Finnish education has been ranked very high in international comparison (Programme for International Student Assessment, PISA) in recent years. One of the reasons for Finland’s success is that municipalities invest in quality school architecture and organize architectural competitions for new projects.
Verstas Architects’ entry won the open competition for Kirkkojärvi school in Espoo, Finland in 2006. The school was completed in August 2010. Saunalahti school, another competition winning project by Verstas in Espoo, is set for completion in 2012. For Verstas Architects, the primary goal of these projects has been to create school designs that combine functionality, comfort, efficiency and ecology.
In 2012 Helsinki, together with the neighbouring cities of Espoo, Vantaa, Kauniainen and Lahti, will be World Design Capital. The theme of the year – embedding design in life – fits well with the ideas behind Verstas’ school designs. Kirkkojärvi school houses pre-school and grades 1-9, with students aged between 6-16 years old. The name of the competition entry, ”Veljet” (Finnish for “Brothers”), describes the layout of the building. Secondary school and common spaces, such as the dining hall and gymnasium, form the larger curved mass, or the bigger brother. The other mass, the little brother, houses the smaller, intimate and domestic spaces of the primary school.
“We wanted to make a school that works like a small, lively city” says architect Jussi Palva of Verstas Architects. ”All classes have their own home areas with dedicated lobbies and entrances, around which the classrooms are organized. The home areas are separated from the more public central space, yet the distances are kept as short as possible.” Each home area has its own unique colour scheme, making it easy for children to navigate in the building.
In Finland, children are encouraged to spend the breaks in between classes outdoors. In Kirkkojärvi school, the close connection between home areas and yards makes going outside inviting. The building divides the plot into school yards with favourable orientations for children of different ages. The yards connected to the primary school are oriented toward the morning sun while the secondary school students, whose school days are longer, enjoy the afternoon sun.
The brick facades utilize the versatile properties of brick, comprising a collage of different brick-laying and bonding techniques. The wooden facades facing the school yards are sheltered by long eaves. The low height of these walls creates a small, safe scale.
School facilities are also utilized by local residents. In the evenings the gymnasium, music and crafts classrooms and multi-purpose spaces are used by various hobby clubs. Kirkkojärvi school utilizes geothermal and solar energy. The school serves as an example of built environment to the children and provides a framework for ecological education.
In July 2011 Kirkkojärvi school was selected as a winning project in the 2011 International Architecture Awards organized by The Chicago Athenaeum: Museum of Architecture and Design and The European Centre for Architecture Art Design and Urban Studies. The building was the only awarded project in Finland.