Above - in this video, Architecture Director Steven Tilkin describes Bryden Wood's approach to designing a new type of prison [image MoJ].


An innovative approach from an innovative Ministry

The cycle of re-offending is a huge cost to the UK economy. A 2016 study of a group of offenders who re-offended within 12 months of release from prison estimated that the total economic and social cost of reoffending was £18.1 billion.

The Prison Estate Transformation Programme (PETP) was a programme of 10,000 ‘new for old’ adult prison places across six sites (plus one new house block) at an estimated value £1.3 billion. The full PETP programme was retired and superseded by a new programme, but, at the time, it provided an opportunity to develop a new type of prison environment using a platform based Design for Manufacture and Assembly (DfMA) approach – one whose core purpose was to increase the likelihood of rehabilitation and reduce re-offending rates. This was used in the design of the two prisons being delivered under PETP (HMP Five Wells at Wellingborough and at Glen Parva) and formed the basis for the current capacity programme. It would do this by:

  • Putting safety, security and rehabilitation at the heart of prisons
  • Creating more flexible space for educational, training and rehabilitation outcomes

The Programme was also a way to build on the Ministry of Justice’s (MoJ) recognised role as innovative leaders in public sector design and construction. The MoJ was, for example, the pathfinder department for Government adoption of Building Information Modelling (BIM) and lean construction.

Standardised solutions

A key aspect of PETP was to develop standardised solutions at a range of scales that could be deployed across multiple buildings and sites, from components and rooms to entire building types and continues through the new capacity programme(s). There were many reasons for this approach:

  • Standard solutions allow for a greater level of design and refinement – if a solution is going to be used multiple times then the benefit of good design is multiplied and amplified
  • It afforded us a far greater level of stakeholder engagement and buy-in than we would typically achieve for a one-off design (see below)
  • This resulted in, for example, designs that were highly optimised in terms of layouts, space allocation, adjacencies and functional flows – which could then be deployed across the PETP programme and wider prison estate
  • It creates further efficiencies. For example, the standard building types can be used across a range of sites. For each, the site-specific design activities can be focused on the placement of the buildings relative to each other, arranging orientation to minimise overlooking and overheating (for both the comfort of prisoners and to reduce energy use), maximise views of landscape, and so on
  • It contributes to overall better design and allows designers to focus more of their efforts on solving the specific challenges relating to a particular site and context
  • Standardised solutions lend themselves to efficiencies in construction and the application of DfMA
  • Operational benefits. Standardised solutions facilitate efficient operation and maintenance, as well as aiding staff and prisoner wayfinding and navigation.

A developmental process, an evidence-based approach

Bryden Wood had been working with MoJ since 2011, when we helped developed their BIM Implementation Plan. We went on to join the MoJ’s multi-disciplinary designer framework in 2014 and, before PETP, developed a ‘proof of concept’ for the application of DfMA to the custodial estate.

In February 2016, at the beginning of PETP, we conducted research into the aspects of design that can help influence rehabilitative outcomes. The huge stakeholder engagement effort that informed the new prison design was the biggest piece of research ever undertaken by the department into the effectiveness of prison design and building use. This is a very good example of how evidence underpins our approach to design.

Stakeholders and sources of evidence included:

  • Serving and former prison governors, staff and prisoners
  • Prisoner support groups, including the Prison Advice and Care Trust
  • Policy staff and academics from across Europe
  • A review of other models of incarceration and a comprehensive literature review relating to carceral geography

Clearly, no prison design concept will inherently rehabilitate people. ‘Buildings don’t heal people; people heal people.’ However, design choices can support positive social interactions and preclude or reduce negative interactions.

The design aspects that support this include:

  • Facilitating contact with family and society
  • A normalising environment
  • Appropriate levels of autonomy, while recognising the need to maintain prisoner and staff safety
  • Importance of mobile and static technology
  • Green, clean, tidy spaces
  • Flexible, multi-use buildings to support education and work-centric activity
  • Decent staff facilities
  • A progressive regime

The PETP team viewed emerging potential design solutions through two key lenses: effectiveness and efficiency. ‘Effectiveness’ is the ability of a design to deliver the required rehabilitative outcome, while ‘efficiency’ is the total whole life cost required to achieve this outcome.

This collaborative assessment process included data visualisations and the transparent, objective evaluation of different potential solutions. The team was able to balance the different and often competing interests of stakeholders using a range of techniques, including use of Virtual Reality (VR) to simulate how the new building would work and help them understand and contribute to the design. 

Gathering feedback from groups including prison staff and those delivering services in prisons gained buy-in and approval from all levels – from senior policy makers to operational staff – and meant we were able to demonstrate best overall value for money.

Translating evidence into design

All of this evidence gathering, consultation and collaboration had profound effect on the design:

  • Significant emphasis has been put on visiting facilities. We know from the Lord Farmer Review into Family Ties that connections with family and friends are key to rehabilitation. The new design will have internal and external spaces in which prisoners and their visitors can socialise.
  • The overall design allows for flexible use of spaces, meaning that facilities don’t go unused. Many spaces are designed for multiple use, so classrooms can become communal rooms, and so on.
  • Central ‘resource hubs’ will house education facilities, libraries, full medical facilities, a gym, barbers and faith spaces, resembling a high street of services which is both normalising and promotes independence.

Of the standard building types, the most common is the house block, which represents nearly 60% of the accommodation on each site. Many of the innovations that came from this process are to be found in the house block:

  • The new prison design signals the end of ‘gallery’ prisons. The new design will have much smaller, 20 person spurs with a much more domestic atmosphere. The spurs are arranged in ’T’ shapes, creating outdoor courtyard spaces with plants. Green spaces offer opportunities for both leisure activities and vital employment to prisoners, encouraging them to value their environment.
  • Barless windows that do not open and have integrated ventilation grills. This type of glazing provides comparable security without the need for bars addressing specific security threats, preventing waste being thrown from windows and reducing noise spreading beyond the prison wall.
  • Social interaction between staff and prisoners is key to rehabilitation. Victorian-style gallery blocks with a warden’s desk at one end have been abandoned in favour of a staff station placed more centrally, in a way that encourages interaction rather than observation.
  • Main, central functions like dining, exercise equipment and access to medical care have been broken up and placed in each house block. Each block can contain a kitchen for communal cooking, classrooms, cardio gym equipment, a medicine point and laundry services, to create an environment more conducive to rehabilitation.
  • The prisons are designed with the ability to fine-tune security. The design allows operators the flexibility to use different houseblocks to ‘upgrade’ and ‘downgrade’ security as needed,to accommodate prisoners with different needs.

Current status

The first prison to adopt these design principles is the 1,680 place prison, HMP Five Wells, on the site of the former HMP Wellingborough, due for completion in 2021.

The house block design is the new standard that is being adopted across the planned prison estate expansion and will be used across several sites, both for new prisons and for adding capacity to existing sites.

Impact on wider industry

Through initiatives like the Construction Innovation Hub the UK government is investing significant time and effort into establishing standardised components specifications and even asset types. PETP program was instrumental in demonstrating the value of this thinking. It was also the programme which first proposed the use of construction Platforms. This idea has now been adopted by the Infrastructure and Projects Authority (IPA) and is a central focus of the Construction Innovation Hub.

We are both proud and pleased to be part of the gathering momentum around these approaches. The potential of design to transform lives within the prison system and way beyond, is inspiring.


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