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image Project: Heinavaara Elementary School

Heinavaara Elementary School

Team : School : Narratives : Costs : Images


Architect Narrative

When the mayor of a small town in Finland (population 1,000), came to the U.S. shopping for architects to design an elementary school, his motive was partly economic: the community wanted to boost its local wood-products industry by using the school construction project to learn a North American building technique known as wood platform-framing. But the mayor and his delegation were also determined to build a “wooden school of tomorrow,” blending leading-edge school design and 21st-century technology with the rich cultural heritage of North Karelia, a heavily-forested region tucked along the Russian border. The Finns found architects with innovative school-design expertise and an eagerness to collaborate with the community in creating a K-6 school that addressed local needs-in both form and function.

The relationship of instructional areas reflect the desire to create a 21st century educational setting by providing a variety of spaces that support and enhance hands-on and collaborative learning.

The learning process includes project-based learning where students can work in grade level groups, small teams and individually. The desire to create a learning community resulted in an open plan maximizing the ways to engage students. Instead of double-loaded corridors of classrooms, educational “houses” run the length of the school and open to a bright central gathering space encompassing a media center, performance area and cafeteria. Different-sized learning spaces encourage connections and support hands-on learning, individual learning and group learning and a variety of school and community gatherings.

Perhaps the greatest challenge of the planning process was overcoming reluctance by some in the community to work with architects from overseas. A Vision-Based Planning approach to the project succeeded in gaining the trust of the community, which was relieved to find the American architects would not impose American concepts. The design team included parents, teachers, students, and local university professors who defined the primary project goal as being to “Provide the best learning environment for our children.” Once everyone shared this goal, educational and financial support was incredibly strong. Language and distance challenges were overcome by frequent communication via videoconference, fax, e-mail, and the use of interpreters, which was critical to unify the team and communicate decisions.

In addition, the desire was for the school to be framed of wood, timber being one of the great resources of the region. They also wanted the school built using platform framing techniques not traditionally used in the region. Bleachers set up next to the construction site allowed local technical college students to watch and learn the technique as five American carpenters, two of whom spoke Finnish, demonstrated it.

Ultimately, the design and construction of the school met unique community needs: it used local resources, taught a new construction technique, provided flexible learning spaces, incorporated local customs and architecture—including a 10-foot-high traditional Karelian fireplace and an ornate front entrance canopy—and allowed for multiple community uses.

Educator Narrative

The term ‘open school’ is often associated with open space and open curriculum; a concept that was new to this learning community as it began to determine its vision for a new elementary school. Members of the design committee came to understand that an open curriculum refers to constantly changing and developing curriculum and school activities. The concept of an open classroom is based on the idea that each learner has a unique way of learning with a unique learning strategy and timetable. Children learn best if they are given a rich and diverse setting in which they are taught to observe and study their environment. The open learning environment contributes to the learners’ self-direction, responsibility for their own learning and actions. The child is valued and his/her rights are respected. The open learning environment is flexible and can be easily modified to the needs of different activities and learner groups. Through this school and the programming and design process we came to understand the challenges and benefits of this type of learning environment. In fact, teachers from the community travelled to the United States to observe open classroom instruction and take away lessons from what they saw and could apply to our school’s new environment.

The group learning spaces that are connected with each of the ‘home base’ classrooms support individual and group learning. Furthermore, the flexibility of the open learning environment enables learning through joint activities, when one teacher or a team of teachers can teach the group. We have come to find that this increases the teachers’ awareness of each other’s activities and working methods and can contribute to structured co-operation. Teamwork becomes more accessible in an open learning environment like that which is demonstrated by this school.

The school also provides spaces for students with special needs. The educational planning is based on the principal that different kinds of learners could study together as much as possible. This was also the basic idea in the planning of the school building. Cooperative learning with children that learn at different paces and in different ways is possible in this flexible setting. A collective school for all learners is an important part of the open school concept.

Ultimately, many lessons have been learned through this school and continue to be learned as new and better ways for utilizing the open environment develop.

Honor Award 2003




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