An aerial view of Hazelwood School. (Photo: Andrew Lee and Keith Hunter)

From Floating Buildings to ‘Trail Rails,’ These Schools Are Designed With Learning in Mind

These structures address unique educational needs of students around the world.
Oct 31, 2016· 5 MIN READ
Sean Eckhardt is TakePart's editorial fellow.

Design and Innovation

BIG ISSUE vol. 8

TakePart's "Design and Innovation" series highlights the people and cutting edge technology working to solve the world's most pressing problems.

While children are encouraged to be individuals and let their talents set them apart, their schools are not. Generally, they’re big boxes with hallways, classrooms, administrators’ offices, and maybe a cafeteria and a basketball court. Each student has different needs, and educators and architects around the world have expanded the vision of school architecture to reflect those needs.

Educators now understand that the environment where a child spends upwards of six hours a day is an important component of learning. A 2015 study, titled Clever Classrooms, found that the physical characteristics of classrooms account for as much as 16 percent of what matters to student achievement. In other words, students need the right classrooms to thrive.

“The classroom design should, whenever possible, feel like their space, like they have some ownership to it,” said Peter Barrett, a professor of management in property and construction at the University of Salford at Manchester and lead researcher on the study. “Learning zones—like reading areas, play areas, an area where students can sit and discuss—are effective. A whole set of different learning opportunities for young children to learn in a flexible way...allow for a whole variety of learning styles.”

These schools are pushing the boundaries of design and finding ways to serve unique needs while they do it.

An aerial view of The Kathleen Grimm School for Leadership and Sustainability in New York City. (Photo: Stark Video Inc./Aerial New York ©SOM)

Students generating energy on bikes in a classroom at The Kathleen Grimm School for Leadership and Sustainability. (Photo: Courtesy SOM/©James Ewing | OTTO)

The Importance of Conservation

P.S. 62, or The Kathleen Grimm School for Leadership and Sustainability, generates as much energy as it uses through the solar panels on the roof. For peak efficiency, the buildings also use half the energy of the average New York City school. Being green is at the core of the school’s curriculum, and interactive display monitors, an on-campus greenhouse, and a vegetable garden where students learn to grow their own food help educators teach the “sustainability leaders” of the future the importance of conservation.

An aerial view of the Green School in Bali, Indonesia. (Photo: Courtesy Green School Bali)

Interior view of a classroom at the Green School. (Photo: Courtesy Green School Bali)

Green School

The Green School is located in the jungle on the island of Bali, Indonesia, and part of its curriculum is guiding students in developing a strong bond with nature and living sustainably. The buildings, made of local bamboo, lack walls and blend in with the surroundings, emphasizing the school’s mission of understanding the human impact on the environment. The school features a compost station, solar panels, and a filtration system for recycling and reusing water consumed on-site.

An aerial view of Hazelwood School. (Photo: Andrew Lee and Keith Hunter)

A student at Hazelwood School using the school’s cork-clad “trail-rail” wall, which helps those with visual impairments navigate the hallways. (Photo: Andrew Lee and Keith Hunter)

Rounded Corners and ‘Trail Rails’

In the case of some students, taking school design into consideration is vital for both their education and their well-being. Everything at Hazelwood School outside Glasgow, Scotland, is designed for autistic students, ages two to 19, who have visual, hearing, cognitive, and mobility impairments. Some of the students may never be able to live completely independent lives, but traveling the rounded halls of their campus offers safety.

“My aim was to create a bespoke building that designed out long dark corridors and maximized levels of natural light and incorporated visual, sound, and tactile clues,” Hazelwood architect Alan Dunlop wrote in an email to TakePart. “Ease of navigation and orientation through the building was critical for the pupils.”

Students exiting their floating school in Bangladesh after class. (Photo: Jonas Gratzer/Getty Images)

Students being taught inside the floating school. (Photo: Jonas Gratzer/Getty Images)

Floating Schools

Rural areas in Bangladesh and elsewhere are increasingly vulnerable to climate change–related disasters, especially for those living near waterways, where flash floods are displacing entire villages. Using local materials, nonprofit Shidhulai Swanirvar Sangstha built a simple, durable boat that could protect electrical equipment while withstanding monsoons. The school can accommodate up to 30 students and one teacher at a time.

An exterior view of Ørestad Gymnasium in Copenhagen. (Photo: Mariano Mantel/Flickr)

Inside Ørestad Gymnasium. (Photo: Wojtek Gurak/Flickr)

Open Layout

Ørestad Gymnasium, a high school in Copenhagen that focuses on media, communications, and culture, has eliminated classrooms, opting instead for an open layout with four learning zones that emphasize group-based learning environments. The school takes a digital approach, doing away with blackboards and paper in favor of preplanned lessons on computers. Teachers circulate throughout the zones, where students work collaboratively to help one another. The school was designed to maximize socializing with peers, with students passing each other in between classes on the one main staircase or in the study lounge areas.

Kids outside the first Moving School, which was placed on the Thai-Myanmar border. (Photo: Courtesy Building Trust International)

Interior of the first Moving School. (Photo: Courtesy Building Trust International)

Moving Schools

Moving Schools were developed for migrant and refugee populations that lack the stability of permanent schools because of violence and displacement caused by natural disasters and other problems. The modular structures can be relocated, so kids can have a safe space to continue their education despite the turmoil in their communities. The first school, shown left and above, was placed on the Thai-Myanmar border, where people are often displaced by flash floods and land disputes.

Exterior of Samueli Academy in Santa Ana, California. (Photo: Courtesy Orangewood Foundation)

Students in one of Samueli Academy’s common areas. (Photo: Courtesy Orangewood Foundation)

A Place to Belong

By the time an average foster child starts high school, he or she has had as many as 10 placements and attended 15 schools, according to Orangewood Children’s Foundation, which founded Samueli Academy in Santa Ana, California, with these students in mind. The school aims to provide “a place to belong” for kids who often lack stable environments.

The school is designed to promote a project-based learning environment, where individuals and small groups can get attention from their instructors. Technology is integrated into the curriculum and into the building, which features smart boards that interact with laptops provided to students. Collaboration is encouraged via four studios, a learning commons, and a STEM lab on each floor. The school’s walls open, and the furniture in the classrooms rolls to allow flexibility for specific tasks. The school’s goal is to add housing for 80 foster children and guardians.

Exterior of Ilima Primary School in the Democratic Republic of Congo. (Photo: Courtesy African Wildlife Foundation)

Facing the classrooms outside Ilima Primary School. (Photo: Courtesy African Wildlife Foundation)

Using Whats Available

In remote regions of the world, having a stable school structure for children in villages is not a guarantee. Through the African Wildlife Foundation’s Classroom Africa Initiative, MASS Design Group and the residents of Ilima designed a school that was built using local resources. Deep in the forest of the Democratic Republic of Congo, the foundation works with communities, teaching them how to build schools in environmentally vulnerable areas if the villages agree to help sustain the nature surrounding them.

Ilima Primary School was built using local wood and clay sand brought in on foot because the roads surrounding Ilima are not large enough to transport building materials. Because of the region’s extreme heat, the walls rise only two-thirds of the way to the ceiling for ventilation. The school features a large suspended roof that provides shade and shelter during heavy rains. Catchments on the building collect rainwater, which is used for agriculture in the village.

Design and Innovation