What should 21st Century school design and construction look like?

What should 21st Century school design and construction look like?

This article was produced in partnership with JDH Architects, one of Australia’s most creative and dynamic architecture firms.

Jayne Harrison is Founder and Principal of JDH Architects. Established in 2003 JDH has delivered an extensive portfolio of education and community projects. Jaynes unique holistic approach to engagement and in-depth understanding of pedagogical practice has established JDH Architects as leaders in sustainable educational architecture, planning and design.

Across the Australian education landscape, a number of pressing social, environmental and health issues are reshaping not just what students are learning, but where they are learning.

One only need look to the Covid-19 pandemic to see how quickly that flipped the traditional school model on its head, but slow-burn issues like climate change, population growth and mental health were transforming the teaching and learning environment years before the pandemic reached our shores.

In recent years, a growing number of innovative school design models are popping up in major cities, begging the question, ‘what will the schools of the future look like?’. Some will posit that they’re already here.

Founded in 2003, JDH Architects is a dynamic and innovative architectural design practice based in Sydney with a mission to deliver high-performance, resilient, healthy buildings in support of a sustainable future. And the firm’s extensive portfolio of education and community projects are any indication, JDH is certainly delivering on this mission.

Below, The Educator speaks to JDH Architects’ Principal and Founder, Jayne Harrison, to find out more.

TE: JDH Architects says it builds “environments that enable people to shine”. Can you elaborate on this and tell us about the research and/or thinking that underpins how the company designs and constructs schools?

Over the last 15 years our research into the impact a school environment can have on student engagement and outcomes has formed the cornerstone of JDH’s design philosophy. I have made it my mission to understand what is significant in the built school environment and to share that information with as many people as possible in order to flood the learning landscape with “environments that enable people to shine”. Pedagogy, people, and place makes up the DNA of school. Understanding this is key to delivering environments that match the vision and aspiration for learning of each in particular school. It’s not just buildings we are designing. We try to create an experience, a place where learning, relationships, and ultimately people flourish.

TE: Drawing from your work with education leaders, how has the pandemic influenced learning design and construction, and what are some important post-Covid implications for schools in this respect?

The pressure school communities have come under due to covid serves to highlight the need for contemporary design standards for school infrastructure that go beyond the traditional ‘cells and bells’ typologies and respond to a variety of pedagogies, functional and community requirements, with an increased need for flexibility, redundancy, and resilience. Beyond this, Covid has spotlighted educators’ innate talent of creativity and problem solving. Putting the two together, JDH Architects believe that the key to shaping post covid schools is engaging with the people who have a stake in making it a success. Just as every learner is different, so is every school. We must engage with those with the expertise, enthusiasm and in-depth knowledge of how a school operates to make the most of existing and new facilities.

TE: How does student health factor into the approach JDH Architects is taking to learning environment design and construction?

With an estimated three children in every classroom have a diagnosable health problem, rising to one in four when we include emotional distress this is high on the list of priorities for most schools. As a parent with first-hand experience of this I’ve spent a lot of time researching how school design can support student (and teacher) health and wellbeing. What I have learnt is that mental and physical health in a child is symbiotic, for example children with asthma are at greater risk of experiencing adverse mental health and behavioural impacts (AIHW, 2020; McQuaid, Kopel & Nassau, 2001) and diminished health-related quality of life (HRQoL) than their healthy peers. This has led us JDH putting a high priority on creating environments that support both physical and mental health.

TE: Air quality is also an increasingly important consideration for schools. Can you tell us how JDH Architects are?

We believe school spaces must be designed to perform to the highest standards environmentally. This means providing filtered fresh air, temperature control and acoustic attenuation. It sounds simple, but this is often misunderstood. For example, many schools rely on split system air-conditioning for environmental performance, a system which in fact, provides zero fresh air. This results in classrooms with high levels of carbon dioxide and air the borne toxins that are detriment to good health. With pollution on the rise opening windows can often exasperate the problem with so called “fresh air” containing the dust and pollutants that lead to asthma and bronchiolitis.

TE: What do you see as the most significant ways in which sustainability is shaping school design and construction?

For us good design and sustainability are synonymous. We help clients understand that health, happiness, and productivity can all be improved by shaping sustainable schools. This requires an integrated design approach which extends throughout the planning, design, construction, commissioning, and transition into the operation of a new school or building modernisation. This process encourages schools to select a design team based on previous results, such as savings achieved in build cost and emissions, reduced building waste or ability to incorporate naturalness in the built environments. 

TE: What is the process once a school establishes this design team?

Once the team is established, the desired level of environmental performance is set by the school as part of the design brief. Having the school front and centre of the design process is pivotal to successfully delivering high performance sustainable environment as they provide valuable insight into how and when buildings are used, eliminating the one shoe fits all approach that leads to over design, complexity and cost. It is also important to recognise that the environment rates in the top three concerns of students. Bringing students into the conversation not only says we care, but also encourages them to care about the environments we create.

TE: Can you provide an example of this?

An example of this is the design of sport and learning facility JDH recently designed on a school site in Sydney’s North. Using Passive House design principles, the building only supports the wellbeing health, happiness, and productivity of students and teachers it has the added bonus of reducing ongoing running cost and emissions by a whopping 40%.