COVID-era school design takes lessons from Indigenous educators
Saskatoon-based architect building pandemic solutions into schools
This piece was originally published on March 10, 2021.
A Saskatoon-based architect is already applying lessons learnt from the pandemic to the schools he is designing, and said the First Nations clients he works with are providing him with directions for the future.
"I wouldn't want to design a building like a school that forced the separation of people," said Andrew Wallace, with Wallace Klypak Architects.
"When coronavirus goes away, as I am sure it will, I hope the buildings we design will be good places for people to meet and live their lives in a social way, and also that they have the flexibility to allow people to live in a way that is a little bit different when a pandemic comes along, one that requires a different way of acting."
With in-class learning disrupted by coronavirus cases and schools having to turn to online instruction, educators are looking to land-based learning to teach kids in a way that manages risk and also provides a quality experience.
The First Nations clients Wallace works with use the natural world to educate, a principle that is built into their schools. Designing the school also involves the entire community.
Building a safe haven through land-based learning
A new school that Wallace Klypak Architects and Tawaw Architecture Collective are designing with Sweetgrass First Nation west of North Battleford, Sask., takes into account their land-based learning approach, which is rooted in their traditional ways of life.
"These kids in the future are going to know what colours, what the culture and what the elders taught us," said Sweetgrass First Nation elder Walter Swindler. "It's understanding where we come from when we are given a chance to do an idea of what we want for our school."
The school will include an outdoor classroom and a teaching garden. A shed-type building will allow students to do hide tanning and process game. Additional, specially designed rooms will offer elders culturally appropriate spaces to do their teachings.
"Education is our new buffalo now. Having that institution in our community, it would re-trigger that fire," said student services teacher Leslie Morin. "It's being on the land, planted on the ground, leaves on the trees, in person — it gives you a different perspective and appreciation, and that's what we like to instill in the kids."
Morin said elders take the kids snaring, to sweat lodges, and to gather wood.
"So every step is done with hands on; it's not just done with a screen in a classroom," said Morin. "They are live, they are in the environment, they are hearing the sounds of nature — that's what brings it all together, which is crucial and critical to that language component."
There needs to be more of a conversation of what education looks like going forward and how safety can be a consideration more than it has been.- Patrick Stewart, Royal Architectural Institute of Canada
Morin is concerned about Sweetgrass students being at risk of increased stresses during the pandemic, and how that would impact their mental health.
"The land-based stuff would ease those burdens. Having that back would be one of the biggest parts we are looking forward to having. The school is a community support centre, almost. It's a place of a safe haven: they know they are going to be taken care of all day. When they are at school, it's a place of comfort and they look forward to it," said Morin.
"The smells and the feeling, the smudge or the sweet grass — and you are doing it in an environment and an atmosphere where everyone is positive. It's very uplifting and you'd be missing that crucial element if you tried to do that virtually."
Schools must consider community element — safely
Patrick Stewart of the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada's Indigenous task force said COVID-19 has changed how First Nations communities are using space, and he's hoping leaders will consider how to improve education and safety.
"The school is often the community hub; it's very multipurpose. Lots of things go on in those school gymnasiums other than just sports. There are ceremonies and feasting going on in those spaces, and COVID has made us pause and think about how we are designing now in ways we didn't pre-COVID."
Stewart is worried schools might be falling behind when it comes to keeping up with COVID-era designs.
"I don't know that schools and school boards have really started to think about the design of a new school — what's that all going to encompass. You see how other existing facilities have adjusted to COVID," said Stewart.
"At all levels, at the community level, the teachers and up to people that fund schools, there needs to be more of a conversation of what education looks like going forward and how safety can be a consideration more than it has been."
No word on broad design changes
That's not necessarily happening — at least not yet.
"Covid is really a spatial problem," said Wallace.
A pre-pandemic school that Wallace designed intentionally brought people together in the hallways. Today, he would like to design larger classrooms that would make greater physical distancing possible but decisions on how to use available space are directed by space standards and the National Building Code of Canada.
"It's not just the size of individual rooms but the overall size of the building that becomes important because that determines the number of different kinds of spaces that you can provide," said Wallace.
He would like to be able to build modular spaces where people can have a lot of freedom to adjust the way the building is used.
"If it is a very tight program of space for the project then you can only do the basic things like classrooms. If there's a little more space then you can introduce other kinds of spaces like STEM labs, art labs, industrial arts labs … things that are not seen as necessary but nice to have."
Wallace added that the "focus on outdoors education that my clients have taught me can be used by others going forward and would be a good thing for all kinds of reasons."
COVID is an acute problem and the jury is still out on how this era will add to those design concerns.- Andrew Wallace, Wallace Klypak Architects
The architect has a son in his early teens, so he knows a thing or two about kids getting antsy when they sit all day long.
"They do better when they are given the opportunity to move around, get outside and get some fresh air. COVID aside, I think that's a better way forward for education than just sitting people in rows and columns in square classrooms for days on end."
The National Building Code of Canada didn't have any planned changes to the code inspired by the pandemic it wanted to share. The Saskatchewan Ministry of Education wasn't able to provide a comment on any possible school design change considerations either.
The federal government's COVID-19 guidance for schools recommended increasing ventilation and dedicated $75 million to making upgrades to facilities across Canada. More than half of Saskatoon's schools need upgrading and are approaching the end of their lifespan, with 57 of 83 needing to be replaced in the next three to five years.
Aside from land-based learning elements and community-informed designs, Wallace's newly opened firm is focusing on COVID-era solutions it can implement now.
They're designing sinks, for instance, to go outside of the bathroom on the corridor side.
"It's a few steps less and it's highly visible," said Wallace. "It will increase the opportunities to wash your hands."
Bathroom entrances can be 'airport style' with no doors, meaning one less surface to touch.
Wallace has even considered adding more entrances and exits to the building, such as a door for every classroom leading outside — but then there's the issue of school security.
"There are hundreds of other concerns that are part of the mix when designing a building," said Wallace "COVID is an acute problem and the jury is still out on how this era will add to those design concerns."
Desire to get ahead of the curve
Laura French, president of the Canadian School Boards Association, thinks "schools need to look different going forward, knowing that this kind of pandemic is a reality. We need to look at this when designing schools so those basic requirements are planned for in advance."
She is aware there are challenges on a number of levels with aging infrastructure, proper ventilation and the ability to physically distance while practising COVID safety measures. But she is optimistic about how school designs could change and also looks to First Nations voices for leadership.
"Some of the practices around outdoor education and living classrooms — those are strategies that can speak to this. I would suggest that our Indigenous students and families would be the best informed to help us with some conversations and advice that they would offer."
- A previous version of this article omitted one of the firms working with the Sweetgrass First Nation on its school design. The new school is a collaboration between Wallace Klypak Architects, Tawaw Architecture Collective and the First Nation.Mar 10, 2021 11:36 AM CT