Location Regina, Saskatchewan
Size 60,000 ft2
Program Elementary school for 400 students in three multiage learning communities
Client Regina Public Schools
Architect/Interior Architect Number TEN Architectural Group
Executive Architect Fielding Nair International
Engineering & Construction Westridge Construction
A new kind of learning is happening in Regina, the capital of Saskatchewan in Canada. The public school district is dramatically changing the educational landscape by separating children at Douglas Park Elementary School, which serves students who are normally in pre-K through eighth grade, into three-year age groups. In other words, children of different ages are clustered together in what the district calls Learning Communities (LCs). “To tailor students’ instruction, teachers need to be able to group and regroup students in accordance with their abilities and interests, not just their chronological age,” says Julie MacRae, director of education for Regina Public Schools (RPS). It’s an interesting new take on education, and with a different type of teaching, a school needs a different type of building.
For more than half a century, North American schools have been designed around the concept of students attending class in homogenous 32-foot by 32-foot spaces connected by long, windowless corridors. At chosen times throughout the day, bells ring and young students move on demand through the hallways to a different yet identical classroom to continue their education. Little thought has been given to the design of the classrooms besides their function or how they affect the learning process.
With every passing year, this cells-and-bells approach to school design is proving to be inadequate to the educational needs of our children. Dropout rates continue to climb, and employers report students are woefully unprepared to enter the workforce.
Faced with these facts as well as a need to modernize, RPS opted to radically rethink the way it approaches education. With the opening of Douglas Park last fall, the district is attempting to deliver an educational facility that will support rather than hinder today’s young learners. “There is no precedent for Douglas Park School in Canada,” says Greg Hasiuk of Number TEN Architectural Group, the partner in charge of the building design. “Due to the unique and forward-looking nature of the program, the project team often could not rely on traditional school-design rules of thumb.”
MacRae says that the students came first when they set out to design the elementary school. “Our departure from traditional school design had its roots in our desire to do our best to accommodate the learning needs of our students,” she says. With this in mind, RPS engaged Fielding Nair International, an architecture firm with a global reputation for innovative school design, to conduct a series of workshops with students, teachers, community members, and educational leaders about the future of education and the potential for sustainable, community-connected learning. “All stakeholders were inspired and energized,” says Randy Fielding, principal in charge at Fielding Nair.
Community feedback complemented RPS’s vision. There was a desire for flexible teaching arrangements and instructional grouping. Teachers sought improved collaboration amongst peers. And it was decided that the model for learning would be interdisciplinary, project-based, and inquiry-based, and inclusive practices would be featured in safe and secure learning communities. The school needed to be a stimulating and technology-rich environment as it integrated environmental design and curriculum.
Fielding Nair sees tremendous educational value in discarding older methods of teaching and moving to more real-world approaches to learning. “Problem-based, inquiry-based, and project-based learning engages students more fully, and the results are stunning,” Fielding says. “The Douglas Park design was developed specifically to accommodate these varied and hands-on learning modalities.”
As the plan took shape, Number TEN created 3-D modeling and walk-throughs of the fledging design. “The majority of the innovative design features were entirely new ideas that needed to be reviewed, analyzed, and thought about many times over before the best solution was determined,” Hasiuk says. Each LC has instructional spaces, which are called “studios” instead of “classrooms,” and its own open learning commons, washrooms, a kitchen, a professional teacher-collaboration space, and smaller breakout rooms. Some of the studios even have garage-style doors that can be opened and closed to permit greater instructional flexibility.
Douglas Park’s central design feature is a stunning, two-story, atrium-like space at the center of the school. Each LC connects to this central all-school commons, which functions as a multipurpose space, equally suited for community events, formal presentations, and general gathering. Regina is one of Canada’s sunniest cities, so the use of natural light was an obvious choice for the commons, which is U-shaped and has a southern orientation that permits wintertime sun to penetrate into the adjacent interior spaces.
Certification LEED Gold (expected)
Energy Daylight harvesting southern orientation, heat recovery system, radiant in-floor heating, efficient building envelope systems
Landscaping Set as a school inside a park, newly planted trees
Materials Cut away portions of wall and floor show how insulation works
“In winter, Regina can be bitterly cold [minus 40 degrees Fahrenheit] but is blessed with an abundance of winter sunlight,” Fielding says. “The school is oriented around a south-facing gathering space—the heart of the school—that drinks in the light.” Such daylight harvesting is an essential feature throughout the school; to bring in as much natural light as possible, the school has tall windows and roof monitors (raised roof sections with side windows to let natural light into the middle of the school). Throughout the day, light sensors detect if there is enough daylight in the room and automatically turn off portions of the artificial fluorescent lighting while interior light shelves, colored glass, and semi-translucent glass reduce glare.
In addition to maximizing natural daylight, the building design incorporates a heat-recovery system, radiant floor heating, and an efficient building envelope, and a ‘solar wall’ is used to preheat incoming cold winter air through perforations in a passively solar-heated metal skin.
Using a school building as a teaching tool isn’t a new idea, but Douglas Park’s design team took an innovative approach. It peeled back a portion of the wall and floor to let students see how the insulation works. Fielding says its like a three-dimensional textbook for the students. Similarly, a portion of the floor is covered with see-through flooring, and a window in the school’s elevator shaft helps educate students about the structure and inner workings of the building. “We encourage every opportunity for learning,” MacRae says.
The school sits adjacent to one of the city’s most picturesque natural settings, Douglas Park, the inspiration for not just the school’s name but also its design. “The community asked the architects to bring the ‘park’ back to Douglas Park, and they did a brilliant job,” says Dixie Nelson, principal of Douglas Park Elementary School. The central commons, with its southern exposure and broad glass walls, opens out onto a stylized grove of newly planted trees. Hasiuk likens the exterior design to being at a forest’s edge. “The exterior windows have a variety of widths and heights that dance along the façade like a stand of trees in a forest,” he says. “Exterior columns, canopies, and trellises made of glulam wood and timbers provide protected outdoor spaces for learning and a connection to natural elements.”
“Sustainability has always been an important concept for the Regina Board of Education in fiscal matters and in educational and environmental ones,” MacRae says. “The board is acutely aware of its responsibility to model the kinds of decisions and practices that it expects of students and employees.” The district has also retrofitted some existing schools with the innovative designs to complement the new learning philosophy, and it opened a second innovative school, Arcola Community School, in November 2012, and construction is already underway for a third, Seven Stones Community School.
As the original, Douglas Park offers an alternative to the traditional school design by connecting students with nature, using sustainable design practices, and, most importantly, teaching the students differently. Thankfully for the students of Douglas Park, their school division, school administration, and the community wanted something different. The design had to be innovative, just like the learning that would happen inside.