Elementary Revisions

PROJECT École Mer-et-montagne, Campbell River, British Columbia
ARCHITECT McFarland Marceau Architects
TEXT Courtney Healey
PHOTOS Derek Lepper unless otherwise noted 

The 21st century is 13 years old, the centenary equivalent of a Grade 8 student ready to enter her experimental teenage phase. For schools, this means overhauling 100 years of deeply entrenched pedagogy and spatial typologies, embracing both digital technology and individual learning styles. In Campbell River, BC, McFarland Marceau Architects (MMA) has designed an elementary school for 100 K-8 students that navigates this sometimes-bumpy adolescence with grace and aplomb.

The École Mer-et-montagne is one of several schools MMA has built for the Francophone Education Authority of British Columbia. Partners Marie-Odile Marceau and Larry McFarland are long-time contributors to the evolution of public school design, completing a combined 50 schools before joining forces in 2008 and another six since. When asked what has changed recently, Marceau and associate Craig Duffield are quick to respond with the phrase, “21st-century learning.” Core subjects are being augmented with new skills for today’s society and workplace. Practically, this means an increased emphasis on technology, collaborative learning, critical thinking, content creation and effective communication. This philosophy forms the core of BC’s current education plan, which describes a need for “greater flexibility in how, when and where learning takes place.” For Marceau, the architectural translation becomes about “how space can enable different modalities of learning” and “how to accommodate groups of 2 or 6 as well as [the more traditional classroom sizes of] 25 or 100.” In a 21st-century learning environment, students rarely sit at individual desks, and instead spend most of their school day in small groups that move independently to various stations with the teacher as guide or facilitator.

The new school responds to this demand for flexibility in three main ways. Kinetic elements like cubbies on casters, moveable walls between classrooms for team teaching, and pivoting display cases that double as security gates combine functionality with a touch of fun. In a subtler manner, nooks, niches and alcoves are thoughtfully incorporated into most spatial transitions, providing spaces for individual students or small groups to read, conduct research or create. This small-scale articulation is echoed within the overall building scheme, where long volumes stagger and step in both plan and section, creating natural points of entry, gathering spaces and places to introduce daylight. Duffield explains that in typical school designs, architects can become easily overwhelmed by the repetition of large-scale program blocks. He and Marceau saw this project as a unique opportunity to explore more intimate moments of the school day. 

A modest budget only provided for a half-size gym, so MMA decided to renovate the gym from the existing 1960s school on the property, slated for demolition. This resolved some early site-planning decisions. The gym forms the largest and most prominent figure on the site. The design team smartly retained a stand of tall trees between it and the main road to mitigate its scale. Punched windows and vines training along cables in front of the façade further minimize the volume, directing attention to the main entrance with its large windows displaying the colourful ephemera of primary school life. The entry hall comprises the first of four linear volumes that march toward the northern edge of the site, effectively bisecting it in two, with playing fields to the west and informal play spaces to the east.

The broad strokes of the plan are simple and efficient–essentially two long corridors with program spaces accessed from either side. These corridors are École Mer-et-montagne’s great successes. The entry hall and foyer, by virtue of their prominent glazed kitchen, are regularly reinvented with various culinary and community activities–today, tables full of kindergarteners explore pattern-making with fruit kebabs, and upper grades prepare a schoolwide three-course meal. From here, one passes between pivoting display cases into the student commons, which doubles as a library. This is where the school comes most fully alive. The 40-metre-long space is glazed on all sides and extends beyond the building at either extremity. At present, the sunny east end is used as a greenhouse and lounge for parents with smaller children. Permanent project rooms, called “aquariums” by students, protrude into the library while rolling cubbies cordon off areas for temporary activities. One of the tenets of 21st-century learning is transparency, and glazed walls between the library and classrooms offer both passive surveillance and cross-pollination of ideas. Inside the classrooms, similar spatial strategies continue with reading nooks in the corners, a sink alcove near the doors, and access to covered outdoor spaces.

The design also embraces another 21st-century hallmark–sustainability. The school achieved a LEED Gold rating in part by incorporating geothermal in-slab radiant heat and a rainwater collection system. The most visible strategy, however, is also the most poetic: a windfall of Douglas fir joists was recovered from the demolished 1960s school. MMA made extensive use of the reclaimed wood throughout–it comprises the majority of the new structure as well as the main entry doors, fixed benches and library shelving. Current principal Syndie Hébert remarks that it feels nice to be surrounded by the ghosts of the old school. “Every visitor is amazed by the story of the wood,” she says.

While the preschool component of the school was completed last year, the core of École Mer-et-montagne is now two years old and the staff has really made the school their own. MMA’s intentions are lived out and expanded on in unexpected ways that are largely positive–but occasionally puzzling. This year, the outdoor play space just north of the classrooms will welcome its third double-wide trailer. With enrollment at just over 90, the school is not overcapacity, so portables are hard to explain. Many possible explanations present themselves, most involving provincial funding models. But for this writer, the portables might also signal a gap that exists between the intention of policy creators and day-to-day implementation in the classroom. Dragging portables onto the school grounds might be easier than dragging centuries-old education methods into the new millennium.

As a primary school and as an experiment in 21st-century learning, MMA’s École Mer-et-montagne is a clear success. While Hébert stresses that the common spaces are well-loved and used, she and her staff sometimes lament the fact that they cannot be easily converted into classrooms. Marceau responds that in hindsight, “perhaps we could have made the building even more flexible to allow for that.” I disagree: we have too many examples of schools without libraries or music rooms because they have been converted to classrooms. By stitching the common program areas so securely to circulation, MMA prevents those spaces from being turned into traditional classrooms–and that is precisely the point. École Mer-et-montagne’s design is in keeping with the tenets of 21st-century learning which suggest moving beyond merely changing the labels of rooms, to introduce new collaborative spaces for learners of all ages. CA

Courtney Healey is the Director of Lodge Think Tank and an intern architect at Public Architecture + Communication.

Client Conseil Scolarie Francophone de la Colombie Britannique
Architect Team Marie-Odile Marceau, Craig Duffiel
d, Dean Shwedyk, Pauline Alam
Structural Equilibrium Consulting
Mechanical Bycar Engineering
Electrical MMM Group
Landscape Outlook Design
Interiors McFarland Marceau Architects
Contractor Newhaven Construction
Area 1,600 M2
Budget $5,950,000
Completion March 2012