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International schools in Hong Kong

Why parents seeking the best school should look at the decor, design and ergonomics

  • A study has shown the link between well-designed schools and improved academic performance
  • Architects and school boards are taking note, building well-lit, airy and sustainable school buildings
PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 20 November, 2018, 8:17am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 28 November, 2018, 11:29am

Parents in Hong Kong would probably do anything to boost their children’s academic success.

There are those hefty international school fees to justify, and/or the pressure of living in a society with an entrenched results-oriented culture. Which explains the tutors, the summer camps – anything to drive students to work harder.

Buildings will improve if public grasps significance of design, say architects

But what if the school’s physical environment isn’t playing its part?

After a substantive study in Britain linked well-designed classrooms with improvement in academic performance, architects and school boards have taken note. Released in 2015, the study by University of Salford researchers found that differences in the physical characteristics of classrooms, such as air quality, colour and light, can collectively boost learning progress among primary school pupils by as much as 16 per cent in a single year.

Claude Godefroy, lead architect of the new French International School campus in Tseung Kwan O, agrees that there is a strong connection between classroom design and academic performance.

“Architecture matters,” says Godefroy, design director and partner at Henning Larsen Hong Kong.

Completed in September, the 19,600 square metre campus, which accommodates 1,100 primary and secondary school pupils, puts the school “at the forefront of pedagogical innovation in Hong Kong”, according to Godefroy.

At the behest of the previous school principal, Christian Soulard, now headmaster at the French International School in Singapore, who had been inspired by such concepts in Australia and Japan, the architect dissolved the traditional classroom structure in favour of open-plan, collaborative learning spaces.

The villa-style design of the learning space allows for many shared activities among classes, with teachers working together on joint projects.

The idea is to free children from the traditional fixed frontal classroom layout and expose them to a way of learning that reflects the working environment of today and tomorrow better, Godefroy says.

“Students learn much better when they change the setting and classmates they work with several times a day, instead of being pinned to a seat for long periods. This is why each level even has an outdoor classroom, while the corridors are turned into generous breakout spaces used for group projects.”

The [Chai Wan] campus design placed great emphasis on biophilia [design to address people’s affinity to nature/natural elements]. Biophilia is an emerging trend and is believed to contribute to higher user satisfaction and productivity, in overseas studies

A strong emphasis on sustainability is also conducive to the wellness and productivity of students and teachers.

“The deep facades are not only a design feature, but prevent heat and glare within the learning spaces,” Godefroy says.

“Complete shading from the sun creates generous but homogenous daylight throughout the whole day, without the need for curtains or blinds.”

The massing of the buildings guides prevailing sea breezes through the playgrounds and circulation areas to naturally ventilate the indoor areas, minimising the need for air conditioning. In responding to the local climate in such a way, energy consumption is also reduced.

Interior finishes are eco-friendly to create a healthier indoor environment. “Floors are made of natural rubber, and ceiling materials sourced from renewable bamboo forests – both a first for a Hong Kong school,” Godefroy says. “When you go into the rooms, you can actually feel these things.”

Plantings around the school include 24 large trees, green roofs and hanging gardens, a native garden for studying the southern Chinese natural habitat, and an educational garden for the students to grow plants. The school has registered for BEAM Plus, Hong Kong’s leading independent assessment for building sustainability performance.

Jonny Perks, associate at Steensen Varming, a Danish engineering firm specialising in sustainable design with offices in Hong Kong and Australia, says it’s important for schools to provide a healthy, productive learning environment.

Speaking at the Designing Green Schools event held by the Hong Kong Green Building Council in late October, he said there was “clear evidence that good design can boost academic results”.

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He cites one study that showed a 21 per cent improvement in test scores when classrooms are naturally lit by daylight, and another that found alignment of lighting with circadian rhythms promotes overall health, reduces stress and enhances performance.

To achieve the best possible environment for its projects, Steensen Varming aims to start working with architects and specialist consultants – in lighting design, acoustics, mechanical and electrical engineering, plumbing, and landscape architecture – at the earliest possible stage, Perks says.

A current case study Perks highlights is a campus extension for the exclusive Shore School in North Sydney, Australia, incorporating an indoor pool and gym. Sustainability concepts integrated into the A$53 million (US$39 million) project, slated for completion by March 2020, include green roofs, waste water collection, daylight access in all seasons (while controlling solar gains), and natural ventilation; the materials and finishes with low toxicity will be used.

This aligns with the New South Wales government’s newly launched Environmental Design in Schools Guide, which urges a greener approach to classroom infrastructure and design.

Rob Stokes, the state education minister, says sustainable design “is not only great for the environment, but can also improve teaching and learning outcomes and help frame the way that students think about the environment”. Small changes to make a school more environmentally friendly can also drive down maintenance costs, he adds.

The sustainability framework developed for the Shore School project was extrapolated into a broader “sustainability road map”, enabling all buildings on the site to be given a score. “This enables Shore School to objectively assess the status of their buildings and start to implement strategies that are cost-effective, and are gauged to have the most impact,” Perks says.

According to Leung Man-kit, director of sustainable design at Ronald Lu & Partners, a Hong Kong architecture and interior design firm, sustainability strategies have achieved operational energy savings of about 22 per cent at the Chai Wan campus of the Technological and Higher Education Institute of Hong Kong (THEi). The 39,730 square metre campus was completed in 2017 and fulfils a number of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals.

“The campus was designed to be highly permeable to light, air and views; to have extensive urban greenery, enhanced neighbourhood connectivity, and an extended public realm. All these elements enhance inclusive and sustainable urbanisation,” Leung says.

The campus will achieve the reduction in energy use through factors including the north-to-south orientation of its buildings, high building permeability, a shallow plan depth, a cross-ventilated layout, external shading and light shelves, a well insulated building envelope and highly energy-efficient active systems, he says.

On top of the environmental benefits, Leung believes the biggest gain is in the wellness of students and staff. “The campus design placed great emphasis on biophilia [design to address people’s affinity to nature/natural elements],” he says. “Biophilia is an emerging trend and is believed to contribute to higher user satisfaction and productivity, in overseas studies.”

Meanwhile, the new Adelaide Botanic High School by Cox Architecture is not only green, sustainable and reflective of the new era of collaborative learning spaces, it’s also an example of adaptive reuse.

“We were able to repurpose an old medical school from the University of South Australia and use it in part for this new structure,” says Chris Millman, director of Cox Architecture, the Australian practice in charge of the project.

“It’s so easy to knock buildings over and start afresh, but when you can take the bones of an existing building and repurpose them, that’s a wonderful thing to do. It gives the building another life, and the embodied energy of the place goes down.”

Due to open in 2019 in the Adelaide central business district, this will be South Australia’s first vertical school. The building is designed to minimise energy and water use in support of the city’s ambition to be carbon neutral by 2021.

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The heart of the building is an innovative atrium with a canopy of ETFE (ethylene tetrafluoroethylene), a lightweight and translucent material that allows UV-filtered natural light into a building without the structural requirements of conventional roofing systems.

The material is used as “pillows” that can be inflated and deflated according to the climatic conditions, Millman explains, thus controlling the environment without the need for air conditioning.

In the collaborative learning spaces flowing from this centrepiece, even the staircases can function as small theatres for group projects.

Millman believes that such ergonomic design should not only boost students’ academic performance, but also equip them for future work.

“It allows schools to move away from ‘chalk and talk’ – where one person stands and the students take notes,” he says.

“Educators are discovering that you don’t need to be in a classroom environment. In some respects, we’re pushing the notion of what’s happening in workplace design into an education environment, using similar ideas and language.”