Learning by Design Open Day: South East Essex College

Friday 18th May 2007

A Visit to an Award Winning School Building

Open Day

Shape East hosted the Learning by Design Open Day for the East of England, which was held at the newly completed South East Essex College. Open House coordinated the series of Open Days as part of this programme, which is supported by the Department for Education and Skills.

Learning by Design Open Day at South East Essex College

As you may know, the government has embarked on an ambitious programme to rebuild or refurbish every secondary school and half of all primary schools over the next fifteen years. This investment offers a once in a lifetime opportunity. This Learning by Design Event was designed to assist Councillors, Officers, Governors and Head Teachers renewing schools in the Eastern Region to examine the issues faced by recent commissioners.

“Awareness of the role that good design plays in generating successful learning environments is now wider than ever before. This series of Open Days provides an invaluable opportunity to gain first hand experience combined with insight from expert guides.” Open House

South Essex College is featured in the Learning By Design Publication, funded by the DfES, which highlights exemplary new educational buildings throughout England.

The further education college was shortlisted for the RIBA/LSC Further Education Awards 2006 where it was “presented as a significant value-for-money project, with a substantial amount of teaching space, learning resources, social and administrative space combined to dramatic effect alongside the main railway station”. In addition to its dramatic interiors it features a passive heating and cooling system. For more information, please see

The Event
The aim of the ‘Learning by Design’ Open Day was to:

  • Enable direct experience of an exemplary school building through a tour
  • Show how good design can transform the learning experience
  • Bring stakeholders together in an informal but informative way by enabling stakeholders and other soon- to- be- commissioners to meet in an informal and informative way
  • Share the experience of procuring a new school building as a learning process

The Facilities Director and the Architect (Andy Simons from KSS Design Group ( led three tours through the building and gave a presentation from each view point followed by a question and answer session.

The architect described his concept of the college as ‘ a human body’. The head contains all administration and the library at the front of the building, the heart and lungs at the centre, stomach as the restaurant and so on. The building is designed to have a single point of access for security. Access to different learning areas is through external staircases maximizing the space created by the 14.5 x 32m concrete beams. The architect emphasized the flexibility of the design, raised floors to hold all cabling, transparency of the teaching spaces and the passive cooling system.

Exert from Open House Exemplar, Learning by Design

“This college is one of a kind”, says art and design student Vicky Prickett. South East Essex College, with more than 10,000 full- and part-time students studying a range of academic and vocational subjects, has become more than a successful environment for learners – it has become a 21st-century landmark for Southend. The building represents the first phase of a series of new educational buildings in the centre of Southend, and its success has also acted as a catalyst for physical and economic change in the town.

In the 1990s the college operated from multiple sites in and around Southend town centre, which were becoming outdated and expensive to maintain. The new low-energy building brings together all the existing facilities on a single 2.4 acre brownfield site next to the busy high street and central railway station.

The building rises in scale from four storeys at the west end, in a residential area, to eight storeys in the more developed eastern end, next to the high street. Its overall form was inspired by the human body with the striking ‘Pod’ performance space envisaged as the ‘lungs’, and the learning spaces and stairways as the ‘spine’. One of the principal aims of the design was to ensure that ‘work’ and ‘play’ spaces were clearly delineated. This is achieved visually by a blue wall that slices through the entire length of the building.

Along the northern half of the building, flexible learning spaces are arranged in a series of stacked, open-plan, column-free teaching modules, in such a way that each module can be linked and/or subdivided in numerous combinations to support the changing needs of the curriculum. Partitions are glazed, as are the cellular rooms, which act as a deterrent to bad behaviour and vandalism. Many learning areas are designed to simulate a professional working environment – for example a travel agency – where students interact with the public in a genuine commercial context. The south wall of the learning spaces is fully glazed, allowing them to become a showcase for the college’s activities.

The southern half of the building is dominated by the atrium, providing a combination of informal teaching, dining, recreation and exhibition spaces. The roof of the atrium is made of EFTE, a lightweight cladding material that requires minimal supporting structure while allowing light to permeate fully. Although the learning spaces are rectilinear, the atrium has a more organic, freeform character reflecting its more relaxed atmosphere. The most spectacular space is the huge Pod with its dramatic red exterior. This contains a raked auditorium and stage with seating for 250 spectators and can be used for lectures or theatrical or musical performances. The organic form of the six ‘dining decks’, ranged across two levels, enables socialising and interaction as students dine alongside staff holding meetings. In line with the aim to place the college at the heart of the community, many performances are open to the public. Similarly, the atrium space has also been used to house exhibitions that attract the wider community into the building.

The college has a great buzz in the communal areas as students dine out on the platforms and chat on the balconies. In the teaching areas, there is a studious but energetic atmosphere. The design of the college has helped to create an innovative approach to teaching and to keep students motivated and inspired. There is tangible pride in the shared ownership of the space demonstrated by the lack of vandalism or graffiti, and the college now enjoys a strongly positive reputation. Since the building opened attendance at open days has risen by at least 60% and student applications by 40%.

“I love the new modern building. It has a great atmosphere and you are treated very much as an adult.” Dalia Osman, Advanced Multimedia student

Publication funded by department for Education and Skills creating opportunity, releasing potential, achieving excellence.

Shape East enjoyed working with Open House and South East Essex College; everyone was extremely helpful and enthusiastic about the aims of the event. We also enjoyed meeting all the stakeholders involved who, without exception, were appreciative of the opportunity to see such an amazing building.

“This was a very good opportunity to see an innovative building and to hear from those directly involved in its design and current use of the benefits and functionality of the building.” Open Day participant

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Photo credit: South East Essex College