École Primaire Margueritte d’Youville – At school as at home. The project is organized as a reassuring village, on the scale of the pupils. No institutional language here, we seek to create a village heart, a meeting place between generations. The houses are distributed in a way as to create an interior courtyard protected from the wind and open to the community at all times. The architecture invites students and teachers to go outside, even in winter, Saguenay being in a northern context. It modifies the traditional pedagogical approaches by adding outdoor classrooms, bleachers that act as libraries open to all, and creating a collaborative space adjacent to the classroom that allows students to meet others during class, not just at recess. The schoolyard, traditionally composed of asphalt and fences, is turned into a green space where a large part of school life takes place.
Architizer chatted with Étienne Bernier, Principal architect at Agence Spatiale, to learn more about this project.
Architizer: What inspired the initial concept for your design?
Étienne Bernier: I come from a small agricultural town. My first school was like a small home. The classes were small and everybody used to play with everybody. The teacher was our friend and we spent a lot of time outdoors. The concept was inspired by this feeling of liberty and playfulness. Instead of creating a big institution, we focused our design on a series of fragments and a series of small houses united together in order to keep the architecture on a reassuring scale for the children. The courtyard is, in a way, the central space of the project. It helps to get oriented and to circulate all around the project. It is like a friend that welcomes us and helps us to play and learn, even during the winter.
What was the greatest design challenge you faced during the project, and how did you navigate it?
On a practical level, the land with its big slope was quite a challenge when the time came to create a courtyard and make a connection with the street. To overpass that, we decided to create a connection with an exterior classroom dividing the facade into two volumes, in sort of an exterior in between. In response to the uneven topography, the building is designed on two main levels: the first floor is accessed from the street, and the garden level via the courtyard. Several entrances are provided and are expressed in an understandable way for the different users. We also had to work the courtyard to be open and flexible enough to be used as a corridor to give access to each home for the children. That feeling of being able to cross the school while being outside appeared to us as a good creative solution.
How did the context of your project — environmental, social or cultural — influence your design?
The proposed new school is meant to reflect a typical Saguenayan lifestyle, a village intertwined with strong ties to its natural environment, anchored in the culture of its inhabitants.
On a smaller level, the school is in a tough neighborhood. The students come from families with low income and sometimes, the child may not always have the best opportunities. Creating a school where they felt comfortable, safe, and welcome was our way to help them reach their full potential. We also hope that the school could be used by more people than usual, meaning that not only the students and teachers would embody the school but the parents and the community as well.
What drove the selection of materials used in the project?
We decide to promote de use of local materials. Saguenay is known to have big forests and has a long history of wood harvest. The decision to use what was there drove our decision to maximize the use of wood in the project. All the project is in wood. From the structure to the cladding. Even the furniture that the child will use. No plastics, no steel. This choice also helped lower the project budget, since all the people around were able to offer their service and feel part of the project. This approach ensured that the project quickly became the community’s project and that people took ownership of it and were proud of it.
What is your favorite detail in the project and why?
The main bleacher is directly connected to the inner courtyard. This space, to me, represents a great quality. It is as if the courtyard enters the school, or as if the school exits into the courtyard. In my opinion, this ambiguity enriches the project and gives it a unique character.
How important was sustainability as a design criteria as you worked on this project?
The volumetry and spatial organization of the areas were articulated around the existing topography to limit the impact on the natural environment. The sports facilities were also judiciously positioned to respect the mature trees on the site. To achieve LEED certification, the team worked with local businesses to provide local materials for the construction of the school. Structural and mechanical choices were guided by a concern for comfort, aesthetics, and performance while minimizing costs and maintenance. For example, wood framing facilitated implementation, was easy to maintain and was strategically economical.
In what ways did you collaborate with others, and were there any team members or skills that were essential in bringing this Award winning project to life?
The project is part of a global reflection initiated by LabÉcole. They produced guides and generated ideation to rethink the schools of tomorrow in Quebec. OUr design was inspired by their teaching. Once the competition was won, we had several meetings with users, which allowed us to evolve in the design and to make some of the solutions we had initiated progress. The process of collaboration is not finished even if the project is under construction. Many meetings are planned to continue to make the project live and be as inclusive as possible for future users.
How have your clients responded to the finished project?
The project is still unfinished, but it will be in a few months! I am sure that the teachers and the students will receive everything with enthusiasm.
How do you believe this project represents you or your firm as a whole?
The notion of childhood, playfulness, and pleasure are for us a vector of creativity that allows us to democratize architecture. Far from elitist approaches, we generate accessible and exceptional concepts that will leave a mark on the imagination. We often approach our projects by putting ourselves in the shoes of a child, imagining seeing the world through his eyes and wondering about the wonder and pleasure he would have. This school is a direct reflection of that vision.
How has being the recipient of an A+Award evoked positive responses from others?
We believe that projects must be resolutely eco-responsible, sensitive and well-anchored in our northernness where nature and the beauty of the landscape are integrated into the architecture. Our ambition is to continue this vision and to express it through projects that will have a more permanent impact on society, such as the LabÉcole project, which is no longer just in the private sphere but directly addresses the collective, society. Receiving an A+award is a nomination that underlines this approach to our peers and people who are interested in our work by making this project a reference while complimenting a great team effort.
Appareil Architecture, BGLA Architecture + Design urbain, Collectif Escargo, LGT, Rousseau Levebvre
Johanie Boivin (Agence Spatiale), Jérôme Duval (Agence Spatiale), Catherine D’Amboise (Agence Spatiale), Élise Baumann (Agence Spatiale), Kim Pariseau (APPAREIL), Antonin Boulanger-Cartier (APPAREIL), Marc-Olivier Champagne-Thomas(APPAREIL), Marc-Antoine Juneau (APPAREIL), Stéphan Gilbert (BGLA), Samuel Girard (BGLA), Lydia Lavoie (BGLA), Carl Gauthier (LGT), Dominic Maheu (LGT), François Fortin (Rousseau Lefebvre), Karyna St-Pierre (Collectif Escargot),
Products and Materials
Eastern white cedar wood planks, Easterne white cedar wood lattice, Clay Brick, Aluminium Siding
For more on École primaire Margueritte d’Youville, please visit the in-depth project page on Architizer.
École primaire Margueritte d’Youville Gallery