Sep 10, 2019

Learning from the Best

by Max McCloskey, AIA

Last summer my wife and I boarded a Lufthansa 777 at Denver International Airport bound for Helsinki.  It was the beginning of a formative three-week research trip to Finland, Sweden, and Denmark to study cutting-edge schools throughout Scandinavia. The trip was made possible through the support of my firm, Humphries Poli Architects (HPA), now part of RATIO Design, and a scholarship from the Colorado chapter of the American Institute of Architects (AIA). 

The classroom we grew up in is dead.

It has been replaced with flexible spaces that honor individual learning, embrace collaboration, and foster inclusion. The question I sought to answer was how does the design of contemporary learning environments support the academic success of the student? As I researched trends in educational design Scandinavia emerged as the ideal region to focus on based on the long-standing cultural commitment to design excellence and the academic achievement of its students. Over the last ten years these Scandinavian countries have produced math, reading, science, and problem solving test scores that consistently rank within the top 25 countries in the world.

Our itinerary included visits to six schools, one University Campus, and three community centers while immersing ourselves in world class urban environments. The study of the buildings visited was concentrated into three “lenses” of focus: connection to the community, innovation in learning environments, and integration of sustainability: environmental, social, or psychological. All the buildings visited were included for their exemplary modern design. The following buildings represent standouts within each lens:

Connection to the Community: Maunula House

The first stop on the trip was Maunula House, a community learning center designed by K2S Architects located in a suburban neighborhood on the North side of Helsinki. Maunula House is physically connected to a grocery store anchoring the building to the core of the neighborhood and the daily patterns of the community. A pair of glass doors open from the library right into the produce section, makes a lot of sense! The building is comprised of a public library, adult education center, and youth center. 

In a literal sense Manaula House is a building for the community. K2S architects held a year’s worth of community charrettes to design the facility, a key to the overall success of the project. Three seats on the board of trustees are held specifically for neighborhood residents. With brick masonry street facing elevations that match the adjacent commercial buildings and a double height curtain wall that reflects the surrounding town, Manaula House truly reflects the community it serves. To turn the corner from the bus stop is breathtaking.

Natural light is a precious resource in Scandinavia. The interior of Manaula House is organized around a voluminous atrium featuring a north facing clerestory window that brings light deep into all levels of the building. The design is successful in the intent to support the wellness of the user as the facility sees its highest patronage during the winter months.  

The star of the show is undoubtedly the expansive curtain wall that visually connects the building to the neighborhood…it is a pure design statement articulated through technical precision and elegant engineering. One enters the Manaula House at the upper level. As the site drops away the architecture works with the site design to create the double height library on the lower floor looking out onto the landscape and surrounding neighborhood.

Innovation in learning environments: Saunalahti School
The second building we visited was the Saunalahti School designed by Verstas Architects in 2012, located Espoo, a 40-minute metro ride away from Helsinki. We met up with the Vice Principal, Minna to tour the building. Saunalahti School embodies much of what I traveled to study; an architecture that is designed specifically to bring education out of the traditional classroom and create innovative environments that accommodate a variety of teaching methods.
The heart of the school is the Auditorium. Centrally located, this area can function as the theater, cafeteria, or assembly space. Aligned to a large curtain wall, the room is flooded with natural light allowing for minimal use of artificial light. The administrative offices are located above the auditorium providing direct sightlines down to the space. Felt on the bottom side of tables and the perforated wood ceiling make the large volume fell acoustically intimate.
The corridor connecting the auditorium to the main entrance is a learning environment made up of small seating groups centered around a massive concrete fireplace looking out onto the playground.  The architect activated this space turning a simple hallway into one of the most unique experiences in the building. Minna identified this as her favorite area of the school.  She often sits with students in the “green chairs” to have one on one conversations, and she observes the kids utilizing the space in the same way.
This space also represents an overlap in the building between public and private use. Portions of the Saunalahti School are open to the community after hours. At the main entrance there is a public library that accesses the fireplace seating. Minna describes this as another opportunity to enhance the security of the building: by opening the doors to the residents the administration is able to get to know the public and bring them into the school’s community. As we toured residents were coming and going from the green chairs, reading magazines and working on tablets. There is no scenario I could imagine this openness being accepted in a U.S. School. 
Where traditional classrooms occur they are grouped together around a small communal space and teacher work room. This provides teachers with a variety of spaces to support all types of learners.  All classrooms have sightlines into adjacent teaching spaces. Minna tells us this feature both enhances security and allows younger students to observe the classroom behavior of their older classmates.

Sustainability: The Kolla School

The Kolla School, designed by Kjellgren Kaminsky Architecture is located in Kungsbacka a suburb outside of Gothenburg, Sweden. This was a key building for the trip based on the remarkable achievement of being the first Passive House certified school in Sweden, but I found that the culture of inclusion and respect for the individual student were just as compelling. One of the greatest moments of the trip was the discovery of student made glazed brick installations on the schools street façade letting everyone know this building is special.

The Head Master spent hours with us describing every inch of the school and explained how the design of each space was curated to the specific needs of their pedagogy.  He attributes the overall success of the project to the critical component of trust as the guiding principle of the team. The building was completed on time on schedule, and Passive House certification was achieved the summer before they opened for the first school year making it the largest Passive House school in Sweden at the time. As you enter the building the commitment to sustainability is reinforced with a digital display showing real time energy consumption data.

The lobby opens onto a double height atrium space which serves as a central-hub linking three educational wings to community spaces and connecting to the playground through large colorful windows.  The fundamental ingredients that make a memorable building interior; light, color, acoustics, texture are elegantly combined in school to demonstrate how architecture can enhance the student’s relationship to education. As we walked Mats said it best; “A well designed school will make the students feel good.  When students feel good they will perform better academically.”

Inclusion of special needs students is the design focus of the educational wings. Kolla School has a high percentage of special needs students and the educational wings are designed to integrate these students with their peers while providing the sense of security they need to be successful. A typical grouping of classrooms or “village” features large windows at varying heights, interior glazing that allows visual connections between classrooms, a group work area with built-in furniture, mobile workstations for individual instruction and an adjustable height smart board to accommodate students in wheelchairs.

Different but the Same

Designers and educators can make large impacts on the experience of students with minor interventions. In the United States today we face very different hurdles than our European colleagues in securing our schools but we are all seeking the same goal of providing the best educational environment possible for our students. Innovative design thinking and collaboration with educators will provide the revolutionary solutions necessary to benefit the next generation of great thinkers. The classroom we grew up in is dead.

For a full account of the trip and detailed analysis of all the schools visited please check out Max’s travel blog at:

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