Designing Schools for the Coldest City on Earth

Today I am in Yakutsk, in the Republic of Sakha, Russia. I am here talking about the design of schools and kindergartens, and more generally learning environments with state ministers and to a conference. 

Fellow juror Jure Kotnik surveys exhibition of kindergarten designs in Yakutsk, my

Fellow juror Jure Kotnik (left) surveys exhibition of kindergarten competition designs in Yakutsk.

The World Bank is funding the development of kindergartens in Yakutia and has just run a design competition to encourage innovative solutions. I was fortunate in being asked to be on the panel of judges. Having identified the winning designs the next stage will be to invite the architects and builders to develop technical designs in readiness for construction. There is no doubt that in this part of Russia they see education as a key issue.

The investment in early childhood education is a sign of the seriousness with which this is being taken. There are many kindergartens here and there is a very high demand for places, the focus is on modernising the system. However, this programme is far more than about buildings themselves, there is concern about broader issues of education including teaching and training of teachers. The project includes training teachers to be able to make best use of the new environments.

The approach they are taking in Yakutia is good news since very little attention seems to be paid to this in any country. Providing the building only gets you so far, as a general policy education training courses should include training on using space. However, providing good learning environments that will support the needs of education is an essential part of the policy strategy. As Tigran Shmis, the World Bank project manager leading this, said: “The physical environment is the third teacher, and providing an effective learning environment which allows children to explore their surroundings and play and learn is key.”

The conversations we have been having about the design of kindergarten buildings have been interesting, not least because the climate has a significant impact and particularly the extremes of temperature. Yakutsk is one of the coldest cities on earth (often -50 degrees C in winter), yet summer temperatures can easily reach 40 degrees and over for periods of time. Constructing foundations in permafrost, although of course technically achievable, is very expensive. So the design has to be very efficient in the demands it places on the foundations. In other words the building needs to be as compact as possible. Many buildings in such cold climates have few external windows, yet we know how important the ‘connection’ with the outside is. However, in summer badly designed windows could lead to significant over-heating.

This focus on kindergartens is just the start. No doubt, I understand, they will soon move on to primary and secondary education.

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