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Learning curve

Learning curve

Graeme Fisher, partner, GAJ education team, discusses the need for classrooms that are flexible enough to handle multiple learning and changes in technology

As the UAE celebrates its 40th anniversary this month, GAJ looks back on designing some of the country’s most iconic education establishments, from Dubai College and Bradenton Academy, to Sharjah Arts Academy, Sharjah Institute of Technology and the School of Business Management at the American University of Sharjah.

It recently signed three contracts for two schools in Qatar and Jumeirah School, Dubai. Graeme Fisher is the partner responsible for the practice’s education team. He has had a range of experience working with schools, colleges and universities in the design and delivery of education projects.

His career began in the south east Asian Sultanate of Brunei, where he worked on the first international school to be built in the country, Jerudong International School. On completion of this project, he returned to London in 1997 and joined international firm Sheppard Robson. Having designed and delivered the award winning Centre for Engineering and Manufacturing Excellence, he was promoted to sector director in charge of delivery of all education projects in 2004.

Whilst he was responsible for the delivery of schools, F.E and H.E projects he specifically led the practice’s schools group and worked with a number of Local Education Authorities to provide design advice in the lead up to the Building Schools for the Future (BSF) programmes. Fisher joined GAJ in Dubai in 2006 and became a partner in 2007.

“We focus on creating an environment that engages pupils, teachers, young artists, designers and scholars through the surroundings within which they study,” he said. “Schools are not only educational facilities, but places where students grow, play, socialise and share.

By studying how young people learn and interact, we design classrooms flexible enough to handle multiple learning methodologies, technology changes, and environmental influences, such as light and acoustics, whilst allowing users to feel comfortable in informal gathering spaces.”

For each individual project, GAJ will establish a clear set of guidelines and objectives to identify a school’s specific needs. For example, it created a facility for 3,380 students in Qatar from Foundation Stage up to Grade 12 encompassing a multi-purpose indoor sports hall, library, art spaces and specialist labs.

It based this around the concept of a “street” that acts as the heart of the school where students interact and congregate and walk to various lessons. The street also opens onto the football pitch and outdoor spaces, creating a synergy between the two.

“Our process of defining clear objectives develops an effective line of communication among the design team, educators and administration staff and helps to establish strong support for the project,” added Fisher.

“It encompasses a number of workshop meetings with committee members, and direct input from faculty heads and teaching staff, culminating with a specification and schematic design which reflects the project’s individual needs.”

GAJ believes it is of equal importance to maintain this user involvement through the detailed working drawings phase as well as the construction period to ensure the completed building meets the required criteria.

“We are committed to creating completed designs that reflect our client’s individual needs. We will take as much care to design the external envelope of the school and outdoor campus spaces as we do with the interiors,” said Fisher.

The educational establishments designed by GAJ try to create an environment that focuses on a design that responds to the specific curriculum needs of the project.

For example; buildings that respond to their setting, environment and designs that are driven by strong, well considered concepts, collaboration and involvement of the key stakeholders, staff and students in the design process, integrated ICT services into the buildings fabric to assist in the teaching and learning process and flexibility in the building’s design and use and future proofing to allow for structured, co-ordinated expansion.

Some of the projects GAJ has worked on include; Dubai College which comprises classrooms, specialist laboratories, swimming pool, lecture theatre, multipurpose hall, design technology centre, and associated external works. The latest phase of development was completed in 2009 with a state-of-the-art 900 seat auditorium, staff accommodation building and sixth form extensions to the existing college.

Bradenton Academy – one of the first co-education schools approved by KHDA, (Knowledge and Human Development Authority, a Dubai government authority that oversees education, both private and public, in the region, having taken over from Dubai Education Council in 2007), has an American university preparatory curriculum from prekindergarten to Grade 12.

Combining the best practices of a progressive education with a classical foundation, students are engaged as individuals and inspired to invest in the process of their own education.

Finally, a Key Stage 2 school in the Jumeirah neighbourhood of Dubai accommodating 1,200 students. As well as ample classrooms and specialist facilities, the school provides a multi-purpose auditorium and outdoor football pitch, multiuse games courts and shaded play areas.

Organised around a central circulation spine leading to clusters of classrooms, originating at the reception area, the clusters themselves are mainly centered around inner courtyards providing indirect sunlight and greenery.

Other considerations GAJ highlights are: sustainable building strategies and designs for air conditioning, ventilation and energy use, generous social ‘breakout ‘spaces and provision for informal discussion and interaction and a clean, recognisable school entrance and access.

“Our school designs provide faculty, staff and students a safe framework in which to learn and flourish as well as a sense of identity, pride and community,” said Fisher.

Angelita Alves is a key member of the education team and has a responsibility to foster the growth and development of the sector, as well as being one of the main project leaders working on the education team.
The Italo-Brazilian architect has lived in four continents, having studied and practiced architecture in cities such as New York, London, Paris and Lisbon before moving to Dubai in 2008 to join GAJ as an architect.

She was promoted to senior architect in 2010 and is currently engaged in the design and construction of two large school projects in Qatar as well as a primary school in Dubai.

Other establishments in the GAJ portfolio include; Sharjah Arts Academy which contains public gallery spaces, specialist teaching workshops, studios, theatre, and associated administrative facilities. Its design was developed to accommodate the future expansion of the Academy, enabling it to organically grow and adapt to future student demand. Sharjah University Convention Hall, The Jumeirah English Speaking School, Dubai, The Al Khubairat Community School, Abu Dhabi and Latifa School for Girls, Dubai.

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