As states start reopening schools, parents worried about the safety of children wonder if the institutions will be able to enforce social distancing norms or follow the right sanitisation methods. Will these buildings enable the social interaction so necessary after the isolation children have been forced into over the past year? Will they keep them safe?
The pandemic has driven home the need for well-ventilated, safe spaces and school architecture, and its suitability for the new normal, is now very much in focus. Vaishali Shankar, design director at SJK Architects, Mumbai, blogged about the dilemma recently. “Schools, even under progressive boards like IB, despite the openness of their curriculum, are almost always closed, boxed up buildings having fallen prey to the ‘me-too’ syndrome of equating better infrastructure with central air conditioning,” she says. However, cross-ventilation is essential even within a classroom.
Samira Rathod, of the eponymous design atelier, believes schools should reassess structures, keeping them ready for future pandemics or similar eventualities. “We could be looking at bigger classrooms with fewer kids. Perhaps use the same space optimally by creating shifts, with some students coming in during the morning and some in the afternoon,” she says. Since schools are likely to follow a hybrid model, with some lessons continuing online, institutions could think of investing in small halls that would allow for socially-distanced workshops, with some children joining in online.
At the heart of the six principles suggested to make schools healthier, safer and happier spaces by Shankar in her blog, is the design ethos that SJK Architects applies to it’s projects—of using traditional wisdom while taking into account climate and topography of the place “Modifications can be made to the facade. One can install screens, or jalis, on building facades in cities regardless of their climatic zones, but particularly in hot regions. These are helpful in keeping the sun out but not the wind,”she says . In one project, SJK Architects kept such screens movable.
Outdoor spaces are key, she believes. A welcome design principle could be to open up a building’s north face, which receives the best shade, and is hence the coolest. This would obviously be most feasible in a new design where the north could be opened up to provide courtyards, shaded balconies, terraces and amphitheatres, offering social spaces, a chance to re-establish human connections, and reduce air-conditioning needs.
Such spaces are essential, says Shankar. “Children have been studying from home in isolation. They have been meeting their classmates virtually but missing out on playtime. They derive so much learning from the interpersonal interaction and peer-to-peer sharing, which is not happening these days,” she adds.
If ground-level courtyards take up too much space, architects could look at distributing them over other levels. Shankar suggests a staircase be used as a courtyard if the construction has to be compact. “Making the staircase a conduit for sun and wind can convert it into an urban courtyard—a space for social connections and welcome breaks. Also, carving into the building to provide small terraces at every level can allow for each classroom to have a small attached open space. But whether at one level or at many, greening up the terrace for the children to use is such a simple possibility! It can bring an additional beneﬁt—the joy of learning from nature,” writes Shankar in her blog, which can be viewed at www.sjkarchitect.com/post/2021-beginning-anew-a-joyful-reimagining-of-our-schools.