Over the years I have worked on over twenty-one school projects. And whether they were in Nova Scotia, Nunavut or British Columbia, there are components to them that are very standard. There are programming, spatial relationships and circulation issues that are consistent with the way schools work. Over the years ways o f teaching have evolved but in most cases the parameters followed during the design process are similar across the board.
Similarly, one major issue when beginning a design for a school is always space. Even with enrolment numbers dwindling in many communities across Canada, a new school is normally designed to accommodate more students either due to present over-crowding or the closure of under-utilized schools and amalgamation. This inevitably leads to site constraints.
Upon reflection, this issue of site constraint is partly due to the standard and accepted model of what a school should look like, at least in massing. Elementary schools are predominately one or two storeys and spread out over the site with wings or pods that offer ample daylight and central circulation nodes. It is, for the most part, a good model as it works.
However, as cities become more dense and land becomes scarce it is becoming harder and harder to fit the required school with its sports fields, parking and play areas onto sites that were originally slated for a smaller school.
As an Architect, I am taught to “think outside the box”, to problem solve and to challenge the accepted norms.
What if we reconsidered the way we envision the form of a K-12 school? What if we challenged the convention and started to think of the form in the way we think of the facilities used in Higher Education, or, for that matter, in the business and corporate world?
Presently New Westminster is embarking on replacing the New West Secondary School. This project is a prime example of site constraint. The present school has reached its capacity not only in student population but also in size. The site is very complex with the presence of the Massey Theatre and pre-existing graveyards. When combining this with the need for up-to-date sports fields and parking, this site is a design nightmare.
It seems like a prime opportunity to challenge the convention.
What if, instead of spreading out over the site and trying to cram all the components into a two storey building, the design adopted a form that is common in other types of institutions?
What if it went up?
As a preliminary concept idea, what if the form was an oval with the gymnasium in the middle on the ground floor with support spaces wrapping around it? What if the form consisted of a ramp that orbited around the gym with classrooms opening off of it as it climbed higher? Above the gym could be a central “courtyard” that would be the assembly / gathering space with natural light radiating down from above with the classrooms all looking down across the ramp into it. Classrooms would all have natural light on both the outside of the tower and the inside. Depending on the number of classrooms and required spaces the tower could be five to eight storeys tall. Being really innovative could mean designing the tower to be able to add on new floors at a later date if the need for more classrooms arises. Certainly, issues such as exiting, interconnected floor spaces and general code issues would be examined but these are not roadblocks to innovation.
This form would solve many issues:
- Site constraint
- Ease of circulation
- Security as the lines of sight would be consistent and clear
- Energy efficiency
- Parking could be underground
- Allow more room for outdoor space
- Meet sustainable initiatives
And most importantly, it would be innovative, forward thinking and make a dramatic statement to the vision of New Westminster and the Ministry of Education.
Tower School Concept – Billard Architecture