How innovative learning environment has a positive impact on the students and teachers. Not only it inspires but also helps in building and strengthening human connections

Designing schools within a community has an immense impact on how communities grow and are represented. Their design is very important to society and its future. Paul Stevens, senior principal, Canada office and Maryam Nademi, project manager, Dubai office from ZAS Group of Companies on the importance of design in the education sector with references drawn from their projects. ZAS is one of Canada’s leading designers of architecture, interior space, and sustainable urban places. The firm has its offices in North America and CIS and is operating in the Gulf region since 2004. ZAS has designed over 400 education facilities. Paul Stevens and Maryam Nademi from ZAS take us through the critical design aspects of educational buildings

Maryam Nademi

Paul Stevens

How are we bringing the change?
Vision and mission of the leadership in the GCC (UAE and KSA) is preparing future leaders in various fields of knowledge, enriching and developing intelligence, exploring innovative methodologies and technologies and breaking the barriers between academic and business society. ZAS is currently designing a college for visually impaired which is located in Khobar, Saudi Arabia — Prince Sultan College for the Visually Impaired (PSCVI) PSCVI, like Prince Mohammad Bin Fahd University (PMU), honours the traditions and culture of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia without compromising the state-of-the-art technological advancements and contemporary teaching practices. PSCVI will provide a world-class environment for its students and fulfill its mission to prepare and qualify the visually impaired through learning and training opportunities to be self-sufficient, integrate into the community workplace and to fulfill their aspirations in life.

The approach
Educational facilities have an aggressive schedule with an immovable end date for occupancy because owners cannot miss the opening date and beginning of the education season and they have to accommodate students at school at the beginning of the year. The greatest requirement of the education facility projects is the ability to plan, design, and construct a unique building under a short and inflexible timeline. We have to be collaborative, responsive and find as many ways as possible to speed up construction without compromising design. Various trades have to work in lockstep and collaboratively to make these happen.

RIT campus in Dubai

Effective classroom designs
We all know how to build square classrooms and put tables and chairs into them and maybe even a data connection and a projector. But today’s education facilities require IT-rich rooms that aren’t used for conventional lecturing but for interactive problem solving by the students. An effective classroom is an “active learning classroom” and facilitates spontaneous interactions. Interactive environment that is not about regimented curriculum delivery but about group learning and problem-solving.

Open spaces
In a campus design, we see open/social spaces as an opportunity to create a gateway link to the entire campus. Open/social spaces could provide platforms to the education facility as an anchoring element. Classes can be located along with grade level and open up on to a multi-use courtyard that is also capable of being an outdoor classroom. Social spaces should be integrated throughout. In The Lassonde School of Engineering at York University, we have arrived at a design that put student productivity at the top of the agenda, with optimised spaces for learning, discovery and interaction. Areas such as “Design Commons” are described as “a gathering place for learning where students are encouraged to foster entrepreneurial ideas and prototype them,” and “dedicated entrepreneurial lounges/presentation rooms” where students can pitch their ideas to outside firms.

Prince Sultan College for the Visually Impaired, Saudi Arabia

Design impacts learning and teaching
Good design creates a landscape for learning, a hub for entrepreneurship, collaboration, and creativity, the facility’s design should aim to advance education and provide a platform to educate the next generation: a creative problem solver and entrepreneurial leader with a social conscience. The imaginative space design should push the boundaries for an equally imaginative approach to teaching, one that will empower and cultivate a new breed of globally aware and socially conscious students/graduates.

Common misconception
One common misconception is that the best spaces should belong to the faculty. In Bergeron Centre for Engineering Excellence, York University, we flipped the building, giving the best spaces to students. Faculty offices are located in the centre of the building and social spaces, labs, and classrooms along outside walls to maximise natural light and provide inspiring views. This approach not only keeps students focussed, alert and happy, but it also encourages professors to go outside their offices and interact with students.

Green schools
The topic of “Green schools” is increasing in importance, driven by greater public environmental awareness and rising energy and operation costs. ZAS has been commissioned to provide a green schools resource guide, a practical manual for planning and building green schools in Ontario. The development of this manual was initiated by the Ontario Association of School Boards Officials’ Effectiveness and Efficiency Committee, and funded by the Ministry of Education. The committee identified several key issues regarding “Green Schools” that were of concern to its member; Increased information sharing among Ontario School Boards on Green School best practices and benchmarks would be a positive development; Pooling resources to commission an Ontario Green School manual would be the most effective way to bring best practices and benchmark information to all boards. To address these concerns the committee commissioned ZAS Architects and Halsall Associates to complete a manual that would disseminate (in some cases, hard-won) lessons learned by Ontario and other School Boards.

The undulating façade of Bergeron Centre is comprised of a series of triangles positioned according to a precise and complex algorithm

ZAS’ note-worthy projects in the region
We have designed a British curriculum school in Abu Dhabi, an American curriculum school in Sharjah, both elementary and secondary school prototypes for the ministry of education in Saudi Arabia. We have also designed Quranic schools in KSA and two of the largest university campuses in Libya. Currently, we are designing two education facility projects in the Middle East— Prince Sultan College for the Visually Impaired (PSCVI), Saudi Arabia and RIT campus in Dubai.