Traditional building materials, high-tech teaching spaces

Independent schools can enhance the learning experience by using traditional materials to create unique and innovative teaching spaces

Gareth Barber, managing director of The Stable Company, discusses how traditional building materials are being used to create modern, innovative teaching spaces — and that these classrooms can even boost educational progress.

Independent schools are always looking for ways to add value to the learning experience — part of this involves investing in the latest technology.

It may surprise you to learn that something as fundamental as the classroom building can have such a dramatic effect on the learning process – its productivity, enjoyment and even academic attainment. Let’s briefly explore how timber classrooms are the latest in high-tech teaching spaces.

The research: can the classroom affect educational performance?

The short answer? Most definitely.

One study noted that school performance on numerical and language-based tests significantly improved when the temperature was reduced from 25°C to 20°C. Similarly, when outdoor air supply rate increased from 5.2 to 9.6 L/s per person, pupil performance of four numerical exercises improved significantly.

That’s not to mention that lower ventilation rates are associated with higher absenteeism and more respiratory problems in children. That’s right — maintaining adequate ventilation and thermal comfort in classrooms could significantly improve academic achievement of students’.

Natural furnishings and good air quality can enhance educational attainment

What has this got to do with timber classrooms?

A fair question.

Well, in addition to being a superb natural insulator, timber is also a hygroscopic material. This means it breathes naturally. Timber’s cellular structure contains air pockets which allow it to exchange moisture with the surrounding air, fighting against humidity and boosting air quality. With timber, inhabitants are kept cooler in summer, but warmer in winter — higher indoor air quality and a more suitable temperature (around the hallowed 20°C mark).

Timber actually insulates 15 times better than masonry, and 400 times better than steel. The thermal performance of timber modular classrooms can even be supplemented with artificial insulation and eco-friendly air source heat pumps.

Timber classrooms are ‘biophilic’, too — that is to say, they appeal to humans’ innate desire to be surrounded by nature. Evidence shows that biophilic rooms — those with natural furnishings (like timber) — can reduce blood pressure, stress levels and even induce good behaviour. Wood is known for being a biophilic material that reduces stress reactivity when present. Also, because timber classrooms can be built anywhere, they can be designed to maximise access to natural vistas.

Timber construction in action

Marymount International School is an independent school which enlisted timber construction. The school wanted to turn an unused area of their grounds into teaching space; their eco-classroom (pictured) is designed to ‘bring the outside in’. 

A six-classroom timber eco-classroom at Marymount International School

This building conforms to the principles of biophilic design, with each internal room furnished with natural surfaces. The building features fully-retractable, bi-folding doors, allowing it to open up.

Marymount’s state-of-the-art facility is also fitted with smart lighting and air source heat pumps, two electricity-conserving features. Lighting dims according to the amount of natural sunlight in the building, with a fresh, natural learning environment facilitated by strategically-placed windows. The pumps work by drawing heat from outside air to power the radiators.

The individual classroom spaces are designed with dimensions such that students are able to face each other, facilitating peer-to-peer learning. Whether for lectures, exams, teamwork or group discussion, the timber-framed classroom’s six internal rooms are easily adapted.

As well as the interior, every aspect of the exterior is architecturally designed. The facility is clad in Western Red Cedar and heavy-duty Thermowood weatherboard, specially designed to fit sympathetically into the leafy, woodland surroundings. This is in addition to a pitched roof and fully-accessible decked area.

The school’s ‘eco-classroom’