TG Escapes Blog

The Design Essentials of a Modern SEND Classroom

by TG Escapes | Jan 5, 2024 | Blog, Education

There is a desperate need for quality new buildings across UK schools, but special schools are in a particular crisis thanks to rising needs and inadequate funding, with an urgent need for buildings that offer children with complex needs a comfortable and safe space to learn.

The best educational buildings for SEND students are ones that are designed from the ground up for that purpose, in terms of things like layout, access, and outdoor areas. Across clear legal guidelines and a range of beneficial features and elements, these buildings can offer a carefully tailored educational experience to children with a huge range of needs.

The Rules Governing SEND Buildings

SEND classrooms and buildings are currently subject to Building Bulletin 104, which replaced Building Bulletin 102 in 2015, in addition to the Disability Discrimination Act. These papers cover a huge range of elements and are written to ensure that these schools can meet the vastly different needs that fall under the modern SEND umbrella.

The Essential Design Aspects of SEND Spaces

There is a huge range of considerations in place when designing a new SEND building, starting with the overall layout and access methods, and moving through to individual classroom layouts, additional features, and the ability to tailor spaces over time to meet the continually changing needs of pupils. It’s crucial, therefore, to consider the full spectrum of SEND, encompassing:

  • Communication and interaction
  • Cognition and learning
  • Social, emotional and mental health difficulties (SEMH)
  • Sensory and/or physical needs

As specialist schools can cater to students with a range of needs from wheelchair users to children with a diagnosis of severe autism, their spaces should be designed and built with this in mind.

Timber frame modular building for work skills in SEND

Meeting Rules on Room Size and Layout

As with all school buildings, there are strict rules governing the size and layout of SEND classrooms. We have a specific resource available here, but the recommended sizes will depend on the use of the room and the needs of the pupils, which are ranked from F to J covering ambulant and non-ambulant needs.

There are clear guidelines around classrooms, dining areas, art rooms, science studios and more that must be adhered to when planning a new space. For instance, for a therapy space, a room size of 12m2 is needed for ambulant pupils, whereas one catering to non-ambulant pupils will need to be 15m2.

Sometimes additional rooms will be needed for certain pupils, so schools catering to those with autism may need dedicated quiet or sensory rooms, alongside a separate space for those too uncomfortable to eat lunch within a main dining room.

Interior of a modular classroom

When considering layout it’s also crucial to design around safe circulation through a building and to consider adjacent spaces like controlled breakout rooms to help ensure staff and pupil safety. Within classrooms themselves, clear sightlines should also be prioritised for teachers. Applying this guidance can help create effective, suitable environments for learning and support in SEND settings.

Ensuring Simple Access For All

A crucial design guideline to help ensure equal and easy access to specialist schools is to make them single-storey whenever possible. When a second storey is needed, stairwells must be wide enough for staff to assist pupils from both sides, with a lift that is large enough to accommodate a child with mobility equipment and accompanying staff.

Corridor width is also specified, with 2.2m required for schools catering to those with mobility difficulties, as this is the amount of space needed for a member of staff to turn a wheelchair around. All doors should also be wide enough to accommodate larger wheelchairs when relevant.

Eco Building for SEN at Mountfield Heath School by TGEscapes

Outdoor entrances should be level or ramped, with slip-resistant and well-drained surfaces to minimise the risk of tripping. There should be accessible parking and set-down points outside the school. These considerations help make all of a building accessible and reduce the risk of accidents.

Prioritising Access to Exterior Spaces

Biophilic modular timber frame building

The importance of accessible outdoor space is crucial, both for physical education and for informal and social areas, such as sensory gardens. In terms of outdoor spaces, noisier areas and quieter ones should be separated, with fencing sometimes required. For schools with less mobile pupils, accessible routes and wheelchair-suitable pathways are needed (with 1500mm widths required for busy routes and 1800mm for passing places). Outdoor science areas can also be used to support pupils, alongside garden and vegetable plating areas, with raised planters needed for pupils with mobility difficulties.

There are numerous benefits that come from having easy access to the outdoors, in terms of mood, stress levels, and academic performance.

Additional Features Found Within SEND Buildings

SEN classroom area

There are numerous additional features that may be required across a school building to meet the needs of all pupils:

  • Hoists within hygiene rooms for non-ambulant pupils
  • Changing beds and curtains within hygiene rooms
  • Quiet areas for pupils with autism
  • Height adjustable fixtures and furniture
  • Acoustic insulation to help reduce noise reverberations in a room
  • Kitchen areas for life-skills lessons
  • Swimming pools within hydrotherapy suites

Building Spaces That Can Be Tailored Over Time

One of the most important elements of a SEND facility is the ability to be changed over time to accommodate the varying needs of pupils using a school. In terms of specific classrooms, this could mean designing for a larger number of pupils than initially needed, alongside using elements like adjustable partitions, lighting, and furniture to ensure a space can be customised. School buildings should be reviewed and altered over time to keep up with legislation and the needs of pupils.

Other Crucial Additions

We are a firm believer in biophilic design, which works to bridge the gap between interior and exterior through a series of design choices. Classrooms can be made biophilic in several ways, such as prioritising high levels of natural light, prioritising fresh air through ventilation, the use of natural materials such as timber, and incorporating easy access to the outdoors. As SEND schools should be single-storey whenever possible, this could mean incorporating a wooden deck around the building or connecting it to a sensory garden.

Timber frame modular building for SEND connected to sensory garden

Biophilic design works subconsciously to reduce stress and improve engagement within schools, backed up by a growing number of scientific studies.

How Our Team Designs SEND Spaces

TG Escapes works with schools across the UK, with a growing focus on SEND schools, producing bespoke modular buildings ranging from single classrooms to larger blocks. We have a careful approach to SEND spaces, starting with a tailored, flexible design process. Our in-house design team will work around your needs and site to design an attractive and functional building, installing features like sun pipes to prioritise natural light and easy access to the outdoors. We go above and beyond to consider the users of a building, creating warm, positive spaces that have a strong connection to nature. The flexible nature of our modular panelised system means that all needs can be accommodated.

Timber frame school building

Design Considerations

In terms of SEND classrooms and blocks, we take a number of design considerations into mind:

  • Easy Access: Ensuring all students can access and navigate the building through inclusions like ramps, wider doorways, and accessible toilets.
  • Quiet Spaces: Acoustic control is crucial within SEND spaces for students with autism or other sensory issues, and we can accommodate this with dedicated quiet spaces and excellent levels of insulation to reduce reverberations.
  • Outdoor Spaces: We prioritise access to the outdoors within every classroom whenever possible, and can use elements like covered areas and canopies to provide outdoor routes between classrooms.
  • Safety and Security: We work to create a safe environment for students and staff, with secure entry points, controlled breakout rooms and calming spaces.
  • Storage: In order to accommodate specialist equipment, ample storage can be considered at the design stage.

“Where are people coming from and going to? Where's the orientation and where are the views? Where are the trees? There's a breadth of site analysis that will determine the best solution” - Mark Guyatt, Consultant Lead Architect

We offer a collaborative design process, working with clients throughout to ensure we meet both their needs and their budget. Our buildings are manufactured from sustainable materials, with timber frames and panelling, recycled insulation, and specialist low impact foundations. We complete all work ourselves, with off-site manufacturing, on-site installation, and all finishing accomplished by our team.

Ample storage for specialist equipment in an SEND buildimng

Just Some of Our SEND Buildings

We’ve built over 250 educational buildings, including many SEND facilities, here are just a few that our team are especially proud of:

  • SEND Classroom Block at Hundred of Hoo Academy: We produced a beautiful 6-classroom block for students with specialist needs at Hundred of Hoo Academy. Also equipped with toilets and changing space, alongside quiet rooms and offices, our team received a five-star rating from Estates Project Manager Mikey Dalton.
  • SEND building for Sir Charles Parsons School: We’ve provided two buildings for Sir Charles Parsons, a specialist school for pupils aged 11 to 19. This 2022 project for post-16 provision included 4 classrooms and ancillary spaces, achieving an A+ energy rating making it net zero in operation. The staff and students of the school were so pleased that they were kind enough to make us a video about their new building.

Made by staff and students at Sir Charles Parsons Special School about their modular timber building

To find out more about how we cater to educational clients, including those with specialist SEND needs, contact a member of our team today.

Tags: SEMH | SEN | SEND

About the author

TG Escapes
Providing net-zero timber frame buildings since 2003. As a gold member of the Structural Timber Association we are fully compliant to design, manufacture and build giving us full control of the quality of all the timber components in our system.

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