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School Building Design Burland Aura Plan


Design for schools & education

Defines what design outcomes all involved want from the built environment of a school.

How Aura Planning can help with school design 

The Department of Education produces detailed guidelines for designing schools. These address some of the behavioural issues that can be influenced by design. There are specific directives on the design of the amenities to ensure they are not entirely closed, for example, to frustrate attempts at bullying, yet still offer the requisite privacy. However, this relationship between design and behaviour has not been fully explored in the directives. It’s assumed that the aura in schools designed to these guidelines will be optimal for educational activity and the development of pupils. But aura is not planned across the whole school design. 

That means opportunities to address problem behaviour, such as bullying, or sub-optimal behaviour, such as distraction during classes, aren’t always incorporated in the design brief. Design to support optimal behaviours and attitudes, such as kinship, school pride and calm, may be specified or implied in the detail. However, even in the hands of a good design team the design solutions don’t always work as hoped and the school community can be disappointed by the final outcome.

Examples of these frustrations are found in the pursuit of economy and efficiency that promotes double sided internal and dark corridors probably needing constant artificial lighting and ventilation. Similarly, low ceilings in the teaching space economises on the area of external cladding and internal partitions. But the aura from the light, sound and air that are key to the atmospheres needed for learning environments can be compromised. Another typical frustration is the way the school building is secured in its community. Aggressive designed security fencing and prison style gates fail to emanate the aura of a welcoming threshold for the students at the key moment of transition from outside world to school world. 


Aura Planning aims to avoid these problems by working back from the Aura people want rather than towards an Aura that’s assumed will result from good design. Aura Planning provides tools for describing what the Teachers, Pupilsusers and school management want for their school. It manages to identify the desired feeling wanted from the built environment for the different situations pupils and staff are in throughout the day - teaching, learning, socialising, participating in sports activities, movement between classes, whole-school gathering etc. The Aura Planning research process helps the different groups involved to share perceptions and to define their needs of the permanent school building design - the different atmospheres or moods the design needs to support at different times of the day. 

Defines what design outcomes all involved want from the built environment of a school.

Why Burland Aura Planning for school design 

James Burland is an architect who, over a career designing a wide range of different buildings, felt the building user wasn’t getting enough say. Although users were often consulted, they were not encouraged to share the mood they wanted a building to give them. 

The permanent design features of a school all influence how it feels when used. All good architects can create moods through design but they first need to know what mood the creators and the users of the school are after!  For the users, those moods will be different depending on where they are in relation to the building and what they want to do in the building. For the school’s creators, the desired moods will support a conducive learning environment.

James encountered mood specification when designing large sports stadia where the spectator’s experience is crucial and carefully planned. The interplay of light, sound and air creates a spatial experience. You design different experiences for the visitor’s approach, entrance and movement through the arena as well as their spectating positions. A similar analysis can be applied to the school environment where the desired moods are not expectation and awe but entirely different moods conducive to education and personal development.


James researched the published literature on the area on a masters degree at Cambridge University and developed the Burland Aura Planning process. He has subsequently applied it to several projects. In applying Aura Planning to a new, award-winning school, he found the staff were able to express the feeling they wanted in the school environment by sharing their perception of the atmospheres in its key spaces. This not only generated ideas for adapting the building so it could accommodate additional facilities but to other adjustments that solved behavioural problem areas in their school plan.  

Who we work with in designing schools

  • Multiple School Trusts who want to improve the performance of the schools they run

  • School founders looking for the right location, building or design with the characteristics that support their ethos 

  • School benefactors and sponsoring organisations wanting to find the best way to enhance the school(s) they support.

  • Government education authorities setting out what atmospheres are needed in a school design as a tool to guide an interdisciplinary design team


Project: Eton College Science Lab

School Design 6, James Burland Aura Plan

This is another example of aura planning in its embryonic moments from James' early career at Arup. It's particularly relevant as an example of how a multi-disciplinary team, a central theme to Ove Arup's design ethic, relates directly to the technical ingredients of a building's aura. This science building, built in the garden of the Classics Master, uses its environmental elevation, the sun screens, to soften the economical box-like form. The steel work is designed by architect and engineer using references to a bridge on the High Street. All the junctions are functionally resolved to avoid unnecessary and excessive post welding treatments. The screen has now been in place for over 35 years. In consequence, it has an aura that is compatible with the historic Eton buildings in spite of a completely different materials and colour

Interested in working together?

How does aura planning for school design work?


Firstly, we tour the school with the head or representatives of the senior management team and establish an overall understanding of the school. Then we collect the personal perceptions from a cross-section of the key people involved. These usually comprise three groups: brief makers, designers and users. This could be Governors and founders, the architectural and engineering design team and a range of students and teachers. The perceptions and aspirations, once gathered, are compared for common atmospheric descriptors. These can then form a brief that can be offered to the project team to inform the design process. This is the Aura Plan. Once design proposals begin to appear the Aura Plan can be used to check the design team are achieving the desired outcomes for the project. 

When to talk to us about school design?

Though the maximum benefit from Aura Planning is achieved through early involvement, before design is set, it’s never too late to involve us. Because the Aura Plan is about atmospheres, adjustments to the total environment can be applied at any time in the traditional process from inception to hand over. The process can even provide constructive ideas after you have lived with a building for a time and have discovered its shortcomings.

What outcomes can aura planning achieve for school design?

  • Identify what people involved want from the school environment so that it is more likely to achieve the atmospheres conducive to education and personal development

  • Clarity and agreement about the thing that is hardest to define, yet is the most important aspect of any building project, the feeling you want it to give its users 

  • Clear direction for all members of the design team
    Seeing potential in a completely new school design, in a building to be converted into a school, or in a conversion project on an existing school

  • Identifying what all involved value most in a school’s built environment so that resources can be spent appropriately    


“We have a terraced house in South London and didn’t like the ‘off-the-shelf’ designs offered by kitchen side return specialists. Aura Planning helped us discover what was important for us. It really opened up the possibilities and we’re delighted with the resulting space.”

Barnaby and Rebecca, Home Owners

Burland Aura Planning Ltd

13 Quarry Street, Guildford, Surrey GU1 3UY

Telephone: 07968 162128

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