Education design, Godwin Austen Johnson, Khalifa university, Pallavi Dean Interiors, RSP, U+A Architects

Round table: Designing the schools of tomorrow

Serving a range of functions, designing educational facilities in the region is a complex process. Interior designers have to think strategically how to create multi-purpose and safe environments that fit with school brand standards, curriculum and teaching methods while also designing on the demanding schedules and tight budgets.

Last month, Commercial Interior Design hosted the roundtable, featuring the region’s leading architects and interior designers, Pallavi Dean of Pallavi Dean Interiors, Eileen Jaffary of U+A, Ralf Steinhauer from RSP, Jason Burnside from GAJ to discuss the latest developments in education design.

From L-R. Pallavi Dean of Pallavi Dean Interiors, Eileen Jaffary of U+A, Ralf Steinhauer from RSP, and Jason Burnside from GAJ.

The discussion opened by asking the question: How will further integration of technology in the classrooms and other curriculum innovations transform the way we think about education design over the next five years and how do you envision the schools of tomorrow?

“What we will see in the future is a blend of educational spaces with a lot of other offerings,” says Steinhauer. “When we designed the Khalifa University, for example, we had an opportunity to create ‘a home away from home’ for students to spend a whole day there, giving them a variety of spaces to socialise, meet other people, and learn other things besides what’s offered in the curriculum. Another thing is adaptability and flexibility of spaces that can be reused over a period of time or even on a daily basis.”

Khalifa University. Photo by Grace Guino /ITP Images

Steinhauer anticipates that the schools will become more sustainability-driven in the future with a stronger emphasis on materials and water and energy consumption. Dean agrees and adds that there will be a major focus on wellness and mindful practice.

“I think that the schools of the future will be more about learning by diffusion and combining different year groups in the same space; the focus will be on creating a complete and well-balanced children who are not just good in academics or sports but are also emotionally-intelligent and we will be tasked to create spaces that can support that.”

Swiss International Scientific School designed by U+A Architects.

Schools are no longer confined by four walls, according to Jaffary.

“The general understanding about the learning happening just within the four walls will change into much more flexible, open and informal teaching. The emphasis will shift from students simply memorising the facts and the exact words to understanding the point. Social media already has a huge influence on this matter and will further define the ways we design these spaces and on the overall look and feel of schools.”

Creating stimulating environments for students learning for the professions that haven’t been even created yet will further influence the design process. As Burnside explains students will not go to school “to be bored, but to discover”.

“Teaching is changing but it also changes the way the spaces are used. A lot of them are now teaching children for the jobs that are not even invented. We will definitely see more of collaborative spaces that are more about the ideas that haven’t yet been established,” he says.

Dubai College, design by GAJ.

Flexible & safe

Burnside continues by saying that the schools area already promoting a greater deal of collaboration and more brainstorming among the students.

“It is similar to the way we work as professionals nowadays; resolving things through dialogue and interaction,” he adds.

Pallavi Dean Interiors (PDI) has just completed interiors of the new Sharjah English School (SES), collaborating with GAJ, which has been working on architecture. Earlier this year, PDI handed over Sheeraa Entrepreneurship Centre at the American University of Sharjah.

Sheeraa Entrepreneurship Centre by Pallavi Dean Interiors.

“When you look at education design nowadays, people are stirring away from the over-the-top environments,” says Dean. “We are looking at Japanese or Scandinavian environments where everything is kept minimal, using refine palette and natural materials. The colour is mainly used for branding and wayfinding, which is what we’ve done in Sharjah English School.”For the corridors at the SES, the design team led by Christina Morgan, partner and education design specialist at PDI, created a lot of custom joinery and in-built furniture within the walls, along with moveable furniture, creating flexible spaces that encourage student interaction.

For the corridors at the SES, the design team led by Christina Morgan, partner and education design specialist at PDI, created a lot of custom joinery and in-built furniture within the walls, along with moveable furniture, creating flexible spaces that encourage student interaction.

Sharjah English School by Pallavi Dean Interiors.

U+A Architects are now completing both architecture and interiors for the new secondary Swiss International Scientific School, following strict rules to achieve Minergie label, which is a stringent Swiss certificate for sustainable standards.

“Building to Minergie standards meant providing high-grade, air-tight building envelopes and the continuous renewal of air in the building using an energy-efficient ventilation system. Swiss School is an eco-friendly campus, consuming one-third of the energy of standard buildings in Dubai,” she says.

The team, led by Jaffary, was also tasked to define and incorporate brand identity and colours, creating a strong relationship between the design and Switzerland. “Relationship between the students and their safety were another major concerns. The central atrium is designed for multiple functionality and flexibility. Free circulation has been considered in the layout with the balustrade designed prioritising the safety of the middle and high school students,” says Jaffary.

Looking at early ages, Dean adds that safety concerns are sometimes restricting children’s school playtime.

“As designers and them as educators, we need to create a space where children can take a safe risk,” Dean comments. “If we create a ‘bubble wrap’ environment, we will never encourage them to climb a spider web or engage in play where they mature emotionally or learn cognitively. Even when kids fall, they still learn. A safe risk is essential at those early stages.”

Learning through play and social interaction happens regardless of age, says Burnside, adding that flexibility must be a key design requirement within school builds. Implementing Harkness learning method, which allows students to discuss ideas in an encouraging environment, Burnside and his team at GAJ developed a Harkness-inspired round table set-up for the Dubai College.

Dubai College administration building, designed by GAJ.

Peer pressure and bullying that occurs both in schools and on social media, is another factor to consider. But, how can design prevent it?

“The key thing is high visibility,” Dean states. “You can have amazing CCTV cameras but they can only do so much. Bullying is a universal problem across the globe. For us, it was never having a corridor space, which didn’t have glazed access.  The stairwell is another zone where bullying frequently happens and this where architecture comes to play. Everybody is aware of it and we work closely with school operators to understand what their key concerns are.”

The panel also discussed the ways on how design can prevent vandalism by encouraging teachers to further encourage students to personalise their space, making it their own and respect it.

Bridging the gap

Whether it is a public or a private school, curriculum largely affects the design so it is essential for designers, before they hit pen and paper, to understand the pedagogy and how the operators teach.

Khalifa University designed by RSP.

During the design concept stage for the Khalifa University extension, RSP team organised several workshops with different departments and staff to understand their requirements.

“These workshops might have been time-consuming, but at the end, we were very grateful that we had these sessions. It turned out that the staff requirements were very different to what the school actually thought they needed; at the beginning, we had a very different layout to what we ended up at the end,” explains Steinhauer.

Before developing a concept, even though the clients don’t ask, the design team at PDI usually sets up its own focus group.

“We sit with a select group of teachers who are handpicked by the headmaster and we do a focus group with students. It is a very good way to gain insight. We’ve been designing schools for a long time but that doesn’t mean that we know everything,” she says. “We are currently working on a confidential nursery project and we partnered with TeamLab, a Japanese supplier of digital furniture. Everything they offer is an interactive sensory experience, so if the child goes down the slide, the fireworks start coming up, so the kids know that their actions are activating something else.”

The panel agreed that the students and schools themselves are also driving these changes and pushing the boundaries of design and innovation.

From implementing the “flipped classroom” or BYOD (bring-your-own-device) (BYOD) methods, smart devices are now widely used to support learning or study.

“It is not the future, it is happening,” concludes Burnside.