Paving the way for the future of learning
Parklands College in the northern outskirts of Cape Town has expanded its secondary faculty campus to include a new learning and innovation centre. It is designed to suit different, progressive learning methods with a large focus on interaction and collaboration. Managing noise was one of the key challenges.
Parklands College covers three different campuses: the pre-primary and junior preparatory faculty, the senior preparatory faculty and the secondary faculty. It is the latter, with learners aged 13-18, that in 2019 could inaugurate a new learning and innovation centre. A series of different teaching venues have been created:
- Three large “collaboration rooms” accommodate up to 150 learners but can also be adapted to become two or three smaller learning spaces.
- Two large workshop-style rooms have been designed to accommodate activities like robotics and an innovation lab for building and crafting.
- A large indoor recreational area can be used for informal gathering, self-study and includes an AV room for immersive digital experiences.
- Eleven general classrooms and a series of break-away spaces have also been included.
- The learning spaces have been arranged around a central hub – a double-volume glazed atrium shrouded in a perforated aluminium screen – with courtyards on either side.
A building that does it all
One of South Africa’s leading architecture firms, DHK Architects, was assigned to design the new learning and innovation centre. However, there were important requirements. It was essential that the new centre encompassed several collaboration spaces that could take three or four classes at a time, smaller break away rooms for brainstorming and other group tasks, big classrooms for general use not owned by any teacher or class with flexible seating arrangements, a dedicated robotics space together with a general makerspace – and to bind it all, a versatile indoor recreational space.
“The consultants joked affectionately that this needs to be a building that does it all!”, states Sarah Patterson, senior associate and architect at DHK.
The requirements aggregated many factors, of which some became primary drivers for all spaces and the learning spaces in particular:
- natural light
- thermal comfort
- connection to the outdoors
- good acoustics.
The future of learning
Crucial to the design of the new building was the ability to apply new, progressive learning techniques. Parklands College brings together different ages and/or subjects and can, for instance, combine an English, a geography and a math class in order to solve cross-disciplinary problems. Teachers are no longer the only bearers and disseminators of knowledge; there is so much access to all kinds of information at a learner’s fingertips. In these circumstances, how can teachers be facilitators of knowledge?
“Parklands College focuses less on merely giving the children a lot to learn and more on what they call ‘global competencies’ to grow minds. This focuses on shaping the children to become creative agents, purposeful collaborators, critical thinkers, effective communicators and responsible citizens”.
Suspended floating panels
The spatial instruments that manifest from these ideas of blended and collaborative learning are quite large spaces where sound could be difficult to control. But a traditional suspended ceiling solution was in conflict with the thermal requirements. The surface area of the concrete roof needed to be exposed, to enable the concrete to absorb heat in summer and retain heat in winter.
“But you can’t learn effectively without being able to hear properly. We needed a solution that granted acoustic control and still allowed 50 percent of the concrete to remain exposed. We found a solution with Ecophon’s “Solo” suspended floating panels for the learning spaces, in a grid-like system and baffles in the larger, open spaces”, Sarah Patterson explains.
Acoustic panels housing screens
But all sound will not be absorbed by the ceiling, the walls typically play an important role as well. However, due to the relationship of the breakaway areas to the co-lab rooms, Sarah wanted as much transparency as possible.
“A teacher needs to be able to keep an eye on all groups but also on the learners still in the room. This required a lot of glazing. With that comes a lot of echoing and reverberation. We created acoustic panels that house all the TV units and screens that were placed at key points throughout the room.”
This way, the integrated wall panels and the floating ceiling panels work together, allowing the concrete to do its work with the thermal conditions whilst still enjoying visual connections and an abundance of natural light.
“The feedback we received seems positive; the teachers’ ability to do the collaborative learning is effective as they can be heard from any point of the room without raising their voice.”
Acoustic measurements have been done that verify this feedback as well.
The acoustic solution allows students to feel quiet and contained whilst they are engaged in learning, despite the close proximity of other classes, adjacent movement and the natural environment.
A better sound environment with new technology
Acoustics are vital for any building, but particularly in a building that has to perform in multiple ways, Sarah stresses.
“The acoustic solution allows students to feel quiet and contained whilst they are engaged in learning, despite the close proximity of other classes, adjacent movement and the natural environment. You are aware of the surrounding environment, but it is not imposing or interfering with your ability to concentrate.”
Also, new technology and digitalisation can assist in creating a better sound environment, Sarah thinks. Parklands College uses a lot of new technology with screens, devices, computers and robotics as integrated tools in its education.
“It allows learners and teachers to communicate in different ways and from distances without having to strain to raise their voices. Everyone does not have to be crowded around one space in the room, it allows you to spread out and still be heard and understood.”
A space where noise is appropriate
When entering the building you step right into its nucleus, an impressive atrium in steel and glass with high ceilings. The light flows in through a perforated aluminium outdoor screen that functions as a sunscreen. The first thing that comes in mind, apart from the elegancy and the abundance of light and air, is that this must be quite a noisy place.
“The school calls it ‘Grand Central’ because this is where the comings-and-goings and interactions are, a place where people hang out. The noise in this space is not considered a problem. It’s almost appropriate and suits some kids, a place where they can just blend in and be part of the buzz. It is quite nice to go from ‘Grand Central’ into the quieter spaces. You feel the immediate change”, Sarah points out.
A building that does it all. Indeed, Parklands College got what they wanted.
Text: Lars Wirtén