Making the Grade: L’École de l’Étincelle

The pandemic has affected Canadians at almost every level of their lives, not the least children both in terms of their education and their mental well-being. L’École de l’Étincelle in Ville de Saguenay, although designed prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, demonstrates how earlier rethinking of children’s pedagogy has dovetailed with requirements to successfully navigate the difficult transition back to in-class learning.

In the central wing, a series of bleachers serve as gathering and collaboration space, acting as a landmark learning hub offering visible connections to all communal spaces. (Photo by Maxime Brouillet)

The competition winning L’École de l’Étincelle is appropriately focused on creating a comfortable, inclusive, and inspiring learning environment that supports students’ development and well-being. To achieve this goal, Agence Spatiale, APPAREIL Architecture and BGLA architecture + design urbain deconstruct the conventional institutional building into a more accessible and welcoming environment at an appropriate scale for children. “When you look at the project,” says Etienne Bernier, principal of Agence Spatiale, “rather than one large building we contribute to [this objective] by giving a smaller scale to the project that is closer to the [children’s] residential one.”

A school’s complexity was also reduced to easily readable spaces with clear reference points, easy identification, and flexibility. By so doing, the architects write, the school’s design seeks “to create a calming and reassuring atmosphere that will encourage students to love school and feel comfortable, just like at home.” At the same time, the goal was to reflect the children’s life experience living in a small Saguenay community with its modest domestic architecture and strong ties to the natural environment.

Outside, a courtyard is tucked within the U-structure of the school, with a sports circuit, outdoor classroom, garden, and other outdoor leaning opportunities. (Photo by Maxime Brouillet)

On the curved slope of a natural bowl, this deconstruction took the form of three wings, each shaped by a cluster of pitched-roof “houses.” Two teaching clusters branch out V-like from a Community Learning Hub featuring a uniquely stepped library and a sunken gym as well as Creative and Culinary Labs. Along a street, the south wing is formed by two modest “cottages” linked to the Hub by a flat-roof covered entrance that also serves as a protected outdoor classroom. This last element also serves as an entrance to the Hub. The upper level contains staff facilities while below street grade are light-filled preschool classrooms that open directly onto the secure courtyard.

Similarly, the Community Hub, a key activity and learning centre for the entire community, also appears as two, single level, albeit much taller houses or perhaps barns. But once inside, one confronts the voluminous library whose seven tiers step up from the entrance level to a heavily glazed back wall or down to the courtyard level viewed through a full height glazed wall with doors. A bridge spanning this remarkable space leads to the creative Lab with state-of-the-art digital technologies. Beside this space and overlooking a park, the Culinary Lab and its restaurant-scale kitchen reflects the Centre de services scolaire des Rives-du-Saguenay’s commitment to nutrition as an education priority. The children grow and harvest their own produce in school gardens.

Collaborative spaces in the middle of each classroom mimic public squares and encourage mutual support, teaching students to work as a team while diversifying the traditional learning models. (Photo by Maxime Brouillet)

Under these second storey spaces, and visible through a viewing window, is a gym that sinks an extra layer into the landscape. All these common spaces, save the gym, overlook the courtyard and provide a separate focus for the excited buzz of student activities away from the calmer learning environments. “It’s easy to find your way around the building because you always know where you are. It also lets you see that you’re not alone, a sense of presence that can be reassuring for the kids,” says Bernier.

The third, two-storey wing contains classrooms for grades one to three on the lower courtyard level with grades four to six above. It is formed by three distinct sloped-roof structures, creating home-scaled learning spaces. Each grade has its own learning community, with distinct colours to help students orient themselves. The older the children, Bernier reports, the cooler the colour becomes as studies have shown that young children react better with warmer colours, but when they get older they go more into the blues.

Located at the heart of Joachim Park in Saguenay, Québec, École de l’Étincelle is made entirely of wood, from its architectural frame to its interior design. (Photo by Maxime Brouillet)

Collaborative spaces within the classrooms encourage teamwork and diversify traditional learning models. Between each of these teaching houses are “interstices,” informal areas shared often with a stairwell. These spaces are flooded with natural light and provide orienting visual connections to the courtyard and the park. These more autonomous spaces contain small bookcases maintained by the individual teachers as well as comfortable seating for relaxing, collaboration, reading or just socializing. “I think it’s not just about restraining the person in space,” says Kim Pariseau, principal of Appareil Architecture. “It’s more about how the space can create many, many experiences.”

Like Bedford, L’École de l’Étincelle employs natural light, colour, flexible collaborative spaces and clear orientation devices to instil a sense of comfort, security and well-being for its young students. Additionally, the Saguenay school also relies heavily on wood, both cedar and pine, for its structure and finishes, not incidentally a ubiquitous local resource. “It’s reassuring. It’s not about depositing an “international building” in the middle of nowhere,” says Pariseau, not surprising given her strong appreciation of the Nordic aesthetic.

Classrooms are in the left wing and bathed in northern sunlight. (Photo by Maxime Brouillet)

The school’s electromechanical and ventilation system, a crucial concern after the pandemic, employs air-source heat pumps and hydronic radiant floors. The entire displacement ventilation system has been unobtrusively integrated into the architecture including using the library as an oxygen replacement lung.

The school’s protective U-shaped courtyard, designed by landscape architects Rousseau Lefebvre and Collectif Escargo, is an important extension of the interior’s teaching functions. Its protective micro-climate supports the research-based benefits of exterior learning spaces. Again, particular attention has been paid to scale, graphic orientation and using local natural plantings to create “enveloping subspaces reminiscent of cocoons,” write the architects.

The entire building is temperature controlled through centralized air-source heat pumps. Combined with hot and cold hydronic radiant floors, this ensures comfort throughout all months of school occupancy. (Photo by Maxime Brouillet)

Like evidence-based healthcare facility design, this school, rigorously based on understanding children’s needs, succeeds even in responding to a disruptive pandemic.

To further explore the exterior and landscaping of this project and how the architectural approach aims to “deconstruct” the traditional school, visit Building magazine for a deeper dive.