Building and designing schools that support students’ well-being_

Saving the environment, building playful and creative constructions, as well as choosing natural materials that soothe users’ senses. The recent shift in school building design has shown the growing importance of students’ needs and well-being. Instead of treating schools as simple facilities for gaining knowledge, designers are striving to create more interactive spaces that are appreciative of the surrounding natural landscape.

According to a study conducted in San Raffaele hospital in Milan, over a half of patients suffering from Modern schools are facing unprecedented challenges. The COVID-19 pandemic has forced educational institutions to implement multimodal teaching, including distance learning, which has changed the way students gain knowledge. More and more facilities have now decided to focus on their students’ well-being, to be able to deliver the best possible experience, as well as to adapt to the evolving nature of learning. The role of the surrounding and school buildings’ design started being closely analyzed, with research indicating that a pleasant environment can lead to better attendance and concentration, as well as motivation and self-esteem (thus, enhancing performance). Designers have shifted their emphasis from technical aspects of learning space design to the potential impacts of the physical school built environment on learning. Moreover, teachers have realized that in order for the students to be engaged in the studying process, there needs to be an element of creative play, a sense of community, social inclusion, and growth. Schools have finally started paying attention to those, whose needs and wants are actually at stake – that is, the students.

Creative play, community, and growth

Creative play, community, and growth

The architectural project of Hangzhou Haishu School in China was inspired by a child’s drawing that depicted his ideal school. It looked like a small town full of small-scale spaces and “happy” streets. The architects from LYCS Architecture decided to divide the 28000 sq metered campus into 15 much smaller-scale gabled volumes. The scale of each volume gradually increases according to children’s growth and the variation in their behaviours. The classrooms’ heights (27 for primary school students, 12 for kindergarten program) increase incrementally to adapt to different demands of scale, as well as to create a dynamic skyline. The goal is simple – the school environment needs to reflect students’ needs, which are constantly changing due to their dynamic growth. This way they can enjoy the learning process and feel more at ease. A similar approach was used in the French Jean Louis Étienne School. The building was designed to evolve according to the school’s path, unfolding, widening, and rising to gain height. The kindergarten classes face the heart of the building, whilst as the children grow, they move on to the elementary section, which is located on two floors. The design symbolizes a life cycle and the process of time passing by. School is treated as an ecosystem, with transformation cycles and steps that each student has to face. Children enter the school building being solely dependent on adults. They leave the premises, gaining autonomy, strength, and independence. The role of architecture is to allow for this natural stage to occur and accept the evolving nature of societal roles. 

Another school that invites students to free exploration is the Marista Santo Antônio High School in Sinop, Brazil. The 2020 Hype Studio project emphasizes the role of shared experience, new discoveries, and simple solutions. The corridors are large, generous spaces that allow different setups based on the furniture and educator’s creativity. Every element of the interior design is integrated, creating opportunities for meetings and playful activities in places where people would normally just pass by. Floors are connected by a large atrium, where students can find gardens, voids, mezzanines, and bleachers. This is a direct response to students’ varying needs, as for instance bleachers can be a place for both collaborations and theatre performances. It is up to the student to decide, how can a given space support his creative vision.

An interesting project that honours students’ freedom, as well as creates a sense of community is the Saunalahti school in Espoo, Finland, known as The School of the Future. The experts from Verstas Architects wished to create an open place, which eliminates barriers and unnecessary restrictions that spark students’ rebellion. Architects chose natural materials to create a warm and comfortable atmosphere. The teaching is conducted in a relaxed manner, where pupils are allowed to sit anywhere they want in whatever position they please. Students are encouraged to engage in discussion at all times, while lessons are organized in a way that prompts teamwork. Interestingly, the cafeteria is a place for students and teachers to mingle, as part of the learning process. The dining hall is also used for performances, celebrations, and meetings. The local residents use the school premises in the evenings, turning them into a sports centre. Thus, the school building design allows for multi-faceted use, creating a sense of community and shared purpose. 

Education outside of classrooms – the role of nature

Education outside of classrooms – the role of nature

Architecture should always take into account functionality and utility. Instead of interfering with an existing natural environment, it is architects’ duty to respect it and adjust their projects, to support rather than damage the surrounding nature. A model example is the expansion of a Polish primary school in Wesola, Warsaw, where the architects managed to save 20 trees. Initially, the project assumed adding a new part of the building in front of the existing school. However, the enlargement assumed cutting down 20 old trees. The experts decided to find a new area around the building, to minimize harmful impact on the environment.

The natural landscape can also become a crucial part of the design. The architects from Blue Temple decided to create a bamboo playground that gives the children from Yangon in Myanmar the freedom to explore, have fun, and play with each other. The construction serves two purposes. On the one hand, the playground is an interactive and playful space, with a multi-floor structure and different possible ways of exploring it. On the other, the design is addressing an informal public space in the city, that is, the above-ground water pipeline that has been used as a pedestrian highway. Providing it with lighting at night enhances citizens’ feeling of safety and comfort.

The 2010 Haiti earthquake wiped down approximately 30% of schools around the area. After 10 years, the children of Jacmel could finally learn and interact in a newly-built school – a project by talented Polish architects that takes into account the topography of the site. The project for a school for 400 students introduces reinforced concrete slabs on different levels that adapt to the slope. The construction technique is simple and equipped to minimize the impact of seismic activity. Due to heavy rainfall in that area, the roof is designed to collect the rainwater in tanks, while the drainage system uses the wastewater for landscape irrigation. The functionality of the design, combined with open spaces that stimulate creativity and play, creates a building that is symbiotic with both the natural environment and users’ needs. 

Engaging the senses

Engaging the senses 

The spatial possibilities of school buildings need to be examined through the lens of ergonomics, flexibility, and efficiency. The design solutions need to be sustainable and long-term, as well as supportive of the constantly changing school environment. Most of all, the user should always be taken into account. That is why school interiors have to be adjusted to children’s measurements, remembering that they grow and change at a rapid pace (both physically and emotionally). As to furniture, it is crucial that it encourages students to interact, engage, and discuss different topics with one another. Instead of rigid rows, architects can create large circles of chairs, to enable a free-flowing discussion. When there is a need for private and intimate conversations, students and teachers should have the opportunity to use separate spaces that are not overwhelming or claustrophobic (janitor’s broom closet does not count). With mobile partitions, teachers and students can easily change a given room’s arrangement, to suit their needs. New technology can also provide additional tools for teachers, such as interactive boards, to enrich students’ learning experience and increase their attention span. It is of utmost importance that students’ needs are taken into account and that the school’s design allows for dynamic change and adaptation to any activity. 

A study carried out by FIRA (Furniture Industry Research Association) in the United Kingdom affirms that today’s children are taller than they were thirty years ago. These measures directly influence users’ comfort. In many schools today, children continue to use furniture that was designed over 50 years ago. If designers wish to aid students’ learning, whilst also maintaining their health instead of damaging it, they need to pay close attention to furniture, lighting, ventilation, and acoustics, as overstimulation of senses can cause a deterioration of students’ health and performance. What we would not accept in workplaces or homes, should not be part of schools.

A good example is a small secondary school in the southern Norwegian village of Sauland, a project by PPAG Architects. The majority of the school is executed in CLT (Cross Laminated Timber), which is a solid wood panel construction. The wooden surfaces encourage the children to touch the building, sit on its components, or work. School becomes a tool of education and a workshop for the senses, which stimulates students’ creativity, as well as soothes their overstimulated minds. 

Schools of the future

The school building design is no longer limited to aesthetics. As recent projects illustrate, it is the students that are at the centre of attention, with their unique needs, compromised well-being, and rapid growth. It is the designers’ and architects’ duty to ensure that the used materials are natural, ideally locally sourced, furniture and ergonomics are suitable and functional, while the natural environment is incorporated into the school premises, to encourage students to play around, explore, and get creative. Through a holistic and human-centred approach to school design, we can directly influence the well-being of future generations, for whom everyday education can become a source of inspiration, rather than a dull necessity.

collage art by Martyna Ochojska

edited by Kama Wojtkiewicz