It was in 2011 that we were asked to join the Canadian Board of Education (CBE) in the planning of a city-wide revitalization program for Calgarian middle schools.
One of the sponsors, Aguila Exploration, had selected us to design the ultimate school concept - the highest available quality for students and teachers given the existing school buildings and surrounding urban fabric.
Our task first became to select one of the six school buildings which were in most dire need of improvement. Our pick fell on the Canyon Meadows School, where we would combine all new ideas about what amounts to a good school building into one comprehensive design.
There were a lot of problems with the existing school building, and they all appeared to originate from the same source: Being completely closed off from the outside. This is a typical issue with North-American school buildings, but luckily there has been quite a shift in the ideas about what constitutes to a healthy learning environment.
All the building had to offer in terms of windows were tiny openings barred with a steel mesh. Hardly any natural light reached the classrooms, and there even were rooms which received no sunlight at all. Furthermore, there were a lot of health issues arising from being locked up inside a fully air-conditioned building, deprived from fresh air.
On top of all that, this simply wasn't a very good learning environment. With a rediscovered focus on outdoor learning, there unfortunately was little chance of taking the students outside and into nature, since the building formed too big of a barrier from the outside, and even then the direct environment was plain grass and tarmac.
There was nothing for it: This hermetically sealed box had to be blown wide open.
The dream of students and teachers was to have a closer connection to the outside - to be out of the building more often and to learn from what nature has to offer. We took up the challenge of making access to the outside easier, but wanted to go one step further: To create space where indoor and outdoor were closely connected.
The classroom walls are broken out, and replaced with large sliding doors and shutters, and the whole surrounding landscape is completely redesigned. Landscaping was perhaps the most important aspect of this assignment, as it had to accommodate the opportunity to learn from the landscape, to teach there, and for the classrooms to be extended into the natural surroundings.
A large part of the landscape design thus became the creation of several layers, or rings, around the building, extending from its core, where students could venture through and take assignments out into the landscape and back into the classroom once finished for evaluation.
The core design pattern comes in the form of a gradual transition from private to public, which is realized through the addition of several layers around the school building.
Terraces, patios, market gardens, and the prairie-rock playground all ensure that there is a connection between indoor and outdoor, yet give privacy and security to students and teachers.
The most direct accommodation of outdoor learning is a layer of porches and market gardens all around the classrooms. Each class has its own little garden, where students can grow their own plants, fruits, and vegetables.
The porch acts both as a barrier and a connection. It is easy to extend the classroom onto the porch, while at the same time providing a place for the children to work with plants and animals without bringing all the mess inside.
Given the seriously harsh winters in Calgary, it would be a shame if the outdoor projects come to a completely halt every year in the winter months. This problem is met with in the form of a large greenhouse.
The simple addition of this greenhouse solves a number of problems with the old school building. Besides providing a place for learning, it also serves as a more welcoming entrance to the school building, as well as a space for the teachers lounge to open up into - greatly improving the quality of that important room.
School isn't all serious, but also a place to play, and learn through playing. One of the largest and most important features of this project is the architecture of the landscape.
Following the style of the natural prairie rock garden, the playground becomes a most adventurous and engaging whole, where students are free to make changes, and encounter many surprises while venturing through the gardens.
There's plenty of opportunity for small wildlife to flourish, and for students to make installations to be placed in the gardens. The new landscape also makes the school grounds a lot safer, with designated routes down the hills and through the grounds.
The parking situation is also improved and a safe kiss 'n ride zone is realized so that parents can say goodbye to their kids in a protected area rather than in the middle of the street.
While a large part of this project entailed addition, it was also necessary to transform the actual school interior, where most of the activity takes place. The current building relied heavily on mechanical air ventilation and artificial lighting.
In breaking the building open, the reality of the interior is completely transformed. The opportunity to open up a room, to have natural ventilation and natural sunlight seem like such obvious commodities, but only once you've been cut off from them does their immense importance become fully apparent.
The classrooms are transformed into brighter, clearer, and cleaner spaces, simply realized in white-washed partition walls and wood. Other, more specific rooms, are furnished with simple and sleek built-in furniture, mixed functions, and lots of light.
Special care went into the amenities room, which is mostly used as the teachers lounge. This room receives extra sunlight through its ceiling, and is provided with lots of green, as well as place to accommodate teachers' private belongings, making it a place to retreat and have a moment for themselves.
As the primary users of the spaces in and around the school, the kids were to have a large say in the development of the school renovations. This was not merely an important point, it became an integral part of the design.
Giving the students direct control over their surroundings, the ability to make changes, and in many ways even redevelop the site in their market gardens, a process was set in motion to gradually improve the schools, even if it had to be through trial and error. The redevelopment of the schools thus becomes a learning opportunity in itself.
From the start the kids were given a voice, and once the first concepts were designed, every presentation was visited by a group of children, which could ask their - often unexpected - questions and give recommendations of their own.
In this way, we can say we learned at least as much from the kids as they did from us, shedding light on aspects we never even attended to, and coming up with ideas we didn't dare dream of. Their unbridled enthusiasm for our work was one of the greatest rewards we have ever received.
2011 - 2013
Calgary, Alberta, CA
Partner in charge
Sanne Plomp Lawrence Verlaan Susan Marinucci
Capt'n Crow Landscaping Ltd.