Permanent protection

With the increased use of outside educational spaces now acutely in focus, Fraser Dixon from Fordingbridge explores how they can be specified with more robust solutions that support social distancing

Following the full reopening of schools and colleges following the Coronavirus pandemic, specifying the correct solutions for outside environments has never been more important. With dining halls often over-capacity, teachers have historically looked to playgrounds to service this need. However now the focus is on educators to respond to social distancing and handle the ‘classroom bubble;’ how pupils can be successfully segregated throughout the school day is key.

With educators naturally striving to provide more time outside for their students in any case, the situation has been compounded by the pandemic which, in some under-prepared schools, has led to news reports of pupils forced to eat lunch in the rain. Elsewhere, headteachers and facility managers have rushed to panic buy or hire marquees over the summer break, allowing for additional covered dining space on their students’ return. But is this solution sustainable?

While globally we are looking for short-term solutions to satisfy immediate challenges presented by Covid-19, in this situation a more permanent canopy structure will provide the optimal value (and a more pleasing aesthetic) for a school environment. Far removed from the off-the-shelf appearance of a ‘white tent,’ a bespoke structural canopy adds not only the required covered space, but allows schools and colleges an additional area to build into their lesson plans and day-to-day activities. Stability and reliability is provided by a canopy structurally engineered for the site, such that wind and snow loadings will not present safety issues as the winter sets in.

Similarly, the benefits of a permanent structure should not be overlooked for the summer months. Valuable areas of shade can be provided over playgrounds, particularly for protecting against UV levels for younger pupils in an EYFS or KS1 setting. When correctly specified, they can also dramatically lower solar gain in adjacent buildings, without reducing light levels for classrooms.

While glass provides a pleasant roofing aesthetic, once treated for UV reduction and size, it often becomes cost-prohibitive for many projects. Polycarbonate, specified correctly, offers a cost-effective alternative. For schools and colleges, a minimum of a 16 mm triple-wall sheet should be used. This not only enables the relevant non-fragility certification but also ensures the canopy will stand the test of time and not degrade through year-round exposure to the elements.

Fabric remains a popular option. Tensile canopies offer bespoke sweeping styles to follow the lines of a building, adding to the environment visually as well as practically. The issue with a tailor-made tensile canopy, other than the cost, is the light transmission. Tensile fabric is a dense material designed for strength under tension, but its density does affect light transmission underneath. With a modestly sized tensile canopy, light transmission through the fabric can be reduced by as much as 70 per cent. While this has obvious benefits from a UV aspect, it can lead to a dim area when used to cover central courtyards or be installed adjacent to classes.

Fortunately, there are a small number of products on the market designed to provide cost-effective canopy roofing and block UV, while not reducing light levels drastically. These fabrics, some offering as much natural light transmission as 60 per cent, provide a reliable alternative for specifiers looking to deliver an aesthetically beneficial, yet practical canopy within budget.

The secondary feature of a permanent canopy, that allows designers to create a structure which does more than simply “keep pupils dry,” is the framework. Steel, aluminium and timber form the ‘holy trinity’ of materials, bespoke engineers tending to opt for steel or timber and the more ‘ready-made’ resellers generally favouring aluminium, with different resulting levels of longevity, strength and finish. Lightweight and easy to handle, aluminium provides a canopy option for the architect which requires minimal investigation. In fact, with the plethora of aluminium canopy resellers operating through the UK, the onus is passed to a cost consultant or quantity surveyor to simply choose the lowest price.

The sheer strength of steel, and its ease of handling through the fabrication process, make it the medium of choice for the bespoke canopy contractor. Here, sweeping lines can be formed to follow the flow of a building, arching corners enhancing the overall building, all without negating the structural integrity of the finished canopy. With the same colour palette available as aluminium for the finish, the architect has the same option for visuals, but with the added benefit of design.

In my opinion, when applied correctly, nothing can detract from the warmth of a timber canopy. Offering a contemporary contrast with the most modern of builds, structural glulam timber and CLT offer lines and curves to create truly inspiring outside spaces. Specified correctly, these also tick a big box for planners, educators and authorities alike, as a sustainably sourced timber canopy ‘gives back’ by creating warm, welcoming spaces that also provide strong green credentials.

While the immediate future remains unsettled, it is clear that correctly enhancing outside space when planning any project in a school is key. While temporary solutions are being put in place to cover short-term issues, there are abundant long-term benefits of robust solutions for dining, playing and learning outdoors.

Fraser Dixon is business development manager at Fordingbridge