How can a school building reinvent the way students are taught? ZAS Architects give us a demonstration with their recently completed design for Toronto’s Bergeron Centre for Engineering Excellence at York University.

With the ambition of becoming the first engineering school in Canada to achieve a 50/50 gender balance, York University enlisted ZAS to design a new student-centric school building that would help to attract a new generation of talented engineers. Following an intensive design process between ZAS Architects, The Lassonde School of Engineering and York University,  ZAS arrived at a design that put student productivity at the top of the agenda, with optimised spaces for learning, discovery and interaction.

From the outside, a tessellated glass facade based on a mathematical, triangle-based algorithm reflects slowly drifting cloud-like light and patterns into the interior spaces.

Inside, the typical school structure has been inverted in order to give the students access to the best and brightest spaces around the perimeter of the building, while offices are located in the core. While there are fewer classrooms than you would find in schools of a similar scale, lecture halls have been done away with altogether in exchange for active learning classrooms and abundant social spaces that foster spontaneous faculty and student interaction. 

'We weren’t worried about losing the lecture halls,' says Paul Stevens of ZAS, 'instead we were more concerned with designing the best active learning spaces for the school, in keeping with the mandate of the Lassonde School of Engineering. It’s about creating a hands-on experiential, learning condition that allows students to absorb and apply the content. This work is happening in active classrooms, with all the technology and flexible multifunctional furniture.'

Integrated pods for private study are configured with audiovisual learning tools that encourage students to spontaneously plug-in while corridors are peppered with banquettes and white boards for spontaneous brainstorming. An impressive multistorey materials testing lab facilitates hands-on learning, while the Design Commons is a gathering place where students are encouraged to foster entrepreneurial ideas and prototype them.

'Bergeron is one of the first [schools] if not the first, in Canada [to be designed this way]. The concept has been recently adopted in the last three-to-five years by leading US institutions like Stanford, Penn State and Harvard,' says Stevens of the groundbreaking design. 'The response from students has been fantastic. They’re now actively learning in project rooms, collaborative areas or social areas.'