‘Open-air’ school, Betws-y-coed
The main building at Ysgol Betws-y-coed was designed in the early 20th century as an ‘open-air’ school to aid the children’s health.
It was one of a group of such schools built in what was then Caernarvonshire. The idea that school building designs could benefit tubercular children’s health originated in Germany c.1904 and soon spread to Britain, first to Derbyshire and Staffordshire and then north-west Wales.
The Caernarvonshire Education Committee initially commissioned such schools at Brynaerau and Y Ffor. Others followed, including at Dolgarrog (north of Betws-y-coed). Betws-y-coed school was planned in 1913 but the First World War delayed construction until 1924. Its architect was Rowland Lloyd Jones, who also designed most of the other Caernarvonshire schools.
Emphasis was given to natural ventilation. There was a row of big sliding, folding windows that could fully open on the south side of the building. Smaller windows on the north side allowed good ventilation through the classrooms. A ‘marching corridor’ ran behind the folding windows.
An ingenious arrangement of sliding partitions – between classrooms and between classrooms and corridor – allowed flexibility in use, and also drill practice for the boys, pertinent in the war years. Some of the schools have been demolished. Others have had their painted timber window
frames replaced with uPVC, but here the originals survive.
The early photo of the school (copyright: Gwynedd Archive Service) shows the children and teachers in front of the open folding windows.
The education committee was keen to log daily practice in the schools in connection with when the windows were fully opened; it clearly viewed these schools as an important experiment that might spread across Britain. Children might have been less healthy in the early 20th century than now but they were undoubtedly hardier – the internal temperature in the classrooms must have been far lower than would be acceptable today!
Yet the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020 and 2021 showed us the importance of fresh air and good ventilation, and climate change means we have to find ways to ventilate our buildings without mechanical means. The Caernarvonshire schools provide an instructive example of what is achievable.
With thanks to Adam Voelcker
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