Building Blocks

TEXT Helena Grdadolnik

One of the most important recent opportunities for several architecture firms in Ontario has been a series of education renovations. While individually modest, collectively, these represent a significant expenditure in community-level architecture. The Province of Ontario has allocated $1.4 billion in capital funding in the last two years to support the creation of new full-day kindergarten classrooms in close to 3,400 schools, with further investments planned to fully implement the program by 2014 to serve 250,000 kindergarteners. More than a billion dollars represents a huge investment in school buildings, although the figure is put into perspective as a long-term investment within the province’s $21-billion annual education budget.

Both the recent Drummond Report and the Progressive Conservative party’s policy paper on education call for delaying the remaining roll-out of the full-day kindergarten program in an effort to balance the provincial budget. There is a serious need to shrink the deficit–ratings agency Moody’s changed its assessment of Ontario’s economic outlook from stable to negative in 2011–but cuts to kindergarten funding, and its building program that is modernizing early education spaces, would be a significant loss for the children in early education that would be felt for many years to come.

Independent studies have supported what architects instinctively know: that well-designed learning spaces have a powerful positive effect on education. An assessment by PricewaterhouseCoopers for the UK’s Department of Education and Skills in 2000 found a favourable relationship between capital investment in schools, student performance and staff morale.1 A Georgetown University study showed that after controlling for variables such as economic status, pupils’ standardized achievement scores rose significantly in relation to the quality of a school’s physical environment.2

For small to mid-sized firms specializing in education, additions and renovations to support the full-day kindergarten program may represent a significant portion of current work. At Workshop Architecture, we are presently designing new kindergarten classrooms for four schools in Grand Erie District School Board to open in September. Our colleagues at Bortolotto Design Architect are working with the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) on 15 projects rolling out this year and in 2014.

Although modest in scale, these projects represent occasions to deliver the necessary requirements while also addressing other issues and re-energizing the entire school. Bortolotto’s recent designs demonstrate a smart, user-focused design attitude in action. “We look at every full-day kindergarten project as an opportunity to introduce added value, smart design solutions that go above and beyond client expectations,” says firm principal Tania Bortolotto. 

As part of a larger project to expand Oakridge Junior Public School, Bortolotto transformed three existing classrooms into kindergarten spaces with a three-metre-wide addition to make space for students’ individual storage cubbies. The minimal intervention tripled the amount of natural light entering the east-facing rooms by the use of continuous glazing above the cubbies, and provided direct access to a newly landscaped play area.

At Willow Park Junior Public School where Bortolotto was tasked with adding two kindergarten classrooms, the firm’s design also included improvements to the outdoor play area, upgrades to the storage space for the existing kindergarten rooms and a new engaging and welcoming building façade. This last element is important when you think of how anxious four-year-olds–and their parents–can be when starting school for the first time. 

Montgomery Sisam Architects, a larger firm with a reputation for considered school designs, also have full-day kindergarten projects in their portfolio. In their three-storey addition to house two kindergartens and four classrooms at Maurice Cody Junior Public School in Toronto, they incorporated a central multipurpose atrium. This new space benefits the entire school community by adding light to what had before been dark double-loaded corridors and responding to innovative teaching methods that call for breakout spaces. Tucked into the inside corner of the existing L-shaped school, the addition removed the need for two portables on the site while providing ample room for upgraded playgrounds. 

Design lead Robert Davies points to the positive role the Local School Community Design Team played in assuring a successful outcome. “The design process assembled a large group of stakeholders to help steer the front-end design and development of the work,” he notes. “Principal, teachers, parents, caretakers, community representatives, trustee, superintendent, TDSB design specialists, planners and consultants met and planned the work to ensure the response fit the need.”

For a $500,000 addition to the Princess Elizabeth Public School in Brantford by Workshop Architecture, designer David Colussi proposed a solution that added a new learning space while also turning a dead end in the U-shaped plan into a courtyard. Although outside of the original project scope, the courtyard was brightened through inexpensive pavers, paint and tile, becoming a secure outdoor play area accessible from both new and existing kindergarten classrooms. 

This design solution addressed graffiti issues and removed the need for a fenced-in play area facing the street. The addition also linked two previously unconnected existing hallways into a continuous circulation loop through the kindergarten boot room and reoriented the student arrival sequence, resulting in a new shared resource and storage area. “The courtyard provides a bonus space that we would not have otherwise had,” school principal Annette Blake remarks. “The entire school benefits from this exciting, bright, cheerful space which sets a positive tone for a wider school revitalization.”

These case studies exemplify how, when given the opportunity–even with a small scope and budget–architects have been able to address existing issues and support new approaches to teaching and learning within our country’s aging school infrastructure. By contrast, full-day kindergarten was recently introduced in British Columbia, but its provincial government decided to award a single contract for custom-built modular units for most of the 156 schools requiring more space. Only 21 schools were thought to need site-specific designs. There may be a lower cost to building multiple modular units. However, beyond furnishing additional classroom spaces, capital investment in custom-designed kindergartens could make a positive impact more broadly in each individual school.

Full-day kindergartens are just the tip of the iceberg for instances where architects are using small projects to add value beyond the brief. The success of the projects executed so far should serve as a model worthy of emulation by education ministries across Canada, as well as other agencies involved in commissioning retrofits and additions to serve public needs. CA

Helena Grdadolnik is an Associate Director at Workshop Architecture Inc.