How to design schools that reflect community values

June 15, 2016 Heather Bretz

An outside-the-box approach that incorporates the owner’s values into their educational facility.


When you think of a traditional approach to school design, a few common questions come to mind. How many students are you going to have? How big do you want the gym? What are your school colors? This often leads to a prototype approach. But what if the first questions we asked a school board was what is important to you as a school board and community? What core values do you want your school to embody?



When the Grande Prairie Catholic School District (GPCSD) wanted to build their new high school in Arbour Hills—a venture that only happens around every 25 years—they had done their homework. Our client knew they wanted to create a school that embodied one of their core values: Family. Instead of having the GPCSD school board choose from a pre-designed set of prototypes for their school, we sat down with them to ask what was most important to them as a board, as teachers, as parents and as students.

The design processed started with a “visioning session.” We listened to the GPCSD and how their value of family affects learning, community and students’ mind, body, and spirit. We disregarded traditional school definitions, like classrooms, and focused the dialogue towards values. The results were surprising.

Our design team really worked on the fundamentals of how families are organized and what they represent to the school before we tackled the floor plan. The idea of the family is used instead of a more traditional grade class. The family includes all of the students in a grade where the teachers teach the entire family, not a specific classroom. This created the requirement for space that does not necessarily look or function like a traditional classroom. We didn’t break any requirements or standards. We just pushed them. With the support of the Alberta Infrastructure and Alberta Education we were able to create the design that truly embodied family.Rendering of the exterior

Teachers have the flexibility to adapt their area to their students and we’ve provided a variety of teaching spaces. The building works with them. By having easily movable walls, with the ability to expand into adjacent flexible spaces, teachers can creating a diverse amount of environments. When students spend seven hours a day in school, we want them to have pride in their spaces and take ownership.

All of these factors created a fluid space, with open concept areas, windows, facilitating impromptu discussion and learning. It’s not only an architectural adaption from traditional design; it’s also an adaptation for teaching.

Finally, the GPCSD asked us to incorporate a theater into the building, opening the school doors to more than just students, teachers and parents. Now it’s a community connector.

Templated design options would give the GPCSD a building, but wouldn’t fulfill their vision. The Arbour Hills High School will be place where students and teachers can live their values every day in a school that truly works for them.

About the Author

Heather Bretz

Heather Bretz is a Principal in Calgary’s Buildings group. Heather believes that good architecture results from clear communication with a client, helping their vision become a reality. As an active participant in her community she knows how important school design is to creating bright futures for students.

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