Making the Grade: Marine Drive Academy, Sheet Harbour, Nova Scotia

Community needs are at the heart of a new K-12 school by FBM in rural Nova Scotia.

The school’s heating plant is fuelled with locally made wood chips, and the associated silo and chimney are prominently displayed in the school’s massing.

PROJECT Marine Drive Academy, Sheet Harbour, Nova Scotia


PHOTOS Julian Parkinson

In general, articles about new school designs concentrate on their aesthetic merits alone. A friend calls this “ogling the architecture.” But if form does, indeed, follow function, an educational building should manifest its end use: to be a well-designed place that enhances teaching and learning. The Marine Drive Academy, designed by Susan Fitzgerald of Halifax-based firm FBM, achieves both goals effortlessly. In this case, the designer and the school earn a solid “A” grade.

The town of Sheet Harbour, Nova Scotia, is at the eastern extreme of Halifax Regional Municipality, about an hour-and-a-half drive from the city. The 800-person town is snuggled into the rugged Atlantic coastline and enclosed by dense forests. About 30 separate communities send children to Marine Drive Academy—some with bus rides up to an hour long—and 18 percent of its 275 students have Mi’kmaw roots. The school is also a regional resource. Once Covid-19 restrictions are lifted, community groups will have access to the field, gymnasium, shop, drama, nutrition, textile and music facilities. In a village, the school is, as one teacher put it, “a common thread. Everyone has a connection to the school, which brings people together.”

Fitzgerald attributes the success of the building to the intense interaction with students and staff in developing the concept. The standard process for K-12 design involves a School Steering Team (SST)—a stakeholder committee recruited by the school board, usually with only one or two keen student representatives. As Fitzgerald points out, “At the SST, one doesn’t hear from the students who are struggling or unhappy.”

The L-shaped school sits near the Atlantic coastline, adjacent forested areas and a regional highway.

Luckily, an end-of-semester school event coincided with schematic design. Fitzgerald and the FBM team seized the opportunity to meet one-on-one with many students and staff in a friendly atmosphere. In congenial interviews, students of all ages shared their responses to questions like: “What makes a good learning space?” and “What should the perfect school be like?”

It was immediately clear that the students’ interests were not focussed on the “three Rs.”  Instead, the local outdoor lifestyle predicated an emphasis on the making aspects of education: shop technology, textiles, nutrition, art, music and drama. Fitzgerald says: “It’s phenomenally important to talk with the students. We turned the qualitative information we collected into quantitative notes, so, if a lot of students said the same thing, we added it to our research folio and watched as patterns appeared. For example, one pattern suggested a need to merge subjects and receive knowledge in different ways—to be much more open about how students can learn things.”

The Academy’s makerspaces include woodworking areas, sewing machines, filmmaking tools, and areas for robotics and 3D printing.

Another key strategy was to put making and creative spaces in a central location, instead of the usual approach which tucks them far away from the academic areas. As a result, shop technology is given a place of honour: large windows in the lobby look over the two-storey workshop and media lab below.

As school principal Ronnie Reynolds explains, “This building is all about options.” Teachers have flexibility to stay in the classroom while some of their students do projects in the adjacent widened corridor, dub­bed a learning street. They maintain supervision through generous glazing, which can be shuttered with sliding whiteboard screens. The ability to move quickly from classroom to project space, says one teacher, “extends the teaching time: two minutes to set up, and they [the students] are learning in both places.”

An upper-level collaboration space is equipped with retractable ceiling-mounted power outlets, utility sinks, and work counters to facilitate 
a wide range of activities.

An expanded version of this strategy is noteworthy in the aptly named da Vinci Space on the upper level. It’s a break-out area, where, as in Leonardo’s notebooks, science and art meet. At one end, a demonstration counter with sink is used by science and art teachers alike, creating opportunities for hybrid teaching. A designated art classroom opens completely to the da Vinci Space via a movable glazed partition. High tables and stools enhance the functional flexibility: students are free to move around the tables and seating to suit their projects.  Pull-down outlets provide convenient access to power for charging devices or running demonstration equipment. At the ends of this makerspace, as on the other floors, the plan includes nooks for privacy or quiet conversations.

Overall, the school takes form as an L-shaped plan, with gym, music, and drama areas on the short side of the L and classrooms on the long side, both looking onto a south-facing courtyard. The main lobby forms a hinge-point with wide stairways up and down. The lobby will also feature, in the near future, a large mosaic mural with design input and participation by the students. The image is being developed in collaboration with FBM, and depicts an abstracted map of the Eastern Shore, with pictograms representing each of the three dozen communities served by the school. Adjacent to the lobby, stepped seating leads from the cafeteria to the raised music room, creating a natural stage and socializing space. The drama and music rooms interconnect, inviting shared activities. Designed with an acoustical engineer, these rooms can be adjusted with panels and thick curtains for theatre, choral or instrumental practice.

A raised platform doubles as an informal stage, connecting between the music room and a centrally located cafeteria.

The classrooms are efficiently placed at either side of the learning streets: middle grades occupy the lower level, elementary is located on the main level, with easy access to the courtyard’s play structure, and high school students occupy the upper level, near labs for science, textiles and nutrition. On each level, there are administration and communal-use rooms at the elbow of the L, which narrows the hallway and gives a sense of passage between the neighbourhood-like groups of classrooms. “We used the grade and window placements to our advantage to create a sense of identity for each level,” says Fitzgerald.

Gender non-specific washrooms and gym changeroom compartments are popular with students, and have been successful in eliminating a major source of bullying opportunities. Each washroom cubicle has its own ventilation, light and sprinkler, along with a European-style floor-to-ceiling door. The sets of stalls are easily supervised from the hallways and, during Covid protocols, kept students safely separated. In a school that Fitzgerald is currently designing, each washroom cubicle will have its own sink, too.

At the edge of the cafeteria, wood-edged learning steps create a space for socializing and play.

Marine Drive Academy is one of the largest buildings in the area, and Fitzgerald, who is also a registered interior designer, purposefully exposed many of the building elements so that students and public can appreciate its construction. Intumescent paint and fire shutters allow for exposed joists, columns and cross-bracing. Ducts and light fixtures are revealed, rather than concealed in dropped ceilings. On the exterior, a large silver silo takes a prominent place: it contains wood pellets, a by-product of the local forestry industry, that fuel the school’s heating system. As a LEED Gold-targeted building, the environmental aspects of the design add to its learning opportunities: toilets flush with collected rainwater, natural daylighting is omnipresent, 100 percent outdoor air circulates throughout, and durable surfaces make maintenance easy. As many students will seek careers in the trades, teachers can use the building as an effective demonstration tool.

Fitzgerald conceived different colour schemes for each of the three levels, with bold accent hues applied to millwork and furniture selected in complementary colours. The exterior, too, is graphically satisfying: it’s a clever composition of white cementitious panels contrasted with wood-veneer accents, reminiscent of the brown-and-white bark of the region’s paper birch trees. Super-graphics on the beacon-like chimney are visible from the highway, and are also used to mark the main entrance.

The façade’s fire-rated wood veneer details are a nod to the lumber industry, a local economic driver.

Darrell MacDonald, Director of Educational Facilities at the N.S. Department of Infrastructure and Housing, worked with FBM in matching the program to the design. This involved extensive collaboration with the school to assign space within the allotted footprint. By aligning gym size with enrolment, it became possible to add a weighttraining room. The interdisciplinary learning streets were made viable by trading some normally enclosed spaces for widened corridors. Similarly, the library is no longer a defined, lockable room, but extends into the learning streets at all levels, using portable bookshelves that can be rolled out of the way as needed. Teachers and students peruse the shelves at their leisure; searching for particular books encourages multi-level hunts and serendipitous finds.

The libraries are not the only link between levels. Interconnecting lightwells overlook the lower level, not only for light, but also enabling conversation between elementary and middle students (who are, often enough, siblings).

Lightwells connect between the school’s levels, allowing for conversations between students in different grades.

Each learning street terminates at floor-to-ceiling windows, and views to the harbour are carefully framed from the cafeteria and lobby windows. From the inside, the school feels nestled in nature. This is a source of inspiration and calm for students. A teacher reports that one pupil, when stressed, would stand at the window and settle down watching his own “dancing tree.”

Students arrived in September 2020 amid pandemic restrictions, and after a very strange half-year of distance learning. Staff could sense the smiles under the masks. “Their eyes were lit!  You could tell they were awe-struck, and still are,” reports one teacher. Marine Drive Academy had replaced four older schools. Leaving those claustrophobic and technology-poor buildings and entering this new, light-filled, invigorating school energized both teachers and students. This well-designed environment responds successfully to the hypothesis that capital-“A” Architecture can embrace and augment capital-“E” Education.

Halifax-based T. E. Smith-Lamothe, MRAIC was Senior Architect with the N.S. Department of Transportation and Housing, where he specialized in educational, heritage and healthcare projects.

CLIENT Nova Scotia Infrastructure and Housing | ARCHITECT TEAM Susan Fitzgerald (FRAIC), Nataleah Hanlon (MRAIC), Matt Davis (MRAIC), Kaitlyn Labrecque (MRAIC) | STRUCTURAL SNC Lavalin | MECHANICAL/ELECTRICAL DUMAC Energy | LANDSCAPE Gordon Ratcliffe Landscape Architect | Interiors FBM | CONTRACTORS Avondale Construction LTD., BIRD Construction, Leading Edge Excavation & Trucking | EDUCATIONAL CONSULTANT CS&P Architects | LEED Solterre Design | CODE RICAS Engineering LTD. | ACOUSTICS Swallow Acoustic Consultants LTD. | CONSTRUCTABILITY Grey Cardinal Management Inc. | COST Hanscomb Ltd. | FOOD SERVICES Joe George & Associates | AREA 6,000 m2 | BUDGET Withheld | COMPLETION September 2020

ENERGY USE INTENSITY (PROJECTED) 99 kWh/m2/yr (Supplied from renewable wood pellets for building heat, outside air tempering, and domestic water heating) | WATER USE INTENSITY (PROJECTED) 0.137m3/m2/yr from stormwater and 0.027m3/m2/yr from an on-site potable well