Edinburgh Academy - Spaceoasis

Edinburgh Academy

The Edinburgh Academy, a leading Scottish school, has welcomed students and challenged educational thinking since 1824.

Approaching its bicentennial, it continues to embrace innovative approaches to teaching and learning to prepare students for all the opportunities that lie ahead. With their strapline ‘Grounded in Scotland, ready for the world’ – the architecture, both traditional and modern, embody that.

Clever use of space

Rising pupil numbers with an expanding passion for science, coupled with changes in learning and teaching required the school to explore new and different ways of doing things.

Being housed within the conservation area of Edinburgh, and the need for empathy towards the environs provided an interesting and exciting architectural challenge. The design had to meet the strict rules on height and rooflines and could not expand on the original footprint. The Eric Stevenson Learning Commons, designed by LDN Architects with interiors by Spaceoasis, opened in March 2023.

It was constructed on what was a car park and cleverly and sympathetically connects both the existing science block and original Library. This new building consists of three spaces on the ground floor: the Dow Studio, a multi-functional blank canvas learning space; the Fraser Reading Room, which leads to an outdoor patio and offers a quiet extension to both the original Library and the main space; the Le Roux Auditorium, which can be used for assemblies, presentations, exams and concerts. Upstairs there are two further, light-filled science labs.

Critical thinking

The idea behind the Learning Commons was to envisage learning in a different manner and draw inspiration from learning spaces at local universities. The rationale being to prepare pupils for life after The Edinburgh Academy. The leadership team researched and understood the evolution of libraries in higher education which feature smaller spaces, conducive for students to come together for collaborative learning. They recognised the importance of technology and that the traditional methods of ‘trawling through books’ was important but not always the only way. This opened the doors for an exploratory style of learning and central to the thinking behind the new Learning Commons.

When asked why the school is trying new approaches, Edinburgh Academy’s Rector, Barry Welsh, explained, “We’re modelling the behaviours we expect from our students. We expect them to be creative, to solve problems, find new ways of doing things. We can’t ask them to push boundaries, be brave and explore if we simply stay the same, carrying on doing what we’ve always done. We have to keep pushing forwards and innovative learning spaces are part of that journey.”

The Fraser Reading Room

In a world where so much of the curriculum is ‘delivered’, the school was looking for ways to enable its students to enjoy self-directed, independent learning and the Fraser Reading Room is one example of how this new approach is being enabled.

With a large dry-wipe wall, agile upholstered Lobe stools and Pad sofas alongside mobile shelving units, the Reading Room can be configured by students to suit what they are doing. A projector allows them to cast from their iPad so they can examine materials together and present findings to each other. The dry-wipe wall is retractable and opens into the Le Roux Auditorium next door creating a superb space for larger team projects or events.

Mr Welsh explains how students might start their research in the original Library, then move into the Fraser Reading Room in small groups to work, discuss and collaborate together. They might use the dry wipe Learning Wall to unpack and refine their ideas, present or cast from iPads up on to the screens, share and explore their findings in a group seminar format, taking their ideas further and then break out into the adjoining auditorium to make a formal presentation. It’s a more fluid, active, independent style of learning that helps prepare students for higher education and work, while encapsulating the traditions of the original Library for initial fieldwork as required in so many universities and work environments.

The Dow Studio

The theme of ‘doing things differently’ continues in the Dow Studio. With its polished concrete floor, large dry-wipe Learning Wall and projector, this is a highly agile, blank canvas, design-thinking space.

Individual dry-wipe Clak tables can be configured to suit the task at hand, whether that’s rows, groups or a seminar-style horseshoe. As well as being writable, the tabletops can be flipped so the tables can be placed neatly in the storage room to create more open space.

Sled-based chairs were specified for formal seating; and Wobble Stools for more energetic learning experiences. The doors of the fitted cupboards along one wall are also writable surfaces and, as well as providing ample storage, conceal a sink.

Like so many spaces at the Academy, the Dow Studio is a bookable space, rather than being assigned to one department or teacher, and this is another way in which the school is leading by example. The emphasis is that this is a democratic institution where resources are shared, breaking down traditional barriers between staff and students.

The Le Roux Auditorium

Between the Dow Studio and the Fraser Reading Room sits the Le Roux Auditorium.

One of the requirements of the Scottish Baccalaureate is to present to a learned audience and answer their questions; this new auditorium is an inspiring and hi-tech place in which to do so. The apparent simplicity of this beautiful, wood-clad space conceals its hi-tech infrastructure; it is fully specified for video conferencing and can connect with the other presentation spaces across the school campus.

Simplicity is apparent in the minimal furniture. The Dash Teacher Console allows presenters to speak from anywhere in the room, rather than being tethered to a desk or lectern. Sleek, sled-based chairs mean the Le Roux Auditorium can seat 200 for presentations, which enables attendees to feel close to the speaker while being large enough to accommodate two year-groups at a time. Cleverly concealed storage space means all chairs can be stowed away to create a large open space with multiple uses.

Outdoor Learning

Continuing the theme for the school’s passion to embrace new ways of learning, is by encouraging and enabling outdoor learning. Whiteboards are mounted at various sheltered spots around the campus, all within reach of wifi, with Bloqs and ZigZags to provide easily portable seating and worksurfaces.

While ‘outdoor learning’ in Edinburgh might sound counterintuitive, sheltered spots in the school’s beautiful campus and agile kit have made it a popular addition to the school’s learning spaces. Being outside where the light quality is excellent, in fresh air which helps oxygenate learners’ brains while being able to move around, which increases blood flow and cognitive performance, are all reasons why outdoor learning is not just effective but hugely popular with students.

“We are delighted with the outcome of the Learning Commons,” said Barry Welsh. “The architecture and the furniture work together to provide a truly innovative space where we can encourage our learners to work in new ways.

“We are really impressed with the design and the quality of the furniture from Spaceoasis and Learniture and we’ve enjoyed the process of working with them. They are on the same page as us when it comes to the clever use of space and doing things differently, rather than simply doing what’s always been done.”

Barry Welsh, Edinburgh Academy’s Rector.