Classrooms designed with intelligence in mind

James Higgins explores four examples that demonstrate how intelligent design has transformed the way schools are approaching new learning spaces

Marymount International School, Kingston upon Thames

Designer 

The Stable Company

Description 

Marymount International School is a small, independent Catholic boarding school located in a seven-acre campus equidistant from Richmond Park and Wimbledon Common. The leafy private estates and the surrounding open spaces, which are synonymous with this area of south-west London, have inspired this multi-functional, biophilic learning facility. This timber-constructed building comprises six rooms and has transformed a previously derelict portion of land.

Unique features

The facility was given its name, The Garden Rooms, to reflect the overarching aim of the designers. The facility is clad in western red cedar and features heavy-duty Thermowood weatherboard – features that will help it weather gracefully and remain well-insulated, but its connection with nature runs far deeper than its wooden exterior. There are fully retractable bi-folding doors, large picture windows, smart lighting (which adjusts according to the natural light levels), and wooden interior fittings (which includes furniture). Inside, the building has an adaptable layout with spacious, square rooms that connect, with ease, to the outdoors. 

Detailing the design 

Biophilic design – a concept that advocates connectivity with the natural world – is guided by the principle that humans operate best when they feel aligned with nature. References are made throughout the facility to achieve this. 

Maximising natural light is one feature that can help tackle seasonal affective disorder (SAD). A large body of work exists which analyses the positive affect natural vistas can have on stress – Nancy M. Wells and Gary W. Evans observed exactly that in their Nature Nearby: A Buffer of Life Stress among Rural Children study. During the summer, the doors can help ventilate the space and facilitate mobile learning.

The square rooms and minimalist design encourage experimentation in furniture arrangement. With no obvious front or back of the class, pupils can face each other or the outside making it great for group discussion and presentations. Marymount bursar Alean Fernandes described the design as “conducive to teaching and learning”. 


TH School, Hanoi 

Designer

S+B

Description 

TH School is a non-denominational, co-educational boarding and day school that welcomes children in grades Pre-K to 12. It focuses on preparatory education for national and international colleges. It’s a school that blends Vietnamese customs and culture with an English language-based education. The broad curriculum caters for varied learning styles and its food technology classrooms offer a dynamic space for developing hands-on skills. 

Unique features

This bright and eye-catching food technology classroom has modular island and peninsular units, benching and storage systems, which create large work areas. The room has a theatre-in-the-round design with lots of space for mobile learning. There are hardwearing, stain-resistant, seam-free Corian worktops. There are built-in electrical outputs, ovens and four-ring hobs. The technology rooms are additionally equipped with pedal-operated bins and five coloured chopping boards. 

Detailing the design 

The layout of the classroom centres on one large island unit where the teacher can lead the lesson. The curvature of the desks ensures there is no good or bad work bench from which to watch the teacher. It also means that the teacher can see all the students (and their work stations) from the centre of the room. Purposefully, there are no seats in the room in an attempt to ensure students spend most of the lesson mobile and active. 

The island units also mean there is lots of space for multiple students to be grouped around a work station, encouraging group work and peer-led lessons. While pink is one of the school’s emblem colours, it also serves to brighten the room.


Halliford School, Shepperton 

Designer

Envoplan 

Description 

Halliford School is a selective boys’ school with a co-educational sixth form. The sixth form was in need of updating and some adjoining classrooms (two IT classrooms and a science laboratory) proved useful overspill for the expanded and diverse working environment.

The school is well-regarded for its pastoral care and support, so creating an enjoyable study space for their A-level students was at the forefront of the design. Sixth form is a vital step on the road to university and creating a mature learning environment that prepares them for higher education was also an important consideration.

Unique features

The sixth form serves between 80 and 100 students, divided into eight tutor groups. The small size of the year groups did afford Halliford School with more opportunity to create the flexible study space it has today. The aim was to create an area that was both a social and study space.

The building is, by the school’s own description, a “bizarre shape”, but from these unique parameters, Envoplan subdivided the room into zones that could facilitate independent study, group work, tutor groups and socialising. There are IT areas, private study areas, booths, group study areas and a glass-fronted seminar room.

Detailing the design 

Halliford School bursar Elspeth Sanders said: “Students love the booths”, and the freedom the room gives them to decide how and when they study. The mature design of the room has fostered “better behaviour” and a mature approach to study – something Sanders says emerges faster when students make the transition from year 11. 

The room is well-used by teachers for small tutorial groups and offers a comfortable environment for students and teachers to work together. In some of the adjoining classrooms, the school has replaced the traditional rows of desks with large conference tables which has furthered the school’s aim to foster mature study. The diversity in the room means, whether revising for exams or preparing a presentation, it offers ample flexibility throughout the school year.


Shanghai Dehong School, sister of the Dulwich College International (DCI) network

Designer

Broadway Malyan 

Description 

Shanghai Dehong School is a Chinese-owned bilingual school, sister of the DCI network of schools. The network comprises eight schools and two highs schools across Asia – as sister to this organisation, Dehong follows the compulsory curriculum in Shanghai while offering students’ academic advice, co-curricular activities and the pedagogical approach of the DCI. 

Dehong even has a house system that mirrors the one in Dulwich College, London. It caters for primary and middle school pupils that are grouped into whole-year clusters. The design of the school had to incorporate the international ethos of the provider, with classrooms for Chinese Medium Learning (CML) and English Medium Learning (EML) combined with outdoor learning terraces and break-out areas. 

Unique features

Each level of the student body forms a whole-year cluster, each with its own dedicated space. At the primary level, each cluster combines four CML and four EML classrooms – the latter offering more flexible learning spaces. The cluster of classrooms is grouped around a break-out area which combines a large lecture space and portable study pods. These break-out areas also offer access to a dedicated outdoor learning terrace. 

The middle school is similar except its spaces are grouped departmentally. The school is founded on an ethos the school calls SE21. S stands for STEAM, E for entrepreneurialism and 21 for 21st century. The break-out areas are referred to as SE21 collaboration areas, helping to create the school’s community culture.

Detailing the design

The design of the rooms closely reflects the culture and style of learning the school promotes. Describing the design brief, Ben Somner, director of Broadway Malyan, said: “A significant pedagogical shift in recent years has been towards flipped learning, where instruction is delivered ahead of lessons so that class time is more focused on understanding the content through different types of learning, be that one-to-one, group discussion or social learning.”

This ethos has impacted the design heavily, which facilitates this with fluid learning spaces. The pods create space for focused, individual study, for example, while terraces offer biophilic spaces that work well for discussion and debate. While tech spaces are on offer in other areas of the school, Dehong believe the outdoor spaces foster social engagement, better behaviour and creative thought.


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