Better buildings
November 23, 2020

New school thinking

What is the future of school design in a rapidly changing world?

The mass timber ceiling of the Southern Okanagan Secondary School 3 storey atrium, including massive octagonal skylight, natural hewn pillars, and glue-laminated timbers are featured in this imageSouthern Okanagan Secondary School | Photo credit: Michael Sherman Photography courtesy CEI Architecture & KMBR Architects 

For the better part of a decade, BC has been experimenting with more innovative design when it comes to schools. Today, the province is home to a growing number of schools that are shaking off convention in favour of more flexible and versatile architecture. Designs that might have once seemed ahead of their time, even quirky, are proving functional and timely in 2020—and showing what is possible here in BC and beyond.

A breath of fresh air

The school of the future is flexible, adaptable and focused on health and wellness

From improved indoor air quality and disease prevention to versatile and student-centred design, now more than ever, the architecture of schools is under scrutiny. Whether it’s early childhood to senior secondary facilities, how we build schools is rapidly evolving to meet the ever-changing needs of our fast-moving world. The school of the future is more flexible, versatile and adaptable to the wider community it serves. It supports hybrid learning models, equipping students to seamlessly access online and bricks-and-mortar resources.  It reduces its carbon footprint using renewable materials, promotes health and well-being, inspires new ways of learning and teaches students environmental values and citizenship.

Left: École Au-coeur-de-l’île | Photo credit: Derek Lepper Photography courtesy McFarland Marceau Architects

A class apart

An unconventional school design, ahead of its time

And for some BC schools, the future is already here. For the better part of a decade, innovative school designs have been cropping up across the province, characterized by an abundant use of wood, sustainable technologies and unconventional open floor plans flooded with sunlight. In some instances, they incorporate unusual features such as retractable garage doors, little to no traditional desks and minimal hallways. Such designs that once might have seemed ahead of their time—even quirky—are proving functional and timely in 2020, affording adjustable classroom configurations, fresh, natural ventilation and better indoor-outdoor connectivity.

Right: Lord Kitchener Elementary School | Photo credit: Michael Sherman courtesy IBI Group

Such is the case with the 480-student Lord Kitchener Elementary School located in Vancouver’s Point Grey neighbourhood. Completed by the IBI group in 2012, the project entailed a rehabilitation, seismic upgrade and adaptive reuse of an existing century-old wood structure along with the construction of a new building. The added facility, constructed of glulam timber post-and-beams, includes community-use facilities and does away with the traditional division between classrooms. Mechanical garage doors line one wall of each classroom, opening on to a shared common area.

The design accommodates collaborative teaching methods and gives teachers opportunities to work one-on-one in a designated quiet room with their students while their colleagues watch their classroom from the common area. The two-storey space features a grand staircase that links the two levels of learning studios. The main entrance area is spacious enough to accommodate student drop-offs, informal meetings and more formal concerts and performances. Extensive glazing draws in light while connecting students to outdoor learning areas. A community garden for the students reinforces a strong link with nature.

Left: Lord Kitchener Elementary School | Photo credit: Michael Sherman courtesy IBI Group

Timber gets top marks

Why wood is good for schools

We spend as much as 90 percent of our time inside buildings, and for children, adolescents, and young adults, much of this time is spent in school and educational environments. It is clear that the design of our schools is of critical importance to the health of future generations—an intuitive conclusion now increasingly supported by scientific evidence. In fact, the presence of visible wood is correlated with lower sympathetic nervous system activation—the body’s response to stress—and improvements in concentration and test performance. Along with health and wellness, there is a growing list of compelling reasons to use wood in the design and construction of our schools. Today’s prefabricated wood construction provides affordable, quick and high-quality results, a boon for school districts on a budget looking to reduce construction time and accommodate busy school schedules. BC schools are placing a high value on naturally sustainable materials, environmental performance, sunlit spaces, and more flexible, open layouts—features wood can help deliver. Wood also has acoustical properties that can reduce noise transference and thermal properties that can improve indoor comfort. Wood is durable, fire-safe, energy-efficient and resilient in the face of earthquakes.

Early adopter

Innovative early childhood facility puts nature at its centre

The UniverCity Childcare Centre, designed by Vancouver-based firm HCMA Architecture + Design, puts nature and environmental stewardship front and centre for some of the provinces’ youngest learners. Nestled in the heart of the Simon Fraser University campus, surrounded by trees and a park-like setting, this daycare centre provides early childhood education for fifty preschoolers, using a unique educational programming model that embraces environmental sustainability. Completed in 2012, it is one of the first childcare facilities in the world to register for the Living Building Challenge—one of architecture’s most rigorous performance standard, which requires sustainable design strategies such as exemplary indoor air quality, locally and responsibly sourced renewable materials such as wood, net-zero energy and water usage.

Right: UniverCity Childcare Centre exterior |  Photo credit: Martin Tessler courtesy HCMA Architecture + Design

A solid-wood roof and exterior wall are constructed of nail-laminated timber (NLT) panels, serving as both secondary structure and interior finish. NLT panels, made from salvaged wood affected by the mountain pine beetle infestation, creates a corrugated surface that adds visual interest and improves the acoustics of the busy activity spaces. The exterior is clad with western red cedar and the door and window surrounds are milled from reclaimed wood. Ample glazing draws in lots of sunlight and fresh air and looks out to a generously-sized outdoor teaching and play space.

Photos: above and right | UniverCity Childcare Centre Interiors | Photo credit: Martin Tessler courtesy HCMA Architecture + Design

The centre is the subject of a book, available online at the International Living Future Institute, chronicling the project’s cutting-edge approach to early childhood care design and construction. The design process was innovative from the start—explained extensively in Generation Green: The Making of the University Childcare Centre—and included interactive charettes with the primary occupants of the facility: preschoolers.

“The UniverCity Childcare Centre is a seminal building—one that marks a critical transition to buildings that give back as much to the environment as they use. It will shape the minds of many children to think differently and expect more from their built environments,”  writes Heather Tremain of the project. Tremain is a former Loeb Fellow at Harvard University and architect focused on social purpose real estate, affordable cities and sustainable development.

The facility breaks new ground in the field of early childhood education and continues to act as a ‘living lab’ for university researchers.

Do your homework

Check out more school designs

From early childhood and elementary to senior secondary and universities, our project gallery showcases inspiring school designs from all corners of the province.

Making the honour roll

Timber-built BC high schools top of the class

The province’s high schools are also increasingly adopting more sustainable construction, natural materials, such as BC-sourced timber, along with less conventional, forward-thinking designs.

One of the newest to join the list is École Salish Secondary in Surrey, BC’s fastest-growing municipality. The 13,000-square-metre facility features immense collaborative spaces that can be partitioned off with sliding glass walls, an open-air rooftop yoga studio, and whiteboard desks, along with state-of-the-art technology, including a theatre, ubiquitous WiFi, and huge screens for students to project work onto.

Left: École Salish Secondary | Photo credit: Ed White Photographics courtesy KMBR Architects

Designed by KMBR, the firm set out to re-envision a new school from the ground up. This required a fresh perspective, according to the firm, starting with new names for traditional spaces. Music, arts and drama are “MAD Labs” and the metal and wood shops are “TED (Technology Engineering and Design) Labs”. Learning spaces incorporate discovery labs, break-out and multi-purpose gathering spaces, and a  learning commons with creative areas called “Makerspaces”. The result is a design that accommodates “anytime-anywhere, collaborative, project, and inquiry-based learning,” according to the design team.

The energy-efficient facility features argon-filled windows and automated motorized shutters to reduce solar heat gain and loss. This in turn minimizes the use of HVAC systems.  A double-height atrium features exposed glulam beams and interior wood finishes along with large operable overhead doors—a boon for improving natural ventilation and increasing outside airflow throughout the building.

Other high schools throughout the province are also demonstrating innovative and sustainable designs such as Southern Okanagan Secondary School and Abbotsford Senior Secondary School.

Right: École Salish Secondary | Photo credit: Ed White Photographics courtesy KMBR Architects

Is the future wood?

How timber can deliver more sustainable low carbon schools

Designing today’s school buildings demands economically and environmentally sustainable solutions that can create safe and inspiring learning environments. A recent report of BC schools in the province identified healthy buildings, cost and impact on student learning as top factors for good school design. Energy efficiency, carbon footprint and use of natural materials weren’t too far behind.

Recent innovations in mass timber products and construction are opening up new opportunities for more sustainable designs, along with hybrid systems. Increasing the use of wood can also stimulate local economies and help the province meet climate targets through lower carbon construction. Wood’s smaller environmental footprint means it can help meet climate action plans and achieve carbon reduction targets set by the Province and school districts. ​This combined with its lighter weight can reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emitted during transportation to construction sites.

Left: Samuel Brighouse Elementary | Photo credit: Andrew Latreille courtesy Perkins and Will Canada

Expert Q&A

Nick Bevilacqua, principal at Fast + Epp, sees a growing paradigm shift in the design of today's schools

Nick Round

Nick Bevilacqua, principal at Fast + Epp, shares his insights on the future of school design in BC and beyond. He has a broad range of experience in all building types and is currently working on a number of school projects throughout the province featuring innovative timber construction.


Q: What is the future of elementary and secondary school design? What changes are you seeing?

A: One of the biggest changes that I’ve noticed stems from the ever-increasing awareness of sustainability that school stakeholders are developing.  They fully grasp the impact that their decisions have on the built environment, and they have a strong desire to lead by example when incorporating sustainability goals into their planning of new school buildings. From my perspective as a structural engineer, this awareness has led to an interesting paradigm shift.  Whereas in the past stakeholders could be somewhat ambivalent about the framing systems and materials used, stakeholders are now initiating conversations about materiality and how certain framing systems can work with their sustainability targets better than others.  For a large majority of new-build school projects in which we have been recently involved, we have been directly requested by school planners to explore mass timber framing systems due to the positive impact that those systems would have on meeting their targets for carbon reduction, sustainable material usage, etc.

Q: What role can wood and natural materials play in the design of future schools?

A: At this point, the biophilic advantages of using naturally occurring materials such as wood in school design is well understood in the education community. There have been a number of publications, including a study Wood Use in British Columbia Schools that we completed with Forestry Innovation Investment and Stantec in 2018, that have helped foster this awareness within the community. I find that when discussing various structural typologies with school stakeholders, those stakeholders are now coming armed with a strong understanding of the positive impacts on the wellbeing of the school community that wood construction can offer.

Q:  Can good school design positively impact student development?

A: One thing that I’ve noticed specifically when discussing mass timber framing systems with school district stakeholders is how excited they get about the potential to use the exposed structure as a learning tool for students. By having a direct visual connection to timber framing elements, educators are able to establish a direct link for students between their school, the environment in which it exists, and the sustainable material that was used for their building.  The potential to foster this kind of tangible environmental awareness for students (as opposed to simply citing philosophical sustainability goals) is truly powerful.

When it comes to value, wood is versatile and cost-effective for BC schools. Today’s modern timber buildings are taller, more advanced and going up faster thanks to ever-evolving technologies. From tried-and-tested light-frame wood construction to mass timber, hybrid and prefabricated combinations, timber buildings are increasingly assembled as an innovative kit of parts.

Put together much like life-sized Lego—they can go up quickly, while still retaining the option to make onsite modifications. This makes wood construction for schools easier to repurpose, recycle or reuse. Prefabricated wood buildings can be assembled and disassembled, modified—and in some cases relocated entirely. In the future, modularized systems with interior walls could easily be reconfigured to expand or shrink the size of a classroom depending on changing needs. This could give schools of the future the option to change the size and composition of a facility over time, further boosting affordability and value.

All in all, when it comes to school design, one thing is certain—the future is challenging to predict. But when it comes to choosing sustainable building materials, wood’s vast versatility and climate benefits may prove to be one of its biggest advantages in the decades to come.

Right: Surrey Christian School Primary Wing Addition | Photo credit: Ed White Photographics courtesy KMBR Architects

Research you can use

What are the challenges and opportunities for using wood in your next school project?

Whether you’re contemplating a renovation or entirely new construction, whether light-frame or mass timber, this report by BC-based firms Fast + Epp and Stantec, delves deeper into the challenges and benefits of using wood in schools. Learn how others have designed inspiring learning environments that take full advantage of locally-sourced sustainable wood products.