Places of learning are by nature interactive, typically involving densely packed classrooms, crowded hallways and communal areas for eating, exercise and assembly. So how do schools adapt to a threat that discourages such activity? “To promote a higher level of health safety, socializing will have to change,” says Paul Sapounzi, managing partner at +VG Architects, a 60-person Canadian firm with a specialty in designing educational facilities.
According to Sapounzi, “schools will become more fluid places so that students have choices for learning outside as well as inside the classroom. They need to be able to learn in different parts of the building. The entire school becomes the classroom.”
Practically speaking, such a template already exists: +VG’s St. Mary’s College, a consolidated high school opened in 2016 in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario. A defining feature of the building, for which the firm designed the floor plan and interiors, is a 12-metre-high, multi-functional atrium that effectively dissolves the boundaries “between what have traditionally been discrete, disconnected spaces,” says Sapounzi.
As envisioned by the architect, this so-called learning commons, which is flooded with natural light and has become a “magnet” for St. Mary’s students, serves as library, cafeteria, assembly hall and more. Its functions are delineated by carpet tile and seating groups, which can be altered at will. The commons also provides direct, open access to other key areas (such as the gym and auditorium) and includes quiet zones.
“When St. Mary’s was on the drawing board,” Sapounzi says, “the goal was to future-proof the school by designing built-in flexibility to accommodate a wide range of teaching scenarios.” COVID-19, of course, wasn’t among them, but +VG’s design nonetheless gives St. Mary’s the versatility to tackle it. Another high school by +VG, slated to break ground this summer in the city of Windsor, Ontario, will be even more explicitly COVID-proof. The plan will feature four additional “touchdown zones” to enhance the dispersal of students; corners of the learning commons will be used for small, spread-out gatherings.
How can schools welcome students and teachers back? Through the inclusion of learning commons adaptable to all curricula.