In a city known for its five-star school campuses, Dubai English Speaking College (DESC) has already been hailed ‘game changing’ by Which School Advisor, UAE schools-reviews portal. The school’s new 3,200sqm Sixth Form Hub, which accommodates up to 500, is the first of its kind.
Lulie Fisher Design Studio (LFDS) stepped in and transformed an existing, neighbouring campus in just nine months, from start to finish, including the design time and fit-out. “The brief was to provide a grown-up environment for students to prepare them for university life and the independent study that will be expected from them,” says Lulie Fisher, design director and founder, LFDS. “We had to also provide them with a facility where they could thrive, both academically and socially.”
The existing structure housed a kindergarten with long, low corridors with poorly utilised external light wells. LFDS succeeded in transforming the building into an open plan, dynamic, light-filled environment, fostering a sense of community and civic pride amongst the students. “We designed the school around the concepts of community and collaboration — for both, students and educators. The learning experience is enriched through collaboration and the facility’s layout promotes and enhances this opportunity,” says Fisher. “Our design intervention included breaking down barriers and walls, both internal and external, to create large, communal and interconnected spaces for studying, eating and relaxing inside, in internal light-filled courtyards as well as outside, in enclosed green and Zen garden spaces.”
The central light well has now been enclosed with a roof structure and stretched fabric ceilings, backlit with daylight-simulating light sources. It has resulted in a luminous, enclosed food court and study area, reminiscent of an outdoor garden courtyard. Freestanding banquette seating units with timber louvered canopies further perpetuate the illusion of the outdoors. A second linear light well has been also been enclosed to create lounges for students. Full-height glass sliding and folding doors were inserted, so the lounges open into a grassed and planted external garden.
Glass doors were introduced throughout the length of the flanking corridors, providing daylight, green views and direct access into the garden; with routes across the garden, connecting the study rooms on either side. Furnished with pool tables, fun and colourful Verpan modular seating, Eames rockers, bean bags, ottomans and Hay side tables, the lounges are a collegial, colourful break-out space. The partial enclosure of these light wells effectively added 30% to the gross floor area and yielded the capacity to meet the school’s future expansion plans. “The chill-out lounges are our favourite design feature,” adds Fisher.
The natural theme of the outdoor courtyards and gardens was continued inside with the choice of sunny yellows, muted greens and warm oranges. Commenting on the striking hues, Fisher says: “The colour and material palettes have been selected for their freshness, sense of fun and timelessness. The facility needs to look as relevant in 10 or 15 years as it does now, so current fads and trends were meticulously avoided.”
Colour psychology played its part too. “Colours have a studied impact on education and learning experiences, and we were mindful of this when selecting the finishes and fabrics. Green, a low wavelength colour, promotes relaxation and reminds us of nature; it is also good for assisting long-term concentration. Orange, when used sparingly, can be welcoming and mood lifting, providing a sense of comfort and improved neural functioning. Yellows are known to be excellent for stimulating creativity and improving attention.”
The rooms flanking the corridors are devoted to different types of learning spaces, ranging from communal and collaborative study to quiet, private study pods. “The durability of finishes and materials was obviously a key concern in such a heavily used environment. Quality European furniture was selected for its aesthetic and its grown-up feel. Furniture not usually associated with schools was chosen to demonstrate DESC’s value and trust in the students, and to project them into a university-style environment, which comes with responsibility and mutual respect.”
Furniture was selected to complement various study methods — from long communal bar-height tables with integral task lighting to pairs and groupings of high and low-backed easy chairs, with side and coffee tables, and acoustically separated study pods for solitary learning. Orangebox and Hay chairs and stools are upholstered in warm and bright colours, while the desking is fully enabled with power outlets and USB-charging points, and served by task lighting.
The school cafeteria serves up a healthy selection of hot and cold options from polished black granite food counters, illuminated by red rubber Muuto pendants. The abstract backdrop image, made of colourful tiles, was inspired by tribal designs. There’s also a dedicated pantry for students, which incorporates work surfaces, sinks, microwaves and banquette seating; combined with high bar counters for snacking and working. All are equipped with charging stations and dedicated lighting.
The project cost was US$1,035 per sqm, including FF&E but excluding the specialist gym fit-out and the landscaping. Key suppliers included Amtico Tiles for vinyl floor tiles in the study rooms, Johnsons Tiles and Tile Line for porcelain and ceramic wall and floor tiles throughout, Kvadraat for fabrics, Stretch Ceilings Middle East for the back-lit stretch ceilings in the food court; furniture and lighting came from Hay, Pedrali, Fritz Hansen, Verpan, Vitra, Muuto and Kinnarps (study booths).
With students’ health and wellbeing being at the heart of the DESC philosophy, LFDS created a state-of-the-art strength and conditioning gym with weight lifting and CrossFit rig. Serviced by changing rooms with individual glass-fronted shower cubicles, the gym also has wet and dry vanity counters for hair drying and make-up. LFDS also accommodated a Wellness Centre with quiet relaxation areas, a yoga studio and suites for counsellors, wrapped around a shaded Japanese-style Zen garden, making it the perfect place of respite.