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Design of an eco-sensitive, inclusive Steiner school installed in 50 days


Class room tents, Bangalore Steiner School


“We want to shift our school with 125 children to a new temporary place in less than 2 months, can you help us design this?” asked the school authorities."

50 days! seemed an impossible task looking into the current realities of the state of building construction in Bangalore. The site of 5 acres was chosen around 30 km outside the city in a 20-year-old farm, which also housed pigs and goats. How did we ditch our traditional approach to architecture to come up with alternative ideas to meet the construction needs of this school in a short time? In the following reading, we will share our approach and learning while designing this school.

When we met the founders of Bangalore Steiner School a few months ago, we found ourselves drawn to the problem they were attempting to solve. We were excited about the possibilities and the level of impact our work would have. The founders wanted to relocate, and transition to a larger campus in the most cost-effective, friendly way without compromising the educational philosophy of the school, and the spirit of students, teachers, and parents. The goal for design for us was largely the same.


Background

Steiner schools are based on the educational philosophies of Rudolf Steiner an Austrian social reformer, architect, and philosopher. Steiner schools follow a curriculum based on stages of child growth and development marked by observable changes in a child’s gradual learning abilities. The method of education is designed to be responsive to the various phases of child development. The total Steiner curriculum has been likened to an ascending spiral: subjects are revisited several times, but each new exposure affords greater depth and new insights. He emphasized an education method on the balanced development of Hands, Heart & Head. For more on Steiner education in Bangalore, you can visit here.

Steiner schools are programmatically different from traditional State, CBSE or ISCE-run schools as they do have a different curriculum. They base their curriculum on the following Steiner philosophy.

Early Childhood (0–7) — Realm of willing — educate the body intelligence through senses, Middle childhood (7–14) — Realm of feeling — educate the emotional intelligence through feeling, Adolescence (14–18) — Realm of abstract thinking — educate the mind. When founders described the situation, we brainstormed on how to tackle the current situation and bind it to the educational philosophy that it works on.


  1. How do we relocate an entire school infrastructure in the least amount of time, with limited resources, and a low budget?

  2. How do we ensure the right protection, shelter, services, and all school activities to run efficiently on a daily basis?

  3. How do we build trust with the parent community during the progress of the new makeover?

  4. How do we design informal educational activities, and services for operational efficiency yet express them with a sense of beauty?

  5. How do we re-use, reduce and re-purpose any resources we have in the making of the built form to reduce cost and increase speed?

We subconsciously followed a Cyclic/Circular design thinking approach as the scale of what we are re-designing has shifted from the mere design of the built form (school) to continuous learning systems that shape the minds of students over a period of time absorbed in the environment. What we are designing moved away from a Design of a school to a more complex web of intimately connected networks of parents, families, teachers, kids, dreamers, believers, and so forth. Within our constraints, we accommodated diverse ideas of people who shape up and sustain the spirit of learning in this school.


Bangalore Steiner School is made functional in a record time of 48 days. Today a total of 125 students, 30 teachers, 16 support people spend their entire day in the green lush campus of school. The first reactions by the students was very humbling to see. The kids were overjoyed by the openness, access to nature, access to their tools and belonging to their teachers and classrooms. Also the contractors and school management shared a happy experience :-).


1. Get an insider view

Before we started designing the school, we participated early in schools expansion plans. The big difference has been that our son is a student of the school and also he will be one of the many students who will be affected by this transition.

We volunteered as parents to design the school with support from other parents who wished to help with the setting up of the school as well. We participated in discussions to understand the teaching styles, and challenges that the teachers, students, and the management faced in the daily operations of the school. We learned that teachers loved to bond with students and build a sense of elderly trust that helped in the process of a child’s learning. Teachers spent a lot of time with individual students to become closer and create interest in their teaching activities.

Our active participation along with the trust that the management had in our decisions made the whole process faster with their coordination and quick sanctions.


2. Planning for durable activities in a densely green site

The 5 acres densely planted site came with its own set of challenges. Tree covers, slope, water flow, soil condition, safe site boundary, the light, wind, local building skills, local materials, local living systems & local politics were our top-of-the-mind concerns.


How little can we build, to make the school activities get their expression was our single most concern.


As we walked several times in the site, enjoying the views, smells, sounds, and living activities (animals, birds, plants) it offered, we noted zones on the site that would unite with the existing activities the place was already rich with. We wanted to intervene as little as possible, allowing it to grow over a period of time. After marking the key zone roughly on the site and documenting it with photographs we were confident to work on the drawing board to an extent. The site was dense and organic. We realised that the lines on the drawing board would erase all the living activity, increase construction, and increase the complexity of design leading to increased costs. So we decided not to take the traditional architectural approach of drawing and send the drawings to the site for execution. Instead, we started to sketch, mark and design on-site. This allowed us to improvise quickly, iterate faster solutions, and cross-check with the contractor about the feasibility and implementation. This reduced building costs and time.



Site Zoning


3. Explore, asses ideas quickly with feasibility ratings

We followed a participatory designing technique encouraging ideas from parents, management on building styles, vendor connections, and local knowledge. Initial ideas included Container homes, Bamboo construction methods, Rammed earth construction, local village archetype construction techniques, military-style canvas tents, and so on. We noted the ideas and rated it against the current reality of time and cost. Against every idea, we called the respective vendors to get a feasibility picture and cost associated with building a pre-calculated area. After a cost vs building skill review, we zeroed in on the use of Canvas tents over a normal plinth construction. This idea clearly scored over others for a few reasons.

  1. We found vendors who packaged it in a clear estimate to execute that was within the budget and time

  2. It was time tested earlier in the old school, teachers and students knew its pros & cons. The newer tents came with a promise of better quality fabric and joinery than the existing ones.

  3. It was flexible, modular, and suited the planning requirements of the school and future plans.


4. Find a hero contractor

One of the main challenges of the project was to recruit an inspired and energetic contractor who is willing to participate with enthusiasm to give solutions with great speed and execute flawlessly. We decided not to make detailed drawings or engage specialist consultants, and electrical and plumbing layouts to speed up the project and reduce cost. Many contractors were skeptical to participate initially. We devised an alternate story of wrapping the project in 60 days to clear all the payments within the time so that the labour can be mobilized with certainty. This made the proposition interesting to a few as we reduced time, the money flow would be faster and they would be free to commit to any larger project after 60 days. In a small timeframe, now it is easier to design your profits.

Due to the nature of design and planning, it was now easier to formulate the requirements to vendors more specifically getting control on cost. We hired two contractors — one working on civil works, the second solely focussing on installing classrooms. We asked for item rate estimates so that we could note the deviations that happened in any change of designs. Our contractor/ Engineer was first of all sensitive, good with locals, enthusiastic, and who was great in managing the local dynamics dealing with people, and procuring materials.


5. Learning from ‘Site’ conditions

A dash of rain was enough to make all the red ground turn green within a day. The tall straws filled the ground between the network of the Neem trees. Earthworms were busy, and so were the Mynahs, Sparrows, Bulbuls, and a few other little colored birds, ants, snakes, and exotic insects. The ground sloped on two sides gradually. A culvert collected water on one side of the slope. A pack of farm dogs roamed freely. They were assigned to reduce the monkey menace. The monkeys however had found safe routes in the trees. Bees and butterflies were visible in bushed clusters. Overall wilderness breathed strong. As architects, we were aware that a group of 200 kids were to join this party!. We hoped that they will co-exist learning from each other which the Steiner philosophy upheld. The culture of the land and natural materials available in the immediate environment are emphasized to make the learning process relevant and engaging for the child.

The approach to the site was a no-brainer. “Build as little as possible, be sensitive to existing life, create light foundations for quick re-use, use the natural slope to channel water, dig little, do not use permanent construction methods, and so on..”. This decreased the cost naturally.



Architectural Solution: Canvas Tents, light foundation, reusing existing structures

Mini earthmovers were used to level the ground. We identified 4 zones of activities matching Steiner's recommendation of class clusters. We identified different zones of activities — Office/Lab, Kindergarten, Classes 1 and 2, Classes 3,4,5, and Classes 6, 7,8. The kitchen, Woodwork area, and Toilets were also set up to support the basic needs of the children in the school.

The construction method had to be quick and ready to work, steering clear of curing time, and bonding issues that cause delay.

  1. The existing farmhouse was allocated to be re-used for younger kids. Safety was mapped based on the distance to activity with respect to the elders closest to the activity. We made sure they get an auditory and visual connection with kids and teachers in each zone.

  2. Rammed earth plinths just 1 foot high, 43/21 feet with the cement finished flooring was provided as a base for all the classrooms. This was one section that would cause delay as it needed a minimum 21-day curing time, which we did not have. We went ahead with pitching the tents on these plinths and working out a maintenance agreement with the contractor to re-work the issues that would arise eventually to be fixed after 6 months of usage.

  3. Custom stitched canvas tents, with tubular frame structures were installed with provision for lighting points, 1 fan point, 4 roll windows, and a double wooden flush door. It covered 16/32 feet designed to accommodate 25 children with individual seating.

  4. The porch space is a spill-out space to include a shoe rack and is open enough to create their own identities for classroom activities. They also use it to store washed utensils.

  5. An existing garage was converted into a Kitchen store, adding an extension to cook a simple, healthy vegetarian meal for nearly 200 occupants.

  6. An existing goat shed was converted into an office space due to its crucial location near the entrance of the school. We also saved on building a new foundation for this activity. It houses a science laboratory, a sick room, and an office space.

  7. A chain link mesh marked out the school boundary.

  8. The roofing sheets, chappadi stones for the floor, sinks, steel members, and Kadapa slabs for seating from the previous campus were re-used to create a wood workshop

  9. 4 toilet blocks & soak pits were created the local way using concrete rings. The network of roots would help in consuming the waste as manure.

  10. Finally, All the major zones like the Open-air theater, School van Parking, Outdoor play areas for athletic activities like high-jump/long jump, basketball, throw ball, and Badminton were planned but the undergrowth was cleared to accommodate these activities which would take shape over time as the school started functioning.


Classrooms Cluster 1





What next?

The place is designed to include new activities and content. Creative teachers, students, traveling faculty, and parents will add visual diversity through their educational activities expressing the true spirit the school offers. We already see self-created signboards, new plants, wood experiments, trampoline, flying fox, Tyre swing, rope climbs, and many more created by students, teachers, and parents together.

When we now visit the school as parents, we see that it continues to grow and evolve, the children enjoy a sense of comfort and growing familiarity in their new campus. It has been comforting to see how the organic design and execution have made the school come alive and make the space a thriving environment for children, teachers, and everybody else who is a part of this school.

Please do mail bangaloresteinerschool@gmail.com for more details.

Do visit http://bangaloresteinerschool.org/index.html or their Facebook pagefor school-related information.

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