One on One: GR7 Architecture and Bedford Elementary School

An increase in population surrounding Bedford Elementary School in Montréal and a modernization of the pedagogical systems led to a lack of facilities and spaces that were no longer beneficial to today’s students.

Rhys Phillips chats with Ivan Rodriquez, Concept Director at GR7 Architecture, based in Longueuil, Québec about being enlisted by the school board to renovate and increase the school’s surface area and improve the learning experience of students.

The school is in the Côte-des-Neiges borough, in Montreal, surrounded by a multicultural residential area.

Rhys Phillips: When you took on the project, how was the existing school inadequate and its spaces outdated, particularly in terms of contemporary educational standards and methodologies?

 Ivan Rodriguez:  The existing school is in a modest neighborhood with many people from other countries. It’s very much a multicultural school with maybe 99 per cent of the students coming recently from other countries. This population was increasing and the need for a school that could accommodate the right quantity of students was the first thing that that was that was asked of us.  Second, it is a school in Montréal and it’s not like in in the suburbs where you have a lot of space [to expand]. It’s very tight and it’s surrounded by housings and it’s very dense. We didn’t have much space, so we had to add in a second floor to the building. Once we started studying it and we just planned to put a second floor on top of the first floor that was already existing because the structure was pretty solid and could support a second floor. But the building had many problems [with asbestos and pyrite]. In addition, the slabs on the first floor were crooked and starting to raise. So, the decision was taken that we would demolish all of one part of the building then build a wing with a second floor. This added six new classrooms and a full gymnasium, and a modern library because the existing school had only a small space that was used as a library that was [not functional].

 RP:  In terms of the existing types of classrooms and supporting facilities, did you see a different way of forming them than in the original school?

IR: The school is under the Centre de services scolaire de Montréal (CSSDM) and they have their standards. So, we had to always follow these standards. They have standards for what they want in the classrooms in terms of surfaces, the size of windows and ventilation. So, we could not play too much with those classrooms. They were mostly fixed at that time. Now — I know because we’re doing other schools — they’re starting to experiment with other things.

But let’s look at the corridor zones and compare them to the existing schools built before. They had corridors like maybe eight feet wide and they had all these the lockers that are aligned. There’s no light going inside the corridors. What we tried to do in Bedford, because the corridor and locker area is included inside the total area of classroom which 10-to-12-meter square each, was to integrate that 12 square meters in the hallway. So, the hallway wasn’t 8 feet but 18ft. We put some wood paneling that we perforated to assimilate these lockers because the kids leave their coats and the boots and everything else in these lockers.

Instead of just seeing that all that [chaos] we sought to assimilate it as much as we could with these panels. At the same time, at the higher part of the interior classroom wall we put in [clerestory] windows. As a result, the classrooms have windows obviously from the outside, but we also integrated natural lighting into the locker areas and the hallway. The light also goes inside the hallway through the perforated panels. In addition, we perforated the panels so one could have a look through. The cork running along the middle of the panels [allows] the kids expose their art projects.  Like in all our other projects the end of the hallways also have windows that allow natural light and views to the outside. We try as much as we can to use windows so [users] can see outside.

The locker spaces are integrated and separated from the hallways by openwork panels, giving a sense of width to the hallways.

RP: I was reading an article on post pandemic schools and one of the concepts that appears in virtually every article is color, the importance of making colorful environments to engage kids as they come back to school.

IR: Yes, we bring this to all our schools. We use colours to mark the classroom because it helps the young students find their way easily. This is especially important for the younger ones. But while this project was constructed during the pandemic, the concept was present [in our design] before Covid-19. We finished our concept in [late] 2019 so we didn’t do anything for the pandemic [per se] because it was done before.

RP: Were there any standards which the school board brought in because of the pandemic? For example, were there changes in ventilation or any other aspects that they required later on in the construction?

IR: No, they didn’t add anything, even the engineers didn’t add anything that wasn’t there before the original concept.

RP: But I imagine in the old renovated wing, even without the pandemic, you had to improve the ventilation.

IR: Of course, but we had to improve everything, the ventilation system, electricity, emergency signs.

RP:  It seems that many of the elements that I have read about post-pandemic school design are just those we should be doing with our schools when dealing with children. The Play In School movement talks about building in more play and cooperative interaction as a way of getting kids comfortably back in class, but this seems to be what one would want to have in in any children’s environment. So, what elements do you see as the most important for ensuring a sense of comfort and well-being for young students in a school situation where you’re dealing both with the pandemic and recent immigrants.

 IR: It comes down to lighting, views to the exterior, the presence of natural light in the spaces, a feeling of not being isolated and feeling safe, the ability to breath, and the integration of natural wood. Again, with the vision to the outside, [it is important that] you see not just a roof but a roof with natural vegetation. [We design] so young kids won’t feel too tight, too crowded within the space. That’s the most important thing, and why space is very important.

RP: Is the lighting in the library and reading corner bespoke?

IR: Well, of course but done with the engineers. We chose the type of lighting and how it was placed in the space. As you see in the library, we also left the space with no ceilings and just “clouds” of [interspersed] acoustic panels.  The large corner window leaves open a vision into city. On the corner [tiered] platform the kids can just hang out there or read or to do some theater. This is the sort of new libraries that we tending to design.

RP: You have indicated that colour is important. You use a lot of greens and blues that play off some light yellows. Do you have color preferences that you think work particularly well in schools?

IR: Like I said before, we use these colours to identify each classroom. We don’t use red colours, as it can be too aggressive for some students when used on a full wall. But it can be used in some specific places. We use blues or other colors that are more relaxed, that help the kids to concentrate and don’t affect their studies. In the case of the color blue, the turquoise blue actually represents the existing or the school’s [historical] color. This sustains a link it to the older school. The green that you saw in library was not chosen as a particular colour but because they use it as an actual green screen. You can see that a small chamber off the green library wall where they do videos.

A floor addition allowed for a new entrance to the childcare services with a more open waiting area for parents.

RP:  Did you design some of the furniture?

 IR:  For the library, we designed those cubes [on rollers] where children can just grab a book, lie down and read. Everything that is made out of wood we designed, like the small reception area and the [perforated] hall panels. These are Russian birch plywood that’s very resistant [to wear and tear} Thus the hall panels don’t come to the floor because kids come with boots and Montréal has a long winter with ice, salt and everything else.

 RP: Perhaps we could go to the gymnasium and maybe talk a little bit about your thoughts that went into doing this space.

IR:  Well for the gymnasium we used wood to give more of a natural look. You see the large window [high] on the wall; it is actually on the same axis as the window on the second-floor corridor. So when you are there [in the corridor] you can see the gym from the top but just in front of you there’s also this other window that looks [out to the exterior] from the second floor. The gym’s exterior window’s natural lighting was very important; but, at the same time it does not create too much [light] for when you’re trying to play games. We studied the course of the sun. As I was telling you before, in all the corridors we tried to perforate to [connect] to the outside. That’s what we try to do on all our projects.

The wood also means there are different textures and different colors [but] behind the panels there is a gap to ensure better acoustics for the whole gym. You can again see the roof structure but we painted it a dark color so it could just fade away. We applied the LED lighting in line with the trusses. The colour is also green [on the deck] which is the same green you see in the line running down the corridor with the paneling.  This line leads to the gym providing a sense of direction.

The gymnasium opens to the residences of Bedford Street. There is an abundance of natural light while avoiding glare.

RP: What I’d like to do to finish is just let you talk about anything you would like to get across in terms of how the design of Bedford contributes ensuring kids return with a sense of security and well-being.

 Daniel Henao (associate architect): [One thing which we have not discussed] is the art that is at the connection between the corridors and the gymnasium.  We also have another one on the principal façade, both designed by a Montréal. There’s a one per cent requirement that goes to the artist to create the work while we just choose the spaces. We may give them some tips about what we would like to see, but not exactly the pieces. The work on the second level is important because the children can see this art when they walk in the corridors and have contact with the art. [I think] it helps them feel like the school is their own.

 IR: What’s interesting about this artwork, by Patrick Bérubé, is that when you see the one on the wall at the entrance it is a flat graphic. But when you see the other one in the corridor from the first floor and you look up you see the same image that you saw at the entrance. That’s why it’s pretty cool. The school thus gives a lot to the community. For us it is very important to integrate the art in all our public spaces.

The new courtyard the landscape architecture firm Version Paysagistes who worked with us and, again, they used the same colors, particularly orange and turquoise. Always [the courtyard] follows the architecture of the building, so the axis goes straight to the main door while the other turquoise line goes directly to the other door.

With its two floors, the expansion blends in at the same level as its neighbours.

RP: In an earlier article on colleges I wrote about wayfinding, about simplifying wayfinding and making it an intuitive as very important in building a sense of comfort within the school.

IR:  Yes, it re-assures students. But, also in terms of space [design] we avoid lost spaces in which kids can hide. Teachers have a view of everything and [as well as] every kid in the courtyard. It is the same thing for inside the school. We don’t have places that kids could hide away, and this is one reason the corridor paneling is perforated.



Structure: SDK

Mechanical and electricity: BPA

Civil: Marchand Houle & associates

Landscape: Version Paysage

Acoustics: Resonance

Artist: Patrick Bérubé

Photography: Jaime Antonio Luna Quezeda JALQ Photography