How a School Used Smart Building to Increase Female Enrolment

How a School Used Smart Building to Increase Female Enrolment
Walkways frame the learning cube, which sits in the middle of a high-visibility work atrium.

When Fleming College sought to boost the number of women involved in the trades, it turned to architecture for a solution.

When it comes to fields like welding, carpentry and electrical work, women are a rarity. In Canada, as recently as last year, fewer than five per cent of students in these fields were female: a far cry from gender parity.

In an attempt to address the issue, Fleming College opened the Kawartha Trades and Technology Centre in Peterborough, Ontario, in 2014. Their mission was straightforward: increase the number of women and other under-represented groups in the trades. Their approach? Architecture.

“If the goal of a building is to encourage the engagement of marginalized groups, you begin with good design” says Safdar Abidi, principal at the Toronto office of Perkins+Will, the firm behind the build. For Abidi, it comes down to perceptions. Trade schools, with their dark, closed-off workshops, are often set up in ways that isolate people, cutting them off from a broader learning community.

Fleming College's Kawartha Trades and Technology Centre

The Kawartha Trades and Technology Centre is located in a prominent position on campus, rendering it visible to students in other disciplines.

As a response, the firm designed the 8,090-square-metre facility to converge on a glass- and light-filled atrium with a “learning cube” at the centre. Lined with walkways and visible from adjoining corridors, the open, multi-floor cube allows students to showcase their work and passersby to observe, understand and enjoy. “It creates the perception not only of inclusivity, but a safe, supportive environment,” notes Duff Balmer, the design lead.

Three years in and the mission is showing signs of success. When the building opened, women made up about two per cent of Fleming’s trades programs. That figure is now 12 per cent: still nowhere near equal, but significantly higher than the national average. And though it’s impossible to know how much of the increase is due to the building, Maxine Mann, dean of the trade school at Fleming, credits much of it to the improved design.

“Anecdotally, it’s been quite successful,” she says. “The building has a psychological safety. By capturing that, we were able to capture those non-traditional students.”  

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