Education design in the region is being informed by the new focus on knowledge-based economy

Education design in the region is being informed by the new focus on knowledge-based economy

As countries in the region put increased emphasis on education, the learning institutions are also embracing the new dynamics of design

Education design, Godwin Austen Johnson, Sven Muller, Yann Pennes, Lulie Fisher, School design

The UAE has been consistently working towards reducing its reliance on the oil and gas sector, while injecting more resources into its education market, expected to grow at a CAGR of 4.74% during the period 2018-2022. According to a new report from Boston Consulting Group, the sector will continue to grow from $4.4bn in 2017 to $7.1bn by 2023.

Another report released by the UAE’s Knowledge and Human Development Authority (KHDA) offers a detailed insight into the growing number of private sector schools in Dubai. The report features 185 private schools in the emirate with enrolment figures standing at around 274,000 students.

Even the higher education sector is getting a major boost in the UAE, which has been aiming to be an education hub in the region. It is home to the largest number of university branch campuses in the world after China. Mohammad Abdullah, managing director of Dubai International Academic City and Dubai Knowledge Park and president of the recently opened Dubai Institute of Design and Innovation, notes that more branch campuses are expected to set up in the UAE, albeit with a more rigorous selection process.

This rise in confidence comes on the back of recent changes to the country’s visa policies, which will allow international students in the UAE to obtain a five-year student visa, with plans to further allow exceptional students to apply for a 10-year residency.

While the rising numbers in students and academic institutions spell a strategic success of the UAE government’s long-term plans to create a self-sustaining and robust economy, it is also providing an impetus to the design industry. An increasing number of service providers are investing in learning spaces that are reflective of these changing demands and demographics.

Saudi Arabia’'s education sector is also expected to grow exponentially on the back of a rising population, increasing private sector participation and growing demand for a skilled workforce. Over 50 public and private universities are providing academic and vocational training across the Kingdom. It is also making concerted efforts towards nurturing its education sector at the primary, secondary, and higher education levels in order to fulfill future demands.

Designing for the education sector today is considered a multifaceted challenge. In creating successful learning institutions, today’s architects and designers must consider a host of ever-evolving conditions, such as changing learning patterns and the impact of technology innovation.


Yann Pennes, senior projects director, Dewan Architects + Engineers, says that the focus of design is to create the framework within which the education community will strive and progress in the best possible environment. “One of the fundamentals of designing for learning institutions is to create buildings and interiors focused on the educational experience, allowing all stakeholders to express their full potential.”

At a roundtable organised by Middle East Architect, Dubai-based industry experts, Ralf Steinhauer from RSP Architects,  Jason Burnside from Godwin Austen Johnson (GAJ) and Phillip Jones from B+H Architects, discussed the latest developments in the education sector. Chief among them was the integration of technology in the classroom, shifting teacher-student dynamics and the creation of open, collaborative social spaces.

Even if the basic tenets of education design remains the same, which takes into account efficiency, flexibility, creativity and responding to the ergonomic and social demands of the user, modern-day schools need to embrace the spaces outside of the traditional classroom. “With advances in technology, students and teachers use these spaces for everything from breakout learning to impromptu drama sessions,” says Burnside of GAJ. “We’re also mindful of the fact that it’s not just about education. Children go to school to socialise as well as learn, which also informs the design and architecture of these spaces.”

While technology has heavily impacted classroom design, with whiteboards being replaced by interactive touch screens and frequent charging stations now elemental, student wellness has become the driving factor for opening up spatial layouts beyond the classroom, which have grown to incorporate friendly social spaces. The aim is to create environments that encourage collaboration among peers, and such demands require increased flexibility in terms of space usage.

“We’re now seeing what’s called ‘the flip classroom’, which has just picked up in North America and Europe,” says Burnside. “It’s the idea that you come to school to collaborate and you go home to study. It derives from the finding that when you’re in the classroom copying what the teacher is writing on the board, you’re not really learning, so some of that could be done at home.”

Changing teacher and student habits, the flip classroom is mostly isolated to education centres within the private sector, and it is part of a larger conversation that incorporates ‘blended learning’, or the combination of technology with traditional teaching.

“Students are expected to bring a surface tablet to school now, which will connect to the classroom and the interactive television screen that has replaced the blackboard,” Burnside adds. “It allows teachers greater insight into how each pupil is progressing, and the technology is being used in a more clever way, because schools are mimicking how things operate in the workplace.”

Interior blueprints now take into account such features as portable battery towers which are distributed throughout the classroom spaces to ensure that students can recharge their electronic devices throughout the day — a real and practical problem that comes with the increased reliance on technology. Pennes adds that design concepts that integrate technologies such as PV cells, ICT and IOT into the space are being introduced to feed the sharing of knowledge and hands-on learning experience in classrooms.

As with most aspects of living in a technology-driven world, education design has evolved to adapt to the changing needs of students and teachers. “Over the years, education design has evolved from an enclosed concept, withdrawn from its surroundings and more focused on a classic transmission of knowledge into a more open environment which acknowledges the needs of each stakeholder,” says Pennes.

Sven Mueller, founder of SVENM architecture and design consultancy, agrees that schools and universities are being designed to provide students with more ownership of how they learn. Stressing on the rising popularity of non-traditional, de-compartmentalised classroom environments, he cites the example of his firm’s ongoing work on the Al Ghurair University. “This project doesn’t require only classrooms, but digital labs, spaces for group collaboration and what we call ‘zones of opportunity’,” says Mueller. “Each institution is different but there does appear to be a positive industry focus on schools and universities being naturally lit, ventilated, reduced energy consumption, state-of-the-art technology and where a learner-centric approach can flourish.”

Academic establishments in the UAE are also hoping to become havens of creative and personal growth for their student populations. Offering sports facilities, post-school programming, and relaxed environments, these buildings are looking to create a second home for their pupils.

“Looking back on the universities or schools I attended, they were very functional and mostly just consisted of corridors that led to different classrooms, but it wasn’t about hanging out or enjoying yourself,” says Steinhauer. “Now, designing for education projects in the UAE requires an emphasis on how students feel, and how they perceive the day.”


While traditional classrooms continue to be the bedrock of education in the UAE, schools are turning to innovative features to stand out among fierce competition. “We have worked on a number of schools where the plot sizes were restricted but the client wanted an open layout,” says Burnside. “In these cases, we have managed to utilise the foyer space as an epicentre for the school that is open for teachers, students and parents to use.”

Citing the example of Emirates International School, Burnside says that the daylight-flooded atrium was designed to foster social interaction, while creating an inviting space that can be utilised for activities and gatherings. “It’s all about light and collaborative environments,” he says.

Lulie Fisher, founder of her eponymous design studio, worked on the Sixth Form Dubai English Speaking College (DESC), which won the highly commended recognition at the Commercial Interior Design Awards 2018. She says: “A layout, which enhances the concepts of community and collaboration by blending various modes of circulation, teaching, study and relaxation, makes for a holistic space. Some of the various components being integrated into schools are centered on well-being. These include yoga and pilates studios, careers and counselling suites, state-of-the-art gyms and even a Japanese zen style garden such as the one we created for DESC.”

Pennes of Dewan Architects reckons that while the central unit remains the classroom space, its articulation and relationships with surrounding facilities play an equally significant role. “It’s about the overall learning experience,” he says. “Communal spaces are being added, while other spaces are being repositioned such as agoras, extra-curricular spaces such as labs and workshops, which are further connected to redefined classic spaces such as the library and canteen.”


Designing for educational institutions in the UAE is not without its challenges. Burnside notes that the biggest challenges in education design come from the reduced plot sizes and limited site access points which place significant pressure on the planning against the target BUA aspirations of the school operator. “In addition, education buildings are, by comparison, at the economical end of the scale and designers have to be creative to deliver a stimulating environment for both students and teachers,” he says.

Although technology-heavy features continue to define design strategies in education, the continuous advancement in technology poses new challenges. “Designing a facility that will continue to be relevant during its lifespan given the pace of technological progress and the constant updates to the curriculum due to changes in policies, present new paradigms to consider,” says Fisher.

New experiences in learning centres also create a new dimension in terms of safety and security. “The widening of the educational experiences has also increased the safety challenges to ensure that those new practices are carried out in a proper environment,” states Pennes.

Despite the challenges facing the education sector, architects are confident in its direction, and they’ve noted the many strides being made, whether that’s greater consideration for students’ well-being or schools’ hopes of contributing to the fabric of their surrounding communities.

(Additional reporting by Middle East Architect)

This article originally appeared in the November issue of Commercial Interior Design under the headline "A Studied Approach".

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