Parklands College Secondary School is situated in Cape Town and was completed by dhk Architects in April 2020. Schools around the world, including South Africa, have begun to embrace new modes of learning. This means embracing technological advancements, new ways of accessing and disseminating information, and a pedagogical shift towards collaborative or blended learning.

Parklands College, an Apple Distinguished School, is at the forefront of innovative learning techniques in the country and uses these methods to develop global competencies and skills in its learners so they can build their own futures. In aid of this, the college recently expanded its campus to include a new Innovation Centre, designed to accommodate a variety of teaching methods all within an innovative, technology-based environment. It has recently won the team at dhk Architects a SAPOA award for innovative excellence.

Commissioned architects’ brief

Parklands College, along with development partner Milnerton Estates, commissioned multidisciplinary design studio dhk Architects to tackle the project. The brief was to create a substantial addition to its existing campus, dedicated entirely to spaces that facilitate these progressive teaching techniques and philosophies.

The brief included:

  • 21st century learning
  • Collaboration venues and breakaway rooms
  • Indoor recreational area
  • Robotics and experium labs
  • A Virtual Reality Room
  • A series of large, general use classrooms
  • A staff and/or teacher training space

Problem-solving spaces

A key focus was to create spaces to facilitate group work and classes that combine subjects (such as science, technology, engineering and mathematics) into creative problem-solving activities. As a local leader in the emerging field of robotics, another focus area was on creating workshop-style learning spaces to facilitate soft entrepreneurial- and vocational-based skills training. Furthermore, themes of interconnectivity, transparency and movement were vital to the ethos of the centre.


Spatial instruments

dhk conducted a series of workshops with the college and professional team, testing a range of configurations that balanced the need for stimulating and physically connected spaces with the need for moments of quiet focus, or careful acoustic control – spaces that balance a sense of containment with a feeling of connectedness. The solution was to create clusters of interconnected spaces of varying sizes, often adjacent to or connected by circulation spaces, which can become recreational areas or extensions of the learning environment.

Facilitating flow with a sympathetic extension

The building was envisioned as two solid rectilinear wings separated by courtyards; the southern wing responding to the college quadrangle and the gently bending northern wing providing a distinctive, striking backdrop to the playing fields. The two wings are simultaneously split and bound together by a large, steel-and-glass, double-volume recreational atrium aptly named Grand Central, which forms the nucleus of the building. Not only does the atrium serve as a central movement hub, but it is also used for activities such as informal gatherings, impromptu performances, self-study and immersive digital experiences.

The architectural design is contemporary and elegantly simple. It makes a distinct departure from the existing style of the campus buildings, yet remains sympathetic to the overall, orthogonal planning. The form of the building was strongly driven by optimising spatial relationships while adhering to the basic tenets of good environmental design – particularly internal environmental comfort.

Grand Central

Building for well-being

Natural daylight, fresh air, good acoustics and good thermal comfort promote the ability to engage meaningfully and create the opportunity for deep learning, including the connection to the outdoors. The use of brick and concrete for the primary learning spaces, which face north and south, was driven predominantly by the need for thermal mass to stabilise temperature fluctuations. The north facade was given a playful, modular articulation by creating an irregular pattern using large windows, deep reveals and light shelves.

The central atrium, predominantly a movement and recreational space, was made distinct using steel and glass, shrouded by a bespoke aluminium sunscreen. The building also “breathes” on its own by fitting the larger rooms with CO₂ sensors and automated window opening systems to measure the air quality and automatically open the windows incrementally to optimise it and eliminate the need for air-conditioning.

Flexible spaces for engagement

Collectively, forming the southern and eastern wings of the building, are three large collaboration rooms, each with a series of smaller breakaway pods clustered along their flanks. Adjustable and versatile, the rooms are designed to accommodate up to 150 learners but can also be adapted via sliding screens to become two to three smaller learning spaces for 30 to 40 learners. A series of several small breakaway “pods” feed off the larger collaboration rooms and allow learners to engage in smaller groups or quiet self-study.

These back onto two inner courtyards, which separate them from the northern wing; a string of non-specific classrooms intentionally designed square to ensure that there is no front or back. Two larger workshop-style learning spaces occupy the ground floor of the northern wing and are dubbed the Robotics Lab and Experium (Maker Space).

These spaces are to provide learners with opportunities to prototype solutions to real-world problems, using digital electronics, design, crafting and building. On the upper level, breakaway pods are expressed as suspended boxes that hover above the courtyards, clutched only by the top and bottom of the concrete walkway.

Lastly, a continuous circulation route loops through the entire building in a three-dimensional figure 8 and is actively populated with a variety of incidental “hangout moments”. The circulation route was designed to ensure the free movement of large numbers of learners, while simultaneously providing visual connections between the building’s various spaces.

Meaning and innovation embedded in the design

Throughout the building, there are several playful details. One is the distinctive, perforated aluminium screen which bathes the atrium in dappled light. The embedded pattern on the screen is a subtle reference to the concept of coding, where holes of different sizes create a sense of openness but also form vertical streams of light spots which reveal words reflecting the ethos of the building – “discover” and “innovate”. Additionally, the DNA-inspired pendant light-fittings in the atrium remind learners of the human code within us.

Relaxation spaces

These big leaps in flexibility and multi-functionality are made possible by the architecture and through innovative furniture and clever storage, which play a significant support role in mode shifting. These include mobile furniture items that can be quickly arranged in various permutations, whether by virtue of lightness or manoeuvrability courtesy of wheels. It could serve as storage that doubles as seating or inviting nooks and perches to engage in a variety of different activities.

There are colourful smart acoustic panels that house screens, Wi-Fi points and other technologies. Increasingly, the need to move, sit, stand and even lie down and learn, is being facilitated via bar counters, poofs, ottomans, large staircases and cave-like nooks.

Adaptable spaces

While the pandemic has put a pause on the building’s opening year, the new centre was praised when learners returned to the campus. The adaptable spaces allowed teachers to increase the floor area of their classrooms to ensure social distancing, without needing two classrooms and two teachers for each lesson.

The digital connectivity, including the green screen breakaway rooms, allowed learners to connect easily and stay at a distance from teachers but also remain engaged in the content (and allowed teachers to pre-record lessons). All teaching spaces and breakaway rooms have excellent acoustics, natural light and cross ventilation without glare, which made the spaces ideal for using technology while remaining in collaboration.

Full acknowledgement and thanks go to and for the information in this editorial.

For more information, contact dhk Architects:
Tel: +27 21 421 6803

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