International School Rheintal - Spaceoasis

International School Rheintal

If you had the opportunity to design an entire school from scratch, where would you start?

When Liz Free, Director and CEO of International School Rheintal (ISR) was presented with this exciting challenge, she started by asking herself and her team how their new building could represent the school’s values. How could a building nurture academic excellence and create responsible young people; future leaders who aspire to make the world a better place?
“It’s a place where people want to be.”
The design story of International School Rheintal’s new campus

Sustainability Emerged As A Fundamental Value

Translating these lofty goals into a deliverable design involved lengthy discussions with the school’s communities about what academic excellence means to them, digging deep into the functionality of learning spaces and leading an iterative design process that consulted a wide range of experts and stakeholders.

Sustainability emerged as a fundamental value that informed many decisions and is embedded throughout the campus. Built of wood, with photovoltaic facade and roof and composite ventilation system, the two-storey school is an excellent example of low-carbon, sustainable design.

A Broad Range of
Learning Spaces

Nestled in the foothills of the Swiss Alps, ISR is an independent International Baccalaureate (IB) school welcoming students aged three to 19, so the new campus encompasses a broad range of learning spaces and facilities.

Funded by the Hilti Family Foundation Liechtenstein, ISR’s new campus was designed by architects Kämpfen Zinke and Partner, with interiors by Spaceoasis. The resulting building is a beautiful, light-filled, joyful school where all learners can thrive. The design journey offers useful insights into the creation of successful and effective learning spaces.

Design Priorities

Long conversations with staff, students, parents and the wider school community helped define the ISR leadership team’s understanding of academic excellence and their learning community’s values, which shaped the priorities for the design of the school.

It was clear from the outset that spaces should be multipurpose; able to enhance teaching and learning based on current knowledge while being flexible enough to adapt to future understanding. It was therefore agreed that all spaces should be as flexible and adaptable as possible, unless it was a specialist space with innate requirements and limitations, such as science labs.

Learning Through Enquiry

As an IB World School, ISR follows the constructivist approach to education where students form knowledge from their own learning experiences rather than being seen as ‘vessels’ into which teachers impart their knowledge.

To enable learning through inquiry, most spaces in the school are designed to allow exploration, from the Lego zones in the primary years corridors to the classrooms themselves. As well as drawing on research around the effectiveness of zoning in learning spaces, ISR talked to students for their input and worked with Spaceoasis on the design.

“When we looked at how students learn and the activities that happen in a classroom it was clear to us that learning is frequently a collective endeavour,” said Liz Free. “We wanted spaces to support collaborative learning but with the flexibility to change everything around as needed – it was very important to us that we had that functionality.

“We might start the beginning of term in a classic structure, front-loading by the whiteboards, then moving to the discovery benches and on to the reflection space. Then, when starting a new unit of inquiry, the students may say ‘let’s have our individual working areas in a horseshoe’. It’s not a top-down process; the students will design the learning environment themselves, working with their teachers.

The flexibility of the furniture means they are empowered to create the best format and method for the content that is being taught and experienced. Every classroom looks different and that’s partly because the design is very neutral, it’s a supportive framework which enables us to deploy whichever pedagogical structure is the most effective model for that particular type of learning.”

The primary classrooms have three key areas:

• a collective space with tiered seating where people come together for direct instruction, discussion and presentations

• discovery benches right in the heart of classroom which have dry-wipe surfaces and drawers filled with resources relevant to the current line of enquiry, with transparent fronts so students can see what’s in them

• space for focused work and reflection where students can work in pairs, groups or individually

Senior students also enjoy a variety of flexible spaces so they can cherry pick the most appropriate space for their learning task. Quiet working areas with high-backed chairs that provide a degree of visual and acoustic separation are dotted around the school. Little tables create areas for collaborative work in small groups.

In the library there are high, Starbucks-style tables, where students might sit with their coffee and do some research, combined with soft seating areas, creating a university campus feel which helps bridge the gap between school and higher education.

The senior school classrooms feature agile square tables that are configured as required, coupled with ergonomic Tip Ton chairs by Vitra which are made in Switzerland from recycled plastic, another contribution to the sustainability credentials of the building.

Learning Everywhere

The corridors at ISR are just as much a learning space as the formal classrooms, with Lego zones and exploration areas for younger students, quiet focus areas for senior students to work independently and areas with small tables and Bloqs for one-to-one or small group work.

The new campus opened in August 2023. At the end of the first term, the experience and the response from students and staff was positive.

“Students love it, staff love it,” said Liz Free. “This is a place where people want to be. It’s well cared-for, well thought-through, intentionally delivered and that means people here feel valued. They feel that they’ve been invested in and that this their space, because they were part of the design process.

 

We Wanted the Creativity of Spaceoasis

“We really invested in the process. What Spaceoasis was able to do for us, and where they added real value, was to act as a critical friend and really challenge our response to the designs in order to refine them.

“We didn’t want to start with the stuff, we wanted to start with the ideas, and we wanted the creativity of Spaceoasis and their experience of working in multiple campuses, which is way more than we had, to come up with different ideas.

Some of those ideas were right at the edge of what was possible so there was negotiation the whole way through the entire process and that’s why I think we got it about 96% right.”

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