A new view on design

An Engaging Places network 2008/09 case study | 19 August 2009

Key stage 3
Design and technology

From the Beetle car to the Gherkin skyscraper, we are surrounded by designs that are inspired by nature. But what about the built environment as the inspiration for design? Why not a shelter inspired by bike racks, or a wheelie trolley by the columns of a church?

What did the teacher want to achieve? To increase students’: confidence in expressing and developing ideas; willingness to experiment with different techniques for recording, researching and modelling; understanding of how to use a range of sources of inspiration for design; connection with the local area.


These were just two of the original designs that emerged when year 9 students from Graveney School in south London turned to their local streets for inspiration. ‘Before this project almost all the students were getting their design ideas from the internet,’ said teacher Asma Chowdhry. ‘I was keen to open their eyes to the local environment as a source of inspiration.’

The students’ challenge was to create an imaginative design for something to shelter under or something to carry inspired by architecture and the local built environment. Asma deliberately kept the brief loose: ‘I wanted to encourage the students to be creative and experimental. Working with Catherine Duncumb from the V&A+RIBA Architecture Partnership made a big difference – she introduced fresh ideas and encouraged innovative approaches.’

Photo of students making models

Students making models © Asma Chowdhry

Out and about
From the start, the project was firmly rooted in the streets around the school in Tooting. Best known today as a backdrop for TV series The Bill, on the face of it the suburb might seem an unlikely source of design inspiration. However, the students relished the opportunity to look at their local area from a new perspective.

Armed with prompts about structures and details to find and record, they walked around the town looking, sketching and photographing. Time spent examining photographs from RIBA’s digital image database paid dividends. Pattern, texture, colour, light and form were all recorded with flair.

How was the learning organised? A group of 20 year 9 students: used their local streets as the inspiration for design; visited the V&A and took part in modelling workshops; carried out a site analysis at school; designed something to shelter under or carry inspired by architecture and the local built environment.


The students enjoyed the experience of observing the familiar in a new light. ‘I found myself in a complete zone, looking at everything with an open and creative mind,’ said one. ‘Because of this, on a route I have walked so many times, I spotted many things I have never seen before.’

Still buzzing from their walkabout, the students visited the V&A where they explored the plans, drawings, sketches and models in the architecture gallery. A series of modelling workshops gave them hands-on experience of developing designs using the unlikely combination of plasticine, paper tubes and apples!

Back at school, the students carried out a site analysis of the grounds to generate new ideas for shelters. Their heightened awareness of the world around them brought a fresh perspective to their observations.

What was the impact? The students: are more confident when developing ideas; work more creatively and experimentally; are open to gathering inspiration for designs from a range of sources; are more aware of their area’s rich identity.

Model students
As the starting point for their designs, the students brought together their sketches and photographs to create colourful inspiration boards. They found the built environment a stimulating source of ideas and selected, abstracted and adapted shapes, forms and textures with great imagination.

From the outset, the students knew their work would only be assessed to paper prototype stage, freeing them up to focus on designing rather than making. However, they still developed a range of practical skills, including using paper drafting patterns, stencilling, machine sewing, fabric stiffening and CAD/CAM.

An online wiky blog set up at the start of the project gave the students a forum for sharing their thoughts, ideas and observations as they worked. They responded enthusiastically, posting photographs, sketches and blogs. ‘The wiky provided a place for pupils to showcase their ideas and share their design development,’ explains Asma Chowdhry. ‘It also meant they could get in touch with me out of school hours and I could see how they were getting on.’

Photo of students sketching their built environment

Students exploring and sketching their built environment © Asma Chowdhry

Rich rewards
Researching their designs outside the classroom reaped rich rewards. With new levels of confidence, enthusiasm and independence, the students experimented freely and produced imaginative, original outcomes.

As a result of the project, the students are more open to sources of design inspiration in the world around them. ‘I definitely look at everything I do and see in a different way now,’ commented one. ‘I used to walk through London and just see a city I live in and not much else, but even just walking down my road I suddenly see all these things I’ve never noticed before.’ The number of the students who say they get most of their design ideas from the internet has fallen dramatically from 94% to 53%.

Fired up by the success of the students’ work, Asma Chowdhry is keen to continue using buildings and places to inspire design. ‘Taking them outside the classroom has opened their eyes to a new world of inspiration and helped them see where they live in a new light.’

Visit the group blog Asma set up for her students.

Want to do something similar with your class?
We have collated a list of activities, organisations and resources for you to use with your students in developing designs inspired by architecture and the built environment.

The Engaging Places network
This case study comes from Graveney School in Tooting, south-west London, who partnered with the V&A+RIBA Architecture Partnership through the Engaging Places network for 2008/09.

The Engaging Places programme is run by CABE (Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment) and English Heritage. It supports teaching and learning through buildings and places.

Engaging Places realises that young people identify deeply with where they go to school and live but they are not always able to adequately communicate their sense of place to others. The physical face of many neighbourhoods is changing fast and schools are being transformed at an incredible pace, despite the recession. These dramatic changes will either involve or exclude a whole generation of young people.

This is why we have developed the Engaging Places network. The network is made up of schools and learning providers across England working together on projects which seek to equip students with the tools to articulate and critically analyse the places where they live and learn.

The schools involved in 2008/09 followed a process of disciplined innovation using the QCA co-development framework – a rigorous approach to curriculum change.

Read more about the and view the Engaging Places videos.

All Engaging Places 2008/09 network case studies

Grounds for improvement - Barmby on the Marsh Primary School, key stage 1, 2

A 360-degree journey - Dover Grammar School for Girls, key stage 4, AS level

Tales from the Palace - St John’s CE Primary School, key stage 2

A window on the past – Cardinal Newman Catholic School, key stage 3

Street investigation - Ospringe Primary School, key stage 2

Libraries by design - Thamesview Vocational Centre and Riverview Junior School, key stage 2, C&BE diploma

Resurrecting the past – St Pius X Catholic High School, key stage 3

Groundbreaking geography - The Royal Grammar School, key stage 5

More on the venues and organisations we've mentioned:
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