How does school design influence the process of teaching and learning? Understanding current educational design trends and methodologies is key to designing healthy spaces for students to develop their social and academic capacities.
If we look at the evolution of school design through time, we can see that each period has its own challenges and preferences. Today's main challenge in school design is to create spaces that can integrate open learning environments that incorporate diversity of learning spaces, social interaction and sustainability.
The architecture industry seems to constantly be on the lookout for new materials and methodologies that better incorporate sustainability. One material which has stood the test of time, while also finding space for innovation, is wood. In this context, British Columbia (Canada) stands out as one of the world's largest exporters of wood products, and has successfully applied a number of strategies to maximize its use in sustainable design. One notable example, which will be explored in this article, is the use of wood in schools.
Why use wood in schools?
Choosing wood as the main material for school design allows the creation of optimal learning and healthy environments for students, teachers and staff. Besides being sustainable, renewable and supporting local economies and communities, this material is strong, durable and easy to modify or renovate. British Columbia (BC) is pushing the boundaries of wood design and construction, offering schools access to leading-edge technologies.
"Wood Use in BC Schools", by architects thinkspace and engineers Fast + Epp, is intended as a useful guide for individuals or organizations who are curious about the use of wood in schools, which has grown significantly in recent years. The introduction of wooden elements of varying sizes and scopes came largely due to the advances in technology and acceptance among the design community and building officials.
Mass timber and hybrid mass timber are both a viable alternative to concrete-steel construction. While providing alternative solutions to address building code regulations, the introduction of mass timber beams and columns allows professionals to create large-scale learning neighborhoods with flexible layouts.
The first three-story hybrid mass timber elementary school in BC
Ta’Talu Elementary School in Surrey, BC, which will be completed in the spring of 2024, will be the first three-story, hybrid mass timber elementary school building in BC. In addition to the added aesthetics, biophilic elements and enhanced learning properties of wood construction, hybrid mass timber was chosen as the main structural element to follow the school’s sustainability objective of reducing carbon emissions.
Combining mass timber construction with other materials such as steel or concrete creates a hybrid system that makes the most of each materials’ properties. Its flexibility and performance develops a typology that meets complex code requirements and cost constraints for three- and four-story school design.
Making the grade: Advances in wood technology
Recent advances in wood technology include innovations in its fabrication process, new products, structural connections and techniques, the introduction of Building Information Modeling (BIM) in mass timber construction, and computer-numerically controlled (CNC) machining of mass timber.
Advancements in the efficiency of the mass timber fabrication process include, among others, structural advances in the application of timber and changes to material standards and building codes. For example, the British Columbia Building Code has included a new type of construction: encapsulated mass timber construction (EMTC), a process in which drywall is used to wrap mass timber elements to ensure the structure meets fire safety requirements.
Incorporating BIM modeling will allow all parties to better understand a building, improving consultant coordination, and avoiding conflicts between structural, mechanical, electrical and architectural disciplines.
Wellness with wood: Health and biophilic benefits
Introducing wood into school design creates a healthier environment that promotes both mental and physical well-being, while enhancing learning potential. The innate connection to nature that it provides –biophilia– reduces stress and increases productivity among students.
Between production, delivery, and assembly, designing with wood comes with sustainable benefits such as a minimizing the project's carbon footprint while supporting jobs for people in communities across the province. Known as sequestering carbon, wood design is able to store carbon within a building over its lifespan, meaning that a measurable amount of carbon is not released into the environment.
Types of wood systems used in schools
When designing schools with wood, there are several ways to combine wood systems for each project’s requirements. Some of the options include structural mass timber and hybrid mass timber, together with non-structural interior and exterior use.
Structural mass timber consists of wood components that are glued, nailed, or fastened together into larger panelized elements. In Belmont Secondary School, mass timber allows for a quicker, more efficient execution of structural elements, leading to less site disturbance while minimizing the length of time the structure is exposed to weather.
Combining mass timber with other materials, such as concrete and steel, develops what is known as hybrid mass timber construction. In this type of system, mass timber can be used where it makes sense and combined with other materials for building assemblies. In some cases, there must be additional tests to verify its performance, as per new building code regulations. Sir Matthew Begbie Elementary School and Bayview Elementary School exemplify the use of hybrid mass systems. These systems work best with specific design objectives, especially with regards to their performance, member sizes, or spans.
The future is wood: Lessons learned for new projects
The introduction of mass timber in school design generated a number of opportunities and lessons learned. The pre-fabricated approach meant an accelerated construction schedule and an expedited enclosure process with precise manufacturing tolerances. The faster construction time implied less time on site as well as reduced manpower hours, providing significant financial savings. A key lesson learned after the projects' completion is the truly welcoming environment created by the exposed wood.
Wood use in schools is here to stay. As government and school boards become aware of the versatility in wood design, it seems that there is consensus on the fact that wood is an excellent choice for their students and environmental mandates. Together with ongoing education efforts, it is key for industry players - from the design, engineering and manufacturing sectors - to push boundaries on providing a better understanding of mass timber and its capabilities.
Read more about the Wood Use in BC Schools Report on naturallywood.com.