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Designing Flexible Educational Spaces for Students and Community: Two Northern Canadian Examples

Today, new pedagogical approaches to education influence contemporary educational architecture. Flexible spaces are key to encouraging creativity and inquiry among students and can help educators provide deeper learning experiences. In many communities, educational facilities also serve as gathering spaces and social hubs.

Two Parkin projects in northern Canada exemplify how flexibility in educational facility design can encourage growth and deliver spaces where students, staff, and the whole community can feel welcome and thrive.

From ashes to dynamic cultural hubs

Recent fires in two Nunavut towns had devastating effects upon students and their communities. In 2015, in Kinngait (formerly Cape Dorset), a fire destroyed Peter Petseolak High School, forcing students and faculty to make-do in portable classrooms, and leading others to abandon school, permanently. A similar fate befell Arviligruaq Ilinniarvik School in Kugaaruk in 2017.

Through consultations with various community stakeholders, the schools were resurrected as state-of-the-art facilities of which students, staff, and the community could be proud. The design teams approached each new school with the goal of providing flexible learning and community spaces that reflect northern culture and Inuit identity.

Connecting multipurpose spaces

The entranceways to both projects were carefully considered. The design of a student commons, atrium, or gathering space is what pulls several program elements together, meeting the needs of a modern educational facility. This central design feature co-anchors several elements, creating maximum flexibility through connections with multi-purpose classrooms, resource centre, gymnasium, and other program spaces.

At Arviligruaq Ilinniarvik School, the impressive atrium serves as a gathering area and welcome space with integrated seating. It features double-height ceilings, a sweeping staircase, and elements like natural stone—salvaged from the original school—along with wood accents.

Colour plays a crucial role in the overall design of the school. Blue and green feature in the atrium and are echoed in the student lounge, where more of the salvaged stone is used. The school’s exterior features textured aluminium siding and corrugated metal, punctuated with bright colours, that are reflected in the interior spaces. Colours and natural materials work to connect the inner space with the building’s natural surroundings, other common areas, and classroom décor, to deliver a cohesive, yet multi-purpose, facility.

Similar design principles were applied to Peter Petseolak High School, which is nestled among hills near the local ice lake on Dorset Island, at the Southern tip of Baffin Island. Its natural wood together with green/blue colours connect the building with its natural surroundings. The long, wide entranceway doubles as a gathering space where tables and chairs can be added when needed. The exterior colours and wood accents that greet users in the double-height entranceway are also seen throughout the school.

Connection to the environment and community

In the past, building materials for northern schools were aimed at keeping users insulated from outdoor elements. Contemporary building materials allow designers to create more open spaces and better integration of natural light and views, connecting occupants with the exterior environment. These biophilic design elements are known to foster better learning outcomes and reduce stress for students. The cohesive flow from the biophilic connection to the natural setting of each school, together with use of colour and other visual elements, reinforce the connection between school and community.

In both facilities, design features that imbue welcoming and positive feelings greet students, staff, and members of the community. The 50,000 sf Arviligruaq Ilinniarvik School features gathering spaces to accommodate various group sizes and provides spaces for technical and traditional activities. The Peter Petseolak 34,000-square-foot facility features an NBA regulation-size gymnasium, and the fitness facilities can be used by community members outside school hours. The school also has a dedicated classroom for teaching traditional harvesting and the use of natural materials.

With flexibility as the guiding design principle, each facility offers unique learning opportunities for students, while also serving its community as a gathering and recreational hub.


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