Design for better learning and community use in Vancouver’s downtown core
Crosstown Elementary School is the first urban school built in Vancouver’s downtown core in a decade, rapid densification has brought a sharp increase in the number of one- and two-child families choosing to live in centrally located towers, rather than move to the suburbs.
By Alvin Martin
In this context, Crosstown Elementary forms the basis for future partnerships between the Vancouver School Board [VSB], the City of Vancouver and developers, to secure space required for future schools in areas where land is otherwise unaffordable. Crosstown has been incorporated into an existing mixed-use development, with a commercial podium and residential towers completed in 2006. The daycare was completed immediately afterward, and the remainder of the site was left for the school.
The new school was designed to accommodate 60 Kindergarten and 450 grades 1-7 children, and was built directly above the existing two-level, below-grade parkade. The parkade required structural upgrades to meet the current seismic code and to support the new four-storey school above. Since the parkade is owned by the tower residents, the VSB had to reach an agreement for access and upgrades prior to commencement of construction.
The school itself was designed to meet the criteria of the ‘21st Century Learning’ philosophy of the provincial Ministry of Education. The project team pared down the program and design requirements to the essentials. This enabled the program to be fit into the trapezoidal-shaped site that was also constrained by an existing balcony overhang and pool structure at the third-floor level, as well as the cantilevered outdoor play space of the adjacent daycare.
One of the driving forces behind the location and design of the school, was to encourage and facilitate community use of the building. The connection to Andy Livingstone Park and the surrounding community is expressed through the treatment of the ground floor. Public spaces are located on this level, including gymnasium, multipurpose and servery. Large glazed walls enclose most of this level, creating strong visual connections to the street and promoting an enhanced community presence within the school. This idea is made manifest by opening the multipurpose space on to the Park, whereby it creates a relationship with the playground, extending the school program into the public realm.
The second multipurpose space was funded by the City of Vancouver and is located directly below and adjacent to the existing daycare facility. The City will use this space in conjunction with the other multipurpose space to facilitate a 60-child, before and after school care program. Along with complementary use of the gymnasium and servery, this extends the use of the building beyond regular school hours, encouraging a greater level of community participation.
Daylighting is critical to the building, which is flanked on two sides by the daycare and residential towers. Most classrooms face east or south, which allows for natural daylighting with vertical and horizontal louvres employed to cut down heat gain and glare. The main entry leads to the central stairway that is open through all four storeys, and includes full-height glazing that provides daylighting to Learning Commons areas on each floor. This stair provides a visual and auditory connection between all floors, ensuring no level feels isolated from the rest of the school population.
Some non-standard design challenges have ended up being a positive influence on the school. The school community has embraced the fact that there are no drop-off or parking facilities available, and the majority of the students walk or take transit. The school has no additional site area beyond the building footprint, meaning that the VSB and City had to form an agreement to enable the school to share use of the playground within the Park. This has forced the City to address the serious drug use in and around the park, which has made it safer for the entire community.
The proximity to the existing residential tower led to a distinctive step in the building on the third and fourth floors. The depth of the setback at each of these floors was dictated by the City and allows continued daylight access to, and views from, the residential units. These setbacks also allowed the creation of rooftop learning spaces unlike any other school in the province, while also adding something unique to the experience of the tower residents.
Crosstown Elementary was a true collaboration of multiple stakeholders that is having a positive effect on one of the most diverse and densely populated communities in the province.
Alvin Martin is an associate and an architectural technologist with Francl Architecture Inc. He was the project manager for Crosstown Elementary School.