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Wednesday, 17 May, 2000, 15:17 GMT 16:17 UK
Good and bad school design
Great Notley school
Great Notley school, Essex, has a "green" roof
Secondary school head teachers have complained to the prime minister about the "dreadful" disrepair of their school buildings.

The demand is for ever more money to tackle years of neglect - but the basic design of the buildings is fundamental to the problem.

So what was so bad about the design of the many schools built in the 1960s to cope with rising numbers of pupils? And what is being done now?

For speed and ease of construction, schools were often built to systems involving box shapes with flat roofs, according to Jonathan Hall, a partner at architects Allford Hall Monaghan Morris.

"In the 60s they just wanted to build them quickly. They needed lots of schools very quickly.

"There was a shortage of skilled labour as well so this way you were not having carpenters on site building pitched roofs and so on."

Plants growing on roof

Flat roofs were simpler and quicker to construct, but the underlying "membrane" - the waterproof part - deteriorates in sunlight so is now prone to leaking - a complaint familiar to any number of schools.


school hall
Great Notley's hall: Not a flat roof in sight
His firm has just completed a primary school for a new village in Essex whose award-winning design incorporates a German "green" roof - it has plants growing on it.

"They're sedums, which are small alpine plants. The good thing about that is you are replacing the lost ground, if you like, so there are insects in this small ecological infrastructure on the roof.

"But you also protect the roof membrane. The big damage to roof membranes is done by ultraviolet light and if you protect it with a layer - we've got a granular layer with organic material and sedums on top.

"It protects the membrane from ultraviolet light, and that's the big destroyer of flat roofs.

"It's slightly more expensive in capital cost but it does extend the life of the roof."

Cardboard classroom

If you think a "growing roof" is odd, another Essex project being backed by the Department of the Environment seems almost guaranteed to cause problems down the line - a school building made of cardboard.

Westborough Primary in Westcliff-on-Sea is to get an after-school club with changing area, kitchenette and toilet block made from 90% recycled card.

It is an experimental "sustainable construction" scheme. Consultant engineers Buro Happold think they can coat or treat the cardboard to make it waterproof and sufficiently fire-resistant.

The department hopes to have a design others can use to save time and costs by removing the need for tradespeople such as bricklayers and plasterers.

Project manager Andrew Cripps said: "Cardboard is made from waste paper, and as a construction material is therefore both cheap and very green."

The challenge was to explore the strengths and limitations of cardboard in a real, useful building.

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