From Factory to Learning Landscape

Re-Dedicating Buildings is a common way to make use of existing space in order to accommodate new functions. Empty office buildings, shopping centers or production plants wait for a new purpose. In a lack of land plots available for educational use, more and more schools rent these spaces. However, to turn a building originally designed for an industrial production into a good teaching environment is not that easy. Many things have to be considered: costs, time and of course regulations. Before choosing an existing building that should be converted into a school, you should consult a specialized architect, otherwise it can be a very expensive investment. Daniel Heusser, Holt Zhang and Helen Jiang from VIRTUARCH discuss about how to plan and execute such a transformation process.

Daniel Heusser: Theoretically yes, from an economic point of view no. A school building must meet many specific requirements in terms of safety, daylight, material etc. We need to analyze on one hand the requirements of the school, and on the other hand the structure and the substance of an existing building to see the feasibility under consideration of hidden costs and to make a recommendation, whether an investment should be done or not.


Holt Zhang: We always recommend to take samples of the targeted building’s floors and walls. If the structures cannot meet the requirement, they need to be reinforced. If we find toxic substances, they have to be removed, which can be complex and costly procedure, if it is possible at all. We never neglect any of these preparations as protecting children’s safety and health is a top priority.

Helen Jiang: Daylight was mentioned before. It’s an essential requirement for teaching areas. Think about shopping centers. Usually, they offer a lot of floor space, but they hardly have any daylight.

Daniel Heusser: In these cases, it makes sense to install new windows and bring in additional daylight by opening skylights and inserting voids. The question is, do these investments pay off in the end. For the Shekou International School in Shenzen they did. In this project, we transformed a former department store into a school. Unique for this school is an open classroom plan with multiple break-out rooms. Together with the great view over the Bay area of Shenzhen, this school environment is inspiring for students and teachers and definitely the only high school in the area allowing students to reach their classes by escalator.

Helen Jiang: Much more straight-forward was the project for FGA (Future Grow Academy) in Minhang; here, we fitted out an entire floor of a shopping mall to create a kindergarten for around 250 children. Twelve classrooms and all necessary common and shared areas were inserted into the shopping mall space, with indoor and outdoor play areas for the children. The color and light design transform the former shopping areas into a child-friendly, bright learning environment.

Helen Jiang: There are a lot of regulations, you cannot mention them all here. Generally, we can say that in nearly all cases we were involved in, the existing building did not comply with regulations for school buildings, nor did they fulfill elementary safety requirements, for one simple reason: The buildings were not designed for kids in the first place. This has implications for many aspects.

Holt Zhang: For instance, there are various rules over details like the ratio of class number to sports facilities, the size of the windows for each classroom to obtain effective sunlight, the distance from any indoor children’s activity area to the exits, and the height of the handrails and indoor window sills. The domestic educational building regulations are very mature, and some of these standards are even higher than other countries. More than a dozen regulation books could be found, either directly or indirectly related to campus codes.

We should keep the regulations, and we should understand its flexibility in practical use. Otherwise it brings not good design.In actual projects, you must learn to meet the regulations while fulfilling the new era campus standards. VIRTUARCH’s design standard for education building is: “When children, parents, and teachers walk into the campus we designed, they will find that this is not where they are forced to go, but a place that they once dreamed of, where they could realize dreams, and brings good memories in their life. “

Daniel Heusser: We have also to consider that children behave differently from adults. They hide behind objects, they climb, they jump, they run. This results in higher standards to be fulfilled. Another important issue is orientation: We have to design spaces where  children find their way easily even in an emergency.  Are the exits well visible, at their ‘natural’ place and adequately marked? What about the handrails, are they mounted at the correct height for children of different age groups? The bottom line is: Children have different needs. A design for a school building must take this into account.

Change: Put A Smile on the Children’s Face

Holt Zhang: The people to convince in the first place are investment companies, school officials, teachers and parents. Our design not only builds a space, but creates an environment, a way of life, and then after ensuring that all requirements are met and that the investment is worthwhile, creativity becomes the focus of the architects.

Daniel Heusser: We are interested in the built result and in the learning environment we can provide to the students. A good example is the German School in Pudong. We started with an old, unattractive existing industrial building transforming it into a vibrant school loved by kids, teachers and the parents. The trick is to have a good understanding for the requirements of the school and then the right ‘feeling’ for the potential the existing structure has; it’s actually a creative reinterpretation of the space. Like that, a former backyard of the building became the new heart of the school, a foyer filled with daylight and student activities; the German School nicknamed this transformation which happened over a summer holiday ‘Das Wunder von Pudong’ (‘The miracle of Pudong’).

Helen Jiang: One of our main new design elements are colored panel wall dividing classrooms from corridors and connection spaces. These wall function as separators, but they also have little windows inserted creating visual connections and different sights on every floor.  The corridors in the school are open, full of light and follow a strict color concept facilitating the orientation of the students. The resting and meeting places are colorful and create a friendly and stimulating space all around. If you are in the school, you can feel the vibrating atmosphere.

Daniel Heusser: A successful project is a project that provides the best possible learning environment to the students. Find the most effective solution, partially contradicting parameters such as existing building conditions, budget restrictions, time pressure and user requirements is VIRTUARCH’s benchmark for its projects. Important for the success of such projects is therefore not only creativity, deep knowledge of regulations and a profound understanding of user requirements gained through many years of realizing school projects, but also the project management.  We manage projects like the German School in Pudong from the beginning to the end. Since we are architects, interior designer and project managers, we ensure that even complex projects can be completed within the deadlines and within the budget framework.

The next VIRTUARCH Expert Talk will focus on how to change or expand schools during the short period of a summer break.

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