UAE-based architects discuss trends in education design

Designing for the education sector is a multifaceted challenge. In creating successful learning institutions,
today’s architects must consider a host of ever-evolving conditions, like changing learning patterns and the impact of technology innovation.

At a roundtable recently held in MEA’s office, Dubai-based industry experts, Ralf Steinhauer from RSP, Jason Burnside from GAJ and Phillip Jones from B+H Architects, discussed the latest developments in the education sector. Chief among them were the integration of technology in the classroom, shifting teacher-student dynamics and the creation of open, collaborative social spaces.

Jason Burnside

“We’re now seeing what’s called ‘the flip classroom’, which has just picked up in North America and Europe,” said Burnside. “It’s the idea that you come to school to collaborate and you go home to study. It derives from the finding that when you’re in the classroom copying what the teacher is writing on the board, you’re not really learning, so some of that could be done at home.”

Changing teacher and student habits, the flip classroom is mostly isolated to education centres within the private sector, and it’s part of a larger conversation that incorporates ‘blended learning’, or the combination of technology with traditional teaching.

“Students are expected to bring a surface tablet to school now, which will connect to the classroom and the interactive television screen that has replaced the blackboard,” Burnside added. “It allows teachers greater insight into how each pupil is progressing, and the technology is being used in a more clever way, because schools are mimicking how things operate in the workplace.”

While technology has heavily impacted classroom design, with whiteboards being replaced by interactive touch screens and frequent charging stations now elemental, student wellness has become the driving factor for opening up spatial layouts beyond the classroom, which have grown to incorporate friendly social spaces. The aim is to create environments that encourage collaboration among peers, and such demands require increased flexibility in terms of space usage.

Ralf Steinhauer

Academic establishments in the UAE are also hoping to become havens of creative and personal growth for their student populations. Offering sports facilities, post-school programming and relaxed environments, these buildings are looking to create a second home for their pupils.

“Looking back on the universities or schools I attended, they were very functional and mostly just consisted of corridors that led you to different classrooms, but it wasn’t about hanging out or enjoying yourself,” said Steinhauer. “Now, designing for education projects in the UAE requires an emphasis on how students feel, and how they perceive the day.”

Designing for education in the UAE is not without its pitfalls though, and incorporating parking structures into masterplans is often a source of restriction. According to all three, higher education centres and even k-12 schools require extensive parking facilities, which can take up nearly half the space allotted to the project.

“If you take half of the site for the car park and the other half for green spaces, like running tracks and a football stadium, then you’re left with very little footprint for the building,” said Burnside. “So something has to give and usually the cars get pushed underground, which in turn increases costs. So the solution is to build car park structures on site, but then you’re thinking, ‘Is that what you want from a school? To arrive, see the car park and then look for the school?’”

According to Jones, urbanisation and the need for urban-oriented schools are also issues facing the industry, and felt across the world. Regionally speaking, Dubai neighbourhoods like JLT and the Marina are becoming popular for young couples raising children, but schools were never a part of those community developments.

Phillip Jones

“The pressure on schools is going to be about the balance between expensive land, more urban intensification, and a tougher economic climate,” Jones said, “so tuition won’t be able to keep covering all that extra good stuff. I think schools are going to start looking outside the box for other revenue streams, like paid parking after hours, or allowing paid access to your various facilities for the community around.”

Things are slowly changing though, and mixed-use developments across the country are beginning to incorporate education centres as attractive incentives for potential residents, like the Arada Residences in Sharjah. A recent RSP project in Abu Dhabi also featured a community-driven area on the ground floor that invites the public in to explore exhibitions.

Despite the challenges facing the education sector, Burnside, Steinhauer and Jones are confident in its direction, and they’ve noted the many strides being made, whether that’s greater consideration for student well-being or a schools’ hopes of contributing to the fabric of their surrounding communities.

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