, with the lines between education and business becoming increasingly blurred.

Environments will need to become much more flexible and adaptable to cater to different learning styles and teaching methods that respond to new technology and the skills that will be required in the workplaces of the future.

This could mean providing a range of environments as alternatives to the classroom, from private study spaces for more independent focused learning, and breakout areas for group work, to larger spaces for shared experiences – much like you would expect to find in a modern workplace environment.

We are seeing this incorporated into some briefs, but this should become the norm in future school design.

This shift will better prepare young people for the transition from the classroom to the workplace, a concept we’ve witnessed evolving over our recent education projects.

There will also be an increased need to create sustainable energy positive education buildings and a continued need to make sure buildings are accessible by a range of users outside of school hours to help economic viability and be a tool and resource for learning itself.

LSI Architects’ London office. Photos by Alex Wilkinson Media


Keep Updated

Sign up to our weekly property newsletter to receive the latest news.