Successful Indigenous school design: Listening, understanding, and acting
March 01, 2023
March 01, 2023
Designing an education facility for a remote community is about building trusting relationships
A version of this blog first appeared as “Walking in two worlds” in the Stantec Design Quarterly Issue 17.
Design for education in remote areas is challenging. Geography, history, climate, and culture require us to bridge significant divides to design.
But they give us the opportunity for design to contribute to the community. With a portfolio of completed schools in Indigenous communities, we’ve collected our thoughts on the approaches, the mindset, and the strategies that result in great design.
You can’t design a school for Indigenous people without acknowledging the history of residential schools in Canada and the “Sixties Scoop” (when authorities removed Indigenous children from their families and placed them in foster homes). The influence of residential schools is not in the past. The legacy and impact of these policies cannot be overstated; they still shape the lives of Indigenous people and all Canadians. As designers, it’s important for us to take the Truth and Reconciliation Commission report and its findings to heart as we undertake any work for Indigenous communities, especially schools.
In most small towns, the arrival of a new school building is important. This is true for remote Indigenous communities, too. We approach these buildings as schools but also as community centers. Often, they are the only multipurpose public buildings in the area and must serve many functions. They require large cafeterias and kitchens to allow for various after-school gatherings and community events where food figures prominently.
Resiliency and survivability features are a must. And the design solutions must respond to government guidelines for weathering extreme climates. Schools also serve as critical gathering spaces in times of crisis.
When working with Indigenous communities, there is often more at stake in a new school project. A new school is an opportunity to express pride and sense of identity, invigorate traditions, and even stimulate the local economy. So, it is incredibly important to listen closely and get the design right.
A new school can be an economic driver for remote communities. We strive to source materials locally, if possible. An example is ground material that can be crushed locally. And we encourage the general contractor to utilize as much local labor as possible by connecting with the local trades, sharing their capabilities, and facilitating onsite training. If certain trades are particularly robust in that community, we work to maximize their opportunity to contribute to the project.
To set the stage for an open and fruitful collaborative dialogue with the community, we need to build trust. To build that trust and establish a new level of comfort with our team, we must be highly thoughtful about how we engage. Building that relationship and trust starts with listening.
The process of working with Indigenous communities moves slowly compared with a more linear engagement process used in urban areas. It requires us to listen, to circle back, and make sure that we’ve heard correctly before moving forward. It’s about listening and respecting what we’ve heard and pursuing some threads that are brought forth in discussions, rather than following a strict timeline driven by project management.
In urban areas with mostly non-Indigenous residents, we might combine workshops with the school leadership along with the students and principals. In remote Indigenous communities, with listening and trust building in mind, we engage differently.
We’ve found that events like social dinners are a great way to build relationships and get the conversation on Indigenous schools flowing. Working with our partners, we host community-wide events where traditional foods are served—moose stew and bannock at a kickoff event for a new school for Bigstone Cree Nation in Alberta, for example.
We avoid talking about floor plans, which can be alienating, especially in places where new buildings are rare. Instead, we strive for an immersive experience so we can communicate to all what it will feel like when this school we’ve designed together is built and activated. We take them into immersive three-dimensional experiences of similar spaces or walk them through a highly developed design to elicit real-time feedback. We sometimes adapt on the fly and change how we engage to get the right level of comfort—pivoting to smaller groups of activity-based workshops to elicit feedback, for example, when a larger group exercise isn’t working out.
For meaningful engagement, we start with the students. We talk with the adults. We talk with the elders. We talk with the teachers. We talk with the bus drivers. We talk with everyone. We want to get everyone’s point of view. Engagement is as much about creating a sense of ownership and pride as it is harvesting ideas and goals for the design.
Student input is rich and often unfiltered. Once we sift through the daydream ideas like waterslides, we uncover important insights. For instance, the students have told us they wanted a bigger library, they wanted a science lab (having seen them elsewhere), and they wanted living plants in their classrooms. One student asked us if we could make the building two stories because they had never been up a set of stairs.
All these ideas from young people led to new design solutions, including a larger library, an innovative science lab, living plants in the classrooms, and even a staircase leading to a cozy reading nook.
Interacting with students in the design workshops is a lot of fun. It also gives us a chance to give back to the community. We find joy in providing educational workshops in STEM and sharing our passion for architecture, interior design, and engineering.
We strive for an immersive experience so we can communicate to all what it will feel like when this school we’ve designed together is built and activated.
Listening doesn’t mean much if we can’t translate what we are hearing into design solutions. We must execute. We strive to express what our collaborators have shared with us back to Indigenous community stakeholders in the form of design. We’re advocates for their community. Our challenge is to realize their wants on a government-approved budget and timetable.
First Nations differ in language, traditions, and history. It’s critical to approach each nation on its own terms. Because of displacement, geography, and history, neighboring nations can have much, or little, in common.
First Nations communities consistently tell us they want a space where teachers can teach their kids how to maintain a connection with their traditions. They say the younger generation wants to walk in both worlds—the modern and traditional.
With these communities, we embed local traditions, some lost through time, into the design. The sense of identity is not something that we can infuse into a school ourselves, it is driven innately by the local project stakeholders and the knowledge keepers.
Our designs can be the vehicles for cultural symbols that carry layers of meaning forward in the built environment. This is a means to recognize culture, customized to each nation. At Kingfisher Lake, Ontario, we used iconography and colors that connect to the natural world. Elsewhere, we refer to the seven sacred animals, which is a big part of learning for a lot of First Nations across Canada.
Our designs can acknowledge the importance of elders as teachers in Indigenous cultures. We proposed "an elders' room" on various school projects where community members and students can connect across generations.
For many people in northern Canada, hunting is a way of life, even a must just to put food on the table. Hunting can also be educational. We’re designing educational spaces for programs where hunting is part of the curriculum and rendered wild game is used for biology class, gifted to elders, and used as food within the school.
So, we create freezers for storing wild game and provide space in the kitchen for preparing it. We’re designing schools to accommodate hunting, fishing, or even building traditional birch bark canoes. We design spaces that allow for an intermingling of Western and traditional learning to occur.
Designing for remote locations has its own set of challenges. We often must design far beyond the property line that defines a school. Our designers are expected to know what roads are accessible and how water and sewerage tie in. And if they don’t, we need to specify what roads or utilities need to be built. Sometimes, we even design major upgrades of water treatment plants.
We may have to design housing and associated program elements for teachers who will be relocating to the area to teach at the new school. What will they need and expect? Whether we are designing for fly-in/fly-out communities or towns connected to the rest of Canada by hundreds of kilometers of unpaved roads, we must consider how building materials will reach the site and when construction will take place.
Designing schools for Indigenous communities in remote locations adds a new layer of responsibility and meaning to our work.
The biggest lesson we’ve taken from design for Indigenous schools is about the importance of listening, building trust, and forging deep relationships. Those relationships are deep enough that laughter can become a feature of the design process where mistrust once existed.
This process elicits powerful designs that can change lives in northern communities and lessons that we can take forward and apply on our next project.