‘The design of a school is considered a marketing tool to attract parents,’ says U+A’s Tiago Sampaio

The associate director of international architecture firm U+A, Tiago Sampaio, discussed creating spaces for education in the GCC. From the positive impact good designs can have on the academic progression of students to the increased financial return for operators, MEA sits with Sampaio for a brief lesson in education design.

Swiss International Scientific School by U+A. All photos by Fritz John Asuro

What are the latest trends in education design in the GCC?
There is a general understanding of the added value that good design can bring to a student’s education. Factors like natural light, sustainability, good acoustics, quality of building materials and landscape design are key elements being considered in most of the new schools across the GCC. Education design is very competitive for school operators in the region, and the design of a school is considered a marketing tool to attract parents – it is proven to be a key factor in the choices that they make.

Currently, clients in the GCC also have a different approach to education which prioritises interaction within learning environments. The flexibility of spaces is key to the successful integration of a school’s several needs. Moreover, considering that most schools in the GCC cater to students from kindergarten to their senior year, it can be challenging to provide a balanced and versatile spatial organisation that accommodates the different age groups.

How are schools better integrating technology into their designs?
The requirements of school operators are very clear with regards to technology integration within the design of the building, as this is a crucial component of the education system for the majority of schools. For example, the classrooms are now fully equipped with interactive boards and charging facilities, which allow students to bring their laptops or tablets. Schools also provide wireless internet to all students.

In Dubai’s Swiss International Scientific School, U+A and the rest of the design team, also used technology to contribute to a more sustainable design, where the air cooling and artificial lighting are controlled through the Building Management System and are kept to the minimum requirement, in order to reduce the energy consumption of the building.

Tell us about the Swiss International Scientific School.
Towards the end of 2015, U+A was approached by a client that invited us to take part in a competition for the design of phase three of the school. The design and construction phases took approximately two years until it was completed in September 2017.

At the end of 2015, phase one (which was the primary school) was already completed and phase two (the sports hall) was under construction. The client’s main objective was to combine the middle high school, auditorium, dining hall and the library into one building, in order to make the design more efficient. This integration would also generate free space to increase the car park area and drop-off zones – essential provisions for the operation of every school in the GCC.

U+A rapidly assessed the flaws of the original masterplan, including the lack of an adequate connection between the buildings and the car park. The parking lot of the school had been located between the buildings of phases one and two, effectively cutting the school campus in half. U+A’s design process started by envisaging a central space – a plaza – with the potential of organising and integrating the various components of the school. The building was then relocated in place of the original car park, with the result of introducing a central focus that was key for the integration of all phases of the project, and had the ability to combine the buildings as part of the same body.

Design wise, the main challenge was to integrate a large programme into one building and, at the same time, to avoid long corridors without natural light. The conceptual principle was to continue the plaza into the building and create a large atrium with the purpose of arranging all the classrooms around it. By elevating the library above the plaza, we conferred it to the role of focal point of the all of the components. The U+A team tried to create a bright, warm and neutral environment where the holistic design approach is representative of an education system that is based on interdisciplinary teaching methods, focused on the students’ learning process and allowing them to express themselves.

How does Swiss International Scientific School reflect the trends in education?
We believe that the school offers a great educational environment to the students. I personally love the flexibility that the school provides to both students and educators. During the design process, U+A introduced several spaces that are being occupied and used in different ways, like the main central stair, and it is very rewarding to see the building taking on a life of its own.

How do you foresee education design in the GCC transforming in the next 10 years?
The quality of education design will gain higher standards and schools will need to offer an attractive environment to the students in order to thrive in the current competitive market. I don’t think that educational curriculums or the interaction between educators and students will change dramatically; however, technology is changing quickly and new approaches might need to be considered to better integrate with future building designs.

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