An education in school design

by Gavin Gibbon, Construction Week Online.com  http://www.constructionweekonline.com/

on 7 March 2015

Football pitches and swimming pools on roofs, with climbing walls in reception areas – the modern-day design concept of schools is very much different to the buildings in which I was educated.

As more and more open spaces throughout the Middle East are swallowed up by grandiose developments, architects are being pushed to the very limit to meet the demand for school places, while abiding by regulations and satisfying the needs of clients.

Jason Burnside, a partner at Godwin Austen Johnson (GAJ) architects, explains: “It’s not always that you’re going to get a nice, big rectangular site, which is flat, and you can make lots of playing fields and have a very efficient school at the end of it.

“As designers you always want a challenge. You want a reason for your buildings to bond to the site. “We’re always looking for that unique element to a design.”

In education terms, architects GAJ may be relative new kids on the block in the Middle East, but they are graduating quickly into one of the top companies for new school projects.

It was only four years ago that the practice drew a particular focus towards the design of new schools. But it has come a long way since. Its initial projects were the American Academy in Qatar – built to the south of Doha in the Al Wakrah area and handed over last year, and a neighbouring Indian curriculum school that is due for handover at the start of its academic year in April.

Those have been joined, among others, by Bradenton Academy, Cranleigh School Abu Dhabi, Waqeer School and several other developments for leading provider GEMS Education.

Burnside said: “Our office in the UK has been dealing with education since the 1980s and prior to that, Brian Johnson (founder and managing partner) came out in the early 1970s and he was one of the guys who was involved with Dubai College.

“We have had, in the region, from the late 1970s all the way through to now, an involvement with education, but more considerably in the last four years.”

It is Burnside’s job to lead this department. And as a father of two young children, he admitted he has some extra help in deciding what kids these days look for in their schools.

He explained: “I think being able to look at a school design on a piece of paper and imagine how you drive there, how your kids get out of the car and into the school is probably the easy bit. After that, it’s more difficult. You’re looking at how they go to the swimming pool, how do they go to other places. You can imagine what they do because they tell you every night – ‘Dad, I did this today’ or ‘Dad, I did that’.

“One of the schools we developed recently was a combination of working on a number of ideas that I’d fed into the team from ideas my kids had, from looking at some studies in the US, but also [from the fact that] the other architect was a parent.

Where we didn’t have enough space for a 400m sprint track, we created a running track that went all the way around the school and came up onto the first floor and went back down.

It was an integral part of how the school functioned because then it would double up the circulation, but for the PE department it gave them the ability to have a kilometre-long running track that they wouldn’t have had if they just created a 400m oval, because of the space that we needed.”

Part of that pressure comes with an increasing trend to build community schools in the heart of new real estate projects.

Burnside said: “They’re (schools) not difficult in a technicality sense, but where they are difficult is when you’ve got a huge amount of demands on the periphery of the site – playing fields, bus drop-offs which needs to be segregated from parent drop-offs, which needs to be separated from staff drop-off.

“You’ve got pedestrian access for kids at different age groups. So you have a kindergarten which feeds into Key Stage 1 to Key Stage 2 and 3 and 4. So you’re going from three-years-old up to 18-years-old; different users, different physical attributes, but also requirements.”

A pattern of designing a school in the Middle East is that it will be constructed over many phases.

In terms of private schools, investors must ensure they can see a return on their outlay, and so building a school for 2,500 kids would be no use if it is only half-filled. That phasing can also be of huge benefit in meeting tough construction timescales.

“When we’re asked to design schools, we’re often asked how we can phase it in. How we can get the primary school and then maybe only build two of the three parts of the primary school, so we can build the third when we hit a certain point. That has its challenges later on in terms of how you have an active school and a live construction site sitting next to each other,” explained Burnside.

That has been the case with GEMS International School, in Dubai, which was handed over 18 months ago and where the project team is now looking to get started with phase two of the secondary block.

However, restrictions from the Knowledge and Human Development Authority in the emirate are proving an additional challenge.

Burnside said: “They (KHDA) are now looking at operators, starting with a primary school. The primary school has to be open for a set number of years, or until it reaches ‘good’ in terms of the recommendations, and then, after that, they can go ahead and build a secondary school. But that’s a double-edged sword.

“Most people, if they’re moving to a new school, want the security that there’s going to be a secondary school. They want the certainty that their kids are going to be there and they’ll progress right throughout their education. We’ve yet to see how practical that is.”