Can Flexible Learning Buildings be Beautiful?

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Kitchener_Learning When surveying teachers and educational leaders about their most important aspirations for new school buildings, flexibility always rises to the top. We know that we cannot accurately predict the future. One thing that we can count on is that curriculum will change. How do we prepare for change while constructing facilities that may last for 30, 50 or even 100 years? The ultimate flexible design is a box with a regular grid of columns, allowing the users to rearrange walls with minimal investment; however, the gridded box, favored by strip shopping malls, can be a sterile environment. In contrast, high-performance schools are built around a stimulus-rich environment. We can resolve this dichotomy by following some basic principles of school design.

The photo above of Lord Kitchener Elementary, one of three new K8 schools by FNI in Vancouver, illustrates several key design principles that support both flexibility and an aesthetically responsive environment. First, there is a visual connectedness between the center of the space and the outside. Note the view from the Grade 4 – 5 Learning Commons through the overhead glass door to the Learning Studio beyond and then through the exterior windows of the Studio to a project garden outside. Everywhere in the building, learners are grounded in strong connections to the outside, natural light, and to the world outside of school. Even if the activities within these spaces change, this essential principle of visual connectedness will remain.

Second, there is a variety in the size of spaces and also a hierarchy of relationships. The Learning Commons is larger than the Learning Studio, and also connects to Learning Suites (paired studios), a Teacher Collaboration Workroom, and a wet and messy DaVinci Studio. Even as the curriculum changes, these varied spaces make the building agile enough to accommodate new uses.

The third principle involves a dynamic balance of natural and electric lighting. Notice that the ceiling in the learning studio (beyond the overhead door) appears to be as bright as the sky. Direct-indirect pendant fixtures are suspended from the ceiling and outfitted with lenses to direct 60% of the light upwards, reflecting off the ceiling, and 40% down. By reflecting light off the ceiling, a sense of expansiveness, similar to an outdoor “big sky” condition is created. Controlled with daylight sensors, a limited number of these lights turn on automatically when needed.

Sustainability, flexibility and aesthetics are integrated to make Lord Kitchener School a building that will adapt with the pressures of change.

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