Learning lessons in design for education

Gail Taylor
Monday 16 Feb 2015

From British Columbia to Angola, Stantec and Perkins+Will discuss the topic with WAN

The answer to the question ‘what makes a positive learning environment where students and teachers thrive?’ will vary considerably depending on whereabouts on the planet you’re standing.

In Denmark, for example, there’s a big move toward more play and learning assisted environments. Sweden continues to do battle with that age-old Scandinavian chestnut – lack of daylight – with one secondary school in the north of the country trying out ‘full-spectrum’ electric light to see if it will help raise students’ energy and attention levels in the dark of winter.

Switch to less developed countries, particularly those in the tropics, and the priority is inclusivity. And if you can get the students into school to begin with, it goes without saying that incorporating good ventilation in hot, humid classrooms is a must.

However, as the way we communicate and share information has morphed out of all recognition over the past decade or two, and the world seems a smaller place for it, we wondered if the world’s classrooms in general were reflecting this too? We spoke to global operators, Stantec Architecture and Perkins+Will (Chicago Office) – both previously shortlisted in the World Architecture News 2013 Education category – to find out their views.

They also tell us about the education projects that so impressed us back then – one in Canada and the other in Angola (which was still in a state of civil war when work started) – and what the forward trends are in those two very contrasting nations.

Firstly to Ralph Johnson, Perkins+Will’s Global Design Director based in its Chicago office, who opens: “It is essential to understand and remember that education is a fluid, changing process. In 21st Century learning, collaboration is key, with our learning environments promoting teamwork, compromise, and communication: skills valued in today’s society and workplace.

“To create and foster a positive learning environment, there needs to be a balance between the types of spaces used for learning and teaching, and an understanding that their long-term role or roles will inevitably change over time. How these spaces are utilized, and how they factor into the educational project or curriculum, needs to be understood, and questioning their role in future will help create more flexible environments.”

Stantec’s Education Sector Lead - British Columbia, Ray Wolfe, echoes this stress on adaptability: “We are seeing so many more 21st Century learning environments where a larger portion of the collaboration and learning takes place in non-classroom spaces. Smaller to medium-sized student spaces are fully equipped with state-of-the-art technology, providing a more flexible environment for educators.”

Ray also feels some things are, quite simply, essential: “The basics matter too: daylight, great indoor air quality and visual transparency are necessary for great learning environments.”

When asked what some of the biggest mistakes in design for education have been, Ray speaks specifically about Canada: “Designing buildings for dedicated faculties or programs is still the norm in most Canadian post-secondary facilities. As such, one of the most common mistakes is designing purely purpose-built spaces. This solution does not allow the flexibility that such an institution requires in order to be adaptable over the long-term.”

Again, Ralph’s views concur: “One of the biggest mistakes lies in not understanding or appreciating that education is a constantly changing, evolving process. The learning environments we design for must recognize this and depart from the more static and rigid models of the past.”

 Ambitions in Angola

Perkins+Will’s shortlisted Angolan project, the first phase of the Universidade Agostinho Neto in Luanda, presented just such a challenge. International Practice Director, Bill Doerge recounts: “In the past, the separate physical locations of [the University’s] faculties created educational silos, duplication of educational programs, and fostered a sense of separatism. By combining the faculties and institutes of higher education into a single university, it is sending a cohesive, unified message to the country, including its faculty and administrators.

“The University is also exploring concepts like core and shared curriculum, and investigating ways to create a cross-faculty, synergistic approach to education. Physically, the campus is an iconic home that gives the University a tangible identity. Academically, spaces are being created that will allow the university to offer its students the environment for a world-class education.”

Reflecting Angola’s evolving economic and social structure, new faculties are being created to meet the country’s emerging needs. For example, a Faculty of Petroleum will soon be established at the University to respond to Angola’s position in the world oil market. Says Bill: “By some estimates, it currently has the second or third largest oil reserves in Africa.”

In terms of the future, he explains that there is a recognition that education is a crucial part of Angola’s social infrastructure, and that it needs a great deal of attention.  While the enthusiasm is very much there in some quarters, Bill cautions: “It requires a long-term commitment by the country. Current global economic trends – such as the price of oil – are putting pressure on Angola’s national budget, which in turn could impact the amount of resources committed to maintaining the momentum we have seen to date. It is the classic conflict between the will and the way.”

 Canada’s need for change

The need to adapt and move forward is not restricted to the developing world. Ray says of Canada’s higher education scenario: “So many assets on Canadian campuses need an overhaul. Many were built in the early-to-mid 1900s, and the infrastructure is at end-of-life and in need of major upgrades.”

However, Stantec was fortunate with its shortlisted project, University of the Fraser Valley, Canada Education Park Phase II, in British Columbia. “We were lucky to be designing a new campus from scratch – with the exception of the first phase which was an adaptive re-use – which is really an anomaly in our education sector at this point in time. Most campuses need an asset management plan in place for infrastructure, as well as a modern funding model.”

Staying with Canada, this is where Ray sees trends in design for education heading: “Buildings and campuses will continue to achieve higher levels of sustainability, with the larger campuses that have more density and building assets continuing to lead the way.”

Why the larger campuses? “Considering a campus as a small town or city, it has great potential to be part of a larger district energy solution, both for itself and its neighbours. Often what trumps a renewable energy solution is scale. We, as designers, are bound by the confines of the campus. The solution is greater synergy between campuses and their communities, making larger district energy solutions more practical.

“We will also continue to see the increased use of natural daylighting, better acoustics, and flexible and adaptable building systems in the next generation of academic buildings.”

 Other recent projects

Since being shortlisted, Perkins+Will has been working on Case Western University Tinkham Veale University Center in Cleveland, Ohio (USA), and William Jones College Prep High School in Chicago. The first aims to ‘raze the physical boundaries existing between its two historic campuses’. The new Center does this by creating ‘confluence through interconnected pathways and courtyards, a porch spilling out into the nearby park….and impromptu meeting points, social spaces, engagement offices, and food and beverage outlets’.

In Chicago, the replacement high school features ‘widened stairways, abundant natural light, and terrace views’ while the structure’s unique stacking plan vertically disperses programs and ‘expands the possibilities for urban educational design’.


Back in British Columbia, Stantec’s Education Team has recently completed the Djavad Mowafaghian Centre for Brain Health at the University of British Columbia. The building has ‘extensive daylighting, flexible research floors, and visual interconnectivity between the three distinct user-groups it houses. Ray concludes: “We view this building as the first generation of truly multi-disciplinary academic spaces in Western Canada.”

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