This article was published in Efterskolen, no. 15, 10 May 2012

Recently, Radio 24/7 spoke about the decrease in boarding school students – a number that has decreased by approximately 1,000 students after many years of stability. The diagnose was clear. Smaller classes in the primary schools, a financial crisis, and an increase in boarding school do not make up good odds for Danish boarding schools which offer optional education. Now the boarding schools are even more challenged when it comes to offering something different and more than just ”getting away from home and spending time with peers”. In the last edition of the Boarding School Magazine (ed.), the article Efterskolerne bygger sig ud af krisen (”Boarding  Schools are Building Their Way Out of the Crisis ”, ed.) mentioned that a number of boarding schools have been working on establishing new, attractive facilities for their courses or creating more modern rooms for the students. At Sundeved Efterskole they opened up a brand new gym in January 2011 and a year after, Sorø Gymnastik Efterskole did the same; in February they opened up a new gym with international measures worth 17 million Danish kroner. At Mariager Efterskolw they have chosen to spoil the students with an extra 1,500 m2 for housing in a modern building with room for 128 students. Space for profile or space for comfort. Only time can tell if the buildings pay themselves off by an increase in students.

Experiment for specialised learning space

When boarding school building projects are perceived as interesting in a bigger context, it is especially because of the schools’ quality as a learning experiment.  Due to them being based on optional education, Danish boarding schools have some exceptional opportunities for developing, testing, and optimising unique learning opportunities – experiments where young people who share some interests work, learn, and develop together. Specialised learning environments where space, furniture, and spatial interaction support the teaching practises and ways of working within the school.

Among the Danish boarding schools there are a number of interesting examples of specialised learning environments:

  • The TV studio at Rantzausminde Efterskole: Rantzausminde Efterskole was the first Danish boarding school to go online with its own TV channel which was introduced in 2007.  The TV channel starts out by broadcasting TV every second week and the topic is life at Danish boarding schools. The TV channel has a TV studio and semi-professional sound and video equipment. It is an example of a specially coded space for facilitating IT and multimedia classes while also giving the students the chance to try out journalistic tools as well as production techniques behind the screen in real life.
  • ”Industrial Kitchen” at Gødvad Efterskole: At Gødvad Efterskole, the kitchen is there to bring food to the table as well as to support the course Food. The facilities are professional and the design reflects an industrial kitchen. The students practise professional methods and principles for cooking, storing, presenting, tidying up and cleaning.
  • Music and Movement House at Mellerup Efterskole: In 2008, Mellerup Efterskole got its Music and Movement House with six practice rooms and a top professional sound studio. The students at the school use the facilities a lot.  Music and movement is a big part of life at the boarding school. They offer a wide variety of elective courses like adventure, badminton, soccer, choirs and IMPRO (dance, fight, jump, improvise). The house, though, is also increasingly used as a local culture house for café evenings.
  • Ryslinge Efterskole’s Fab Lab is still on the drawing board, but it is nevertheless mentioned here as an example because Ryslinge Efterskole’s Fab Lab will mix office and work communities with small companies, cultural production, and knowledge sharing, all of which is to be carried out with super modern machinery and in close collaboration with Ryslinge Høj – og Efterskole. At primary schools and especially at high schools and colleges, the Danish schools are working on establishing partnerships with other educational institutions as well as with businesses in the local community.
  • Nature as Educational Space: At a number of the Danish boarding schools, nature has been a special educational space for years. Take for example Brejning Efterskole that offers a course called Outdoor. The Outdoor course is about outdoor experiences with and within nature. When they go on field trips, the nature and the trip are in focus. The activities are experienced through nature. The students get lots of opportunities to challenge themselves and others through orienteering, climbing, kayaking, campfire cooking, and first aid courses.

The large number of primary schools and youth education institutions that concretise their profiles by specialising their offers these years might want to look at experiences from the boarding schools as inspiration in regards to specialised space for specialised education, an insight into knowledge about what specialised space means for students’ work, how it correlates with the teaching, and which strengths and/or inexpedient experiences that may follow when working with coded space. At the same time, it could be of interest to the primary schools and youth education institutions that wish to establish partnerships and interaction with the local environment to look at Fab Lab as an example of a partnership carried out in a school.

The culturally produced common room

The boarding schools nevertheless also need space that can facilitate a community: that is what the hall, the common room, and the canteen are there for as well as the Roman amphitheatre outside. The school gatherings are an important part of the culture at boarding schools. Each year, a special culture is formulated and confirmed though these gathering. This is where the students perform for each other and present their achievements. This is where they are inspired by lectures, music, and movies from near and far. In other words, it is space that, on a metaphysical level, will have to give room for ideas and development. Also on a more practical level it is space that needs to have many functions. Light, transparency, and a view, of course, but usually also the possibility to darken the room for slideshows and movies. Acoustically the space ought to work for both normal conversations and rock music. Physically it should also wish to inspire by its grace while at the same time be robust, down to earth, and ready for many years of different use and users to come. As the common areas at boarding schools are more used than those at primary schools and youth education institutions, there is more precise and nuanced knowledge about the possibilities and limitations of this type of space and how it can be matched with special requirements to design solutions.

The larger perspective

The building projects of boarding schools will only be interesting in a larger perspective, though, if a team is put together and there is made a platform for knowledge sharing of experiences and insights gained through the processes and functionality of the space created that rely on new ways of thinking. When the boarding schools rebuild, extend or build new building these years, that is, it often happens as a unique and local try out where many resources are spent on defining and building space for a future proof boarding school that still rely on some of the important traditions. The work is often planned locally and between internal stakeholders such as management, teachers, and students. However, there might be a lot to gain from mutual inspiration and experiences if the boarding schools with building projects to a larger extend compared notes and discussed the projects as they went along – this would especially be valuable in the early stages of the building. It is also interesting for schools with upcoming building projects. It would therefore be of great value if both process and result from those schools’ projects would be available for other boarding schools so they could gather inspiration and information before they start up their own projects.

Worth to consider before building

For the first time in many years, the boarding schools have experienced a decrease in students. The challenges throughout the country differ greatly, though. While some schools are so much under pressure that they offer money to those who will forward a student to them, other schools still attract more students than previously. Both schools are challenged in regards to their m2. This makes it particularly relevant to look at how space can be optimised or how empty areas can be used for other functions.

SIGNAL Architects’ observations and analyses from several consulting projects in primary schools throughout the country and from other educational institutions show that free square metres can be found everywhere if you are willing to give up ownership of them. The projects also show that many different activities can take place in the same rooms by working more systematically with the time schedules of the rooms. It is utopian to think that a school can use all 100 per cent of its square metres as schools are known to need more space to choose between, but since many schools only use 20-30 per cent of their capacity, there is a fair possibility that schools can optimise their existing square metres.

If the challenge on the other hand consists of a decrease in students and in unused space, it is possible to not only secure a profit that covers operation and maintenance, but at the same time get inspired by others if you choose rent out space. An obvious choice would be incubation environments for small, new businesses, a local knowledge centre, or an office hotel. It is of course important to remember considering which users and what kind of usage that could create the most interesting possibilities. Let us take the incubation environment as an example: it will probably demand investments in updated facilities, but on the other hand it will bring an increased use of the capacity and the rental income will be a good business. It also creates a possibility for using the professional consultants within innovation who might be able to give pieces of advice regarding the boarding school’s courses.

If you are building new buildings

If your boarding school considers whether to rebuild or to build a new building, here is a piece of advice. In the process that lies between your decision and when a competition programme or a building programme has been developed for an architectural competition or a total enterprise, it will typically wish to have different  user involving processes and needs analyses carried out. It is of course of high importance to get to an agreement about what the (new) space of the boarding school should be used for.

Nevertheless, if it is not prioritised to work on a correlation between function and space for visual design principles or function descriptions, the result of the user involvement will often become an unclear target board for the architects who are to bid on the project. The consequence is that those architects who bid on the project do not perceive the user needs as something binding. Architects typically do not mind this. It gives more freedom and innovation depth. It may turn out to be a problem for the boarding school that has invested a lot of time and commitment to the task, though, if they can no longer recognise the wishes they had during the user involvement process.

Do you want your educational intentions and your educational practise to shine through the space you will be moving into or do you want the space to influence your educational ways? Many things are set before the actual moving in.

Last but not least some basic rules for the good process:

  • Formulate vision and success criteria before you think about changes
  • Identify needs and group characteristics before you start thinking about solutions
  • Get insight into facts so you will not believe in myths!
  • Management involvement is a condition for user involvement
  • User involvement is a condition for changing ownership


By Morten Fisker.