Skapa School in Huddinge, Sweden was well-known before it was even inaugurated. In close collaboration with architect and learning environment expert Peter Lippman, design agency Wolfgang and Kinnarps, Skapa School realised their vision of creating an innovative learning environment that would be an attractive workplace for everyone, pupils and teachers alike. Now they receive visitors from all over the world.
“Our concept is built on larger learning environments with more pupils, more teachers and large flexibility. Different spaces for different activities, distinct areas for different groups and quiet and varying corners that are safe and offer privacy for those who need it. We wanted varying environments and the pupils to find safe areas and be active in their own learning. We have sought for authenticity in the furniture and materials that can add new values to the learning environment. Furniture is an important cultural carrier, both in school and working environments.”
Christer Holger established Skapa School in 2013 with the vision of creating a school that gives pupils courage and the ability to follow their dreams. With the individual as his starting point and new information technology as his means, Christer Holger wanted to create a creative learning space that is based on the future rather than the past.
“What would schools look like if all data, communication and information were to be made available? And how can technology be used to create a school in which every pupil is the centre point? When we adults attend leadership programmes, the starting point is always to discover who we are, how we want to be and what we are interested in. That's rarely the case in schools. I wanted to build a school that is meaningful to pupils – a place in which they can express themselves and make an impact. I want them to feel that anything is possible in this world where information is always available,” Christer Holger explains.
From the very start, the goal was to build their own spaces for the school, spaces that would support the vision of Skapa School.
“Our way of thinking has a strong connection with learning environments. If you go back in time to schools of the 19th century, they were designed based on how difficult it was to disseminate information. Schools became places that pumped out lectures, a place for collecting learning materials and lecturers. And this design still lives on. But nowadays, we live in a world in which information is always available. We wanted to create our environment based on this,” says Christer Holger.
The new Skapa School was inaugurated in January 2019. The school can accommodate 500 pupils from preschool to ninth grade on three floors. Cage Copher, Street Money Architects, was the main architect. For the learning environment design, Skapa School collaborated closely with the world renowned architect and learning environment expert, Peter Lippman, designer Rikard Gartmyr from the Wolfgang design agency and Kinnarps.
As they knew from the start that they would be building from scratch, they started by making prototypes of learning environments and allowing pupils and teachers to evaluate them.
“We were inspired by the innovative work methods of workplaces, in particular by the software industry’s agile development which entails learning quickly by taking small steps,” Christer tells us.
Peter Lippman has his base in Australia and has gained substantial international recognition for his expertise in evidence based design of learning environments. In working with teachers and pupils at Skapa School, Peter Lippman has held regular workshops and helped to create and evaluate a number of sample furnishing designs.
“Skapa School is on the cutting edge in their creativity mindset and in their thinking about how the physical environment can be used to support pupils and teachers. Their ideas are in line with my research. It has been very rewarding to be involved in the project from the start,” says Peter Lippman, who also stresses that the involvement and engagement of pupils, teachers and other staff have been key to their success. In his opinion, a good learning environment must always be designed according to the unique needs of the operations and its individuals.
“We built pilot environments based on their wishes. We then tested them and made adjustments according to the feedback we received. The teachers were brilliant in supporting and encouraging each other in the process, which was why we were able to create environments that were tailored to Skapa School's particular needs and ways of working. It was great to hear one teacher say that she and her pupils were so happy in their space that she hardly reflected on the fact that she was teaching.”
The result is an unconventional learning environment in which traditional classrooms have been replaced by multifaceted environments inspired by work life. Skapa School has a total of ten study rooms each with a number of activity zones defined by both built-in solutions and furniture. In the middle, there is a mini-auditorium with staggered seating that functions as a gathering point. The study rooms also have varying types of workspaces where pupils can work securely either alone or in groups ranging in size, all without disrupting each other. There are built-in hideaways and lofts for those who want a bit more seclusion and expo environments and group modules for those looking to make presentations, talk, read out loud and watch or make films. The study rooms have also gained a new degree of flexibility in the form of ‘break out zones’, that is, spaces outside the study room itself that can be used if and when needed. In this way, you avoid traditional hallways used just to get from one place to another. Instead, these spaces can be used for learning. In spite of the wealth of activity zones, the teacher always has an overview and can ensure that learning is taking place. Pupils must always feel secure in their learning environments. A sense of security is critical to creativity in Peter Lippman’s view of things.
“The basic premise is that classrooms should be designed according to how pupils and teachers actually behave, not by how you would like them to. For this reason, the interior design and furnishings of the traditional classroom have been split into various activity zones.”
When entering through the main doors, you walk straight into the bubbling activity of Skapa School. Straight ahead are the podcast studio and a music room. On the right, there is a large inviting plaza-like environment with a graded staircase. On the left, you find the canteen and open kitchen, a natural part of the pupils’ and teachers’ day. Here, you can socialise, and not only during the lunch hour. The smoothie bar, a great place for pupils and teachers to hang out, has an exciting, open view of the kitchen. Adjacent to the kitchen and canteen is the playful library. As most time is spent in the study rooms, they have become the many beating hearts of Skapa School. All rooms are multifunctional and are used throughout the school day and for extracurricular activities.
Areas such as staggered seating, hideaways and lofts are all built in, while Kinnarps has supplied the furniture. The solutions were designed in close collaboration with designer Rikard Gartmyr, the man responsible for designing Skapa School’s communication platform, brand and interior design.
“We chose to use toned down, light colour schemes that leave room for creativity and finding your own expression. Soft wall-to-wall carpeting on the floors makes it easy to find your place depending on what you are working on at the moment. The furniture is very high quality and we have made some unconventional decisions for these kinds of environments. For example, in the restaurant, we have the Knop table in white stained ash veneer; a material you would not normally choose for wear and tear environments. The ash veneer can be found in a number of places and is one of many expressions that this school believes in and invests in their pupils,” says Rikard Gartmyr.
The Vagabond table for standing in different finishes allows flexible furnishing and has been combined with the tall Plockepinn stools in varying shades of pink for dynamic sitting. Even the Space storage unit has been designed to offer seating where you least expect it, such as in the main entrance where it is used to store shoes and to sit on. Small reading rooms with easy chairs that embrace you give you the opportunity to get away without forsaking visibility from outside the room.
“Kinnarps gives the strong impression of being devoted to the school and of wanting to help pupils progress. Like us, they feel that the physical environment is important and that you have to be willing to invest in good materials and time for detailed planning of learning environments. Quality that pays off.”
Can the physical environment affect learning?
Absolutely!, says Rikard Gartmyr.
“Skapa School has been brave, not only in choosing to be unconventional, but in daring to work with high-quality products and materials. From a sustainability perspective, I believe in daring to choose good materials. High-quality materials stand the test of time, not just visually, but practically. In my experience, environments with genuine materials send the message that ‘you are important’. This not only impacts how you view learning, but also how you treat the furniture and the environment around you.”
Peter Lippman continues in the same vein:
“It’s very simple. The furniture that surrounds you greatly impacts how you feel and how you act in different situations. Again, it's about feeling secure. Furniture that creates a sense of security, such as a high-backed chair that still gives good visibility, or a rocking easy chair, calms the senses and helps you focus, while still feeling seen by your teacher.”
For Christer Holger, the journey with the Skapa School team has only confirmed his belief that everything is connected.
“It has been important to us to work holistically with ergonomics. We have created a good acoustic environment by using sound absorbers in varying ways and have actively chosen furniture that encourages movement. For an active school day, you have tables for standing and Xact school chairs which follow students in their movements, are ergonomic and comfortable,” says Christer Holger.
Why should schools be any less attractive as workplaces than others, is a question Christer Holger asks.
“Skapa School’s environment must be appropriate and attractive to everyone who works here. Pupils, teachers and other staff. Pupils may be the most important target group, but the school environment is also a vital culture carrier for staff as well. By creating a good physical environment with good design, our brand is reinforced and the school's attractiveness is enhanced. We believe that this will help us recruit pupils and staff. I’m not saying that we should try to attract pupils with shiny chairs as if they were flashy tablets. But when the physical environment is used as a tool for achieving the vision of the operations, it has a great impact on everyone.”
And yes, the impact is strong. The response from pupils and staff was very positive from the first few weeks.
“It is remarkable, it's as if a calm has washed over our operations. We have noticed that the environments work the way they were intended. Our pupils have found their safe spaces and teachers report that their pupils are in a state of learning during the greater part of the day.”
To the Kinnarps team, this was a fantastic project to work on. Skapa School had clear goals that they were easily able to convey. Being involved early in the process makes it easier to design a good learning environment. It is rewarding to work with enthusiastic people at a school that dares think innovatively and unconventionally!