January/February 2024

Canadian Interiors January-February 2024: The Kids Are Alright

Regardless of grade level, subject matter or class size, today’s best learning spaces are designed for participative, active and engaging learning experiences that help students function at their cognitive, physical and emotional best.

In this issue of Canadian Interiors, we look at a variety of projects whose purpose and programming impact a student working their way through the tiers of not just academic life, but life in general. We begin with two elementary schools in Québec: École de l’Étincelle in the Chicoutimi district of Saguenay, and Bedford Elementary School in the Côte-des-Neiges borough of Montréal. These innovative educational environments facilitate seamless transitions across diverse pedagogical modes, encompassing lectures, discussions, and group activities. Using design to redefine the conventional educational experience, traditionally characterized by institutional rigidity, these campuses are now inviting, approachable realms for young learners. By constructing structures attuned to children’s dimensions, the projects aim to demystify the traditional school setting, creating an environment that is not only child-friendly but also breaks down the complexities of learning spaces into intelligible zones with distinct reference points.

At the core of these designs is a commitment to fostering visual and physical connectivity between students and instructors. This deliberate emphasis on accessibility seeks to promote a dynamic and inclusive learning experience. The incorporation of highly adaptable furnishings promotes flexibility, enabling reconfiguration of the space to accommodate a myriad of educational activities. This adaptability is of paramount importance, particularly considering the challenges many students faced during the recent pandemic, underscoring the significance of creating environments that can swiftly adapt to evolving educational needs.

These two projects are examples of an emerging “whole-learner” approach that goes beyond meeting today’s pedagogical needs and recognize the importance of motivation, engagement and student well-being. All of these are vital both on-campus and off, and in this issue we address the latter by spotlighting The Summit: Marian & Jim Sinneave Centre for Youth Resilience, Calgary’s first dedicated centre for child and adolescent mental health. The Centre’s goal of providing innovative outpatient programs tailored for children, teenagers, and their families posed a design challenge: to conceive a structure diverging from the conventional hospital aesthetic. The integration of a complementary array of ceiling patterns coupled with confident graphic elements achieves the dual objective of imparting uniqueness to therapy spaces while harmonizing them within a cohesive interior narrative. The result is a nuanced and unified whole that redefines the traditional perception of healthcare environments.

A major rite of passage for many students is the transition from secondary to post-secondary education. This evolution includes not just changes in learning but also living arrangements. The home-away-from-home spaces represented by student housing are expected to function much the same as the other spaces featured in this issue: to provide safety, comfort, engagement, and resiliency.

And yet university and college students have become a flashpoint in Canada’s national housing crisis, especially in cities such as Metro Vancouver, where population growth and foreign investment has changed much of the urban context. It is here that we shine a light on two new student residences: Nahoonai-a, a housing project designed for Indigenous students at the College of New Caledonia in Prince George; and The Houses of the Ones Belonging to the Saltwater, part of the University of British Columbia’s Vancouver campus. Both projects share a goal to create a thriving, inclusive and sustainable community through a contemporary take on typical student housing, encompassing broad moves that address functional and social spaces, down to a close attention to detail on the residential experience using contemporary material palettes and furniture selection.

With every new year comes a chance to consider an array of new décor trends expected to make appearances in the coming months, and in this edition, we collect some intriguing new product launches in paint and ceramics that play with shape or texture or both, showing how the artful integration of patterns and prints through different material selections can add interest and depth to a room.

Editor’s Notes: Kids These Days

“Think of the children” is a line familiar to any regular viewer of The Simpsons. The shrill catchphrase of the Helen Lovejoy character, wife of Reverend Lovejoy, is an overwrought exhortation that, while hilarious, also has a critical purpose. Bill Oakley, a main writer on The Simpsons, has said the phrase was intended to emphasize how “think of the children” was used in debate; irrelevant, it sidetracked discussion from the original issues. Lovejoy typically screeches it whenever residents of Springfield debate a quarrelsome problem and logic fails them with comedic results. Satirizing its use in public discourse has gone far beyond the show: it has generated countless memes and even been given a trope: “Lovejoy’s Law,” which Edward Keenan defined in a Toronto Star article as “a diversion from a weak logical stance,” writing that true empathy toward children involved rational argument rather than manipulation.

Peter Sobchak
Editor in Chief
Canadian Interiors
[email protected]

If there is any area where it seems the need for rational argument is most necessary – and yet most difficult to hold on to – it is the debate around children’s welfare. We are always thinking of the children, and yet here we are, with approximately 1.2 million Canadian youth affected by mental illness, and among the adult population, 70 per cent of issues reportedly develop during their juvenile years, reports Shannon Moore in this issue.

The effects of isolation are one of the most-cited reasons for this escalating number of mental health issues, with blame being placed squarely on school shutdowns during to the COVID-19 pandemic. But a growing overprotection of children, and the subsequent built environment that spread around it, was a factor well before the pandemic. One example is highlighted by Shelagh McCartney and Ximena Rosenvasser, two academics at Toronto Metropolitan University in an article posted on The Conversation, “student residences built in the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom over the past 20 years prioritize privacy and risk isolation” over communal spaces to accommodate perceived student preferences. “This trend is to the detriment of students’ social spaces and should be questioned,” say the authors, citing copious research that outlines what we already know: how a lack of student socialization spaces negatively affects students’ academic performance and well-being.

“A student’s living situation is a key component of their university education,” say McCartney and Rosenvasser. “Universities and developers need to focus on building student housing that fosters community building in order for socialization and new relationships to occur.”

Isolation and its impediment of the development of socialization skills is being felt today as the new crop of Gen Z graduates enter the workforce. According to a recent poll by recruitment firm Robert Walters, just 19 per cent of Gen Z professionals say they prefer to work in a team setting, with 31 per cent stating that they “work better alone.” In correlation, nearly half of managers state that the biggest impact to Gen Z’s entering the workforce is the decline in collaborative working, with a lack of communication skills (53 per cent), team working (21 per cent), and critical thinking (17 per cent) from younger workers being the primary barriers to this.

This certainly doesn’t make it any easier for companies who are trying to bring five generations under one roof in a hybrid working world. Perhaps in a gesture of bridge building, Robert Walters suggested that companies should look at “adding soft skills development, such as problem-solving and leadership skills, to training and development programmes from the onset at onboarding stage and throughout Gen Z’s career trajectory.” Wait, soft skills development should now be the workplace’s responsibility? Isn’t that what school is for? I can hear Lovejoy in the background.

Tracing the thread of this problem takes us beyond the pandemic to where socialization has historically been learned: elementary school. And tells us what we know intuitively: kids need to interact with each other, in every way possible. Regardless of the grade level, subject matter or class size, today’s best learning spaces must be designed for participative and engaging learning experiences. Called “active learning,” these spaces need to improve movement, communication, creativity, critical thinking and collaboration. Today, this is especially important given the setbacks so many students experienced during the pandemic, which while not the sole cause of socialization problems, was like throwing gasoline on a brush fire.

A broadened, whole-learner approach goes beyond academics and recognizes the importance of motivation, engagement and student well-being in all aspects of their development, not just the classroom. And as we return to in-person experiences, creating a positive school environment that fosters social interaction has never been more important.