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A new way of thinking about Learning Centres

THE Alan Megahey Learning Resource Centre (LRC) at Peterhouse Boys School, just outside Marondera, represents a new way of looking at education and interacting with information for senior school students from both the boys’ and girls’ schools. It was made possible by a very generous (around US$1.5 million) anonymous donation. Alan Megahey was a former Rector of the school, responsible for, among other things, the founding of the Peterhouse Girls School and the formation of the Peterhouse Group of Schools. He was also well respected as a man of considerable intellectual and cultural abilities, a historian and an academic, as well as for his innovative approach to education.

In addition he was an archivist with a significant collection of books and documents across a broad range of subjects. So it’s a fitting tribute to his legacy that the new LRC is part library but also a new and ground-breaking way for students to access and engage with information in whatever form it might take – printed or electronic. It’s an interactive learning facility where students can still enjoy all the attributes that a traditional library has to offer – research books and current periodicals – but with the added bonus of internet and multi-media access.

In addition to interacting with the internet, students can collaborate with each other on a peer to peer basis and also engage with teachers. The school has installed the online version of Encyclopaedia Britannica on their computers which allows pupils to view an almost unlimited amount of up to date information. The LRC also has impressive multimedia facilities for watching video and PowerPoint computer presentations. There’s a huge video monitor as well as state of the art sound equipment. And that’s not all – students are continuously monitored by CCTV cameras so that the supervisors are always in control of just what the pupils are looking at!

Originally intended as a kind of extension of the existing library it has become far more than that. It functions in a very different way to more conventional libraries which were always traditionally completely silent and rather stuffy and dusty spaces. It was crucial at the outset of the project to establish, research and define the brief and what the building was to achieve. In order to get to this point the architects undertook extensive initial consultations with a diverse range of specialists – from IT (Neil Padmore of Frampol) to educational psychology (Occupational Psychologist Felicity Van de Ruit of Realise Africa). In addition, various lively and inclusive focus groups consisting of staff and pupils were consulted. As a result of this research-led and collaborative process the LRC represents a new way of thinking about teaching and learning and is in essence an synthesis between a typical library and a computer centre, providing opportunities for both structured academic research as well as a more extramural curiosity in the world around us.

Whenever the brief is as unique as this one an important part of the initial design process is to get full support from the client on the design concept. Key to this was the production of accurate visualisations by the architects. Architectural Assistant Tapiwa Mativenga modelled the building both inside and outside in photorealistic 3D, to give the client team an exact look and feel for the space, colours and ambience before committing to construction documentation. To this end there are both formal seating for students to access the internet and do online research, as well as more comfortable and relaxed seating areas for reading, studying and collaborating in either small or large groups, or in public or private settings. Books and periodicals can be checked out in the usual way with an advanced sentinel system to ensure that all material taken from the resource centre is carefully monitored.

CONCEPT DESIGN IN A NUTSHELL The architectural approach aims to de-institutionalise the traditional library and weave contemporary forms of media and technology into the fabric of the building, making information of all kinds, more accessible than ever before, in a stimulating and engaging environment – At all times: encourage meaningful human interactions, spontaneous media exploration, and collaborative networking / information exchange, so that we can remotely explore the world around us.

The LRC is intended as a series of individual and collective gathering spaces under one roof, where a spectrum of learning resources and multi media, in all its forms can be consumed, shared and enjoyed by pupils and staff, (for scholarly and extramural interests alike). When I was asked to come on board for the interiors of the Peterhouse Boys Megahey Media Centre, it was important for me to understand the brief of the project and the architectural concept from the start, to ensure a smooth transition and continuity. The concept was quite strong with the structural components and key fixtures contrasted in a vibrant palette of plums, sparkling lime, Monet blues and effervescent orange.

The brief sensed it was important to run this scheme through the soft furnishings, but without the overall look becoming too garish. Solid colours were used for the blocklike seating components with geometric design such as circular chairs and square modular sofas. These were broken by merging patterns and colours in elements between, such as ottomans and more organic style chairs. We also selected furniture compiled in separate modules so that the block colours could be alternated and compounded together in different combinations, creating a variable aspect to the overall design. Overall I feel we achieved the look desired, where furniture and interior blends into the aesthetic structure of the building design The centre is designed on two levels to accommodate different needs for both individuals and groups.

The ground floor is mostly made up of public spaces with an emphasis on collaborative and interactive endeavours. There’s the reception desk, shelving for books – in particular Alan Megahey’s archival collection – desks with computers and laptops and formal seating, as well as a sort of internal amphitheatre facing the large screen, used for presentations, functions and as a kind of lecture hall. The internal stepped or raked space has beanbags for informal comfortable seating. The ground floor has a double-volume space extending from the south wall (made up mostly of huge glazed panels) towards the centre so it feels extra light, bright and airy, and the top floor balcony creates a gallery providing standing room so that more students and guests can overlook presentations.

The first floor of the building is assigned to more private spaces and is typically quieter and more secluded for serious solo studying, with access to a terrace overlooking the courtyard. There are even two ‘pod’ rooms upstairs which can be used for tutorials, presentations or small discussion groups. The two pod rooms were initially planned to be open balconies or verandahs but as the design developed it was decided to enclose the rooms to add an extra dimension to the study facilities. There are also smaller offices for administration, storage and a career guidance office.

The interior design of the LRC makes use of a fairly simple palette of materials – unplastered brick, concrete, exposed steel roof beams and large expanses of glazing, particularly on the south wall and also forming a banister around the first floor gallery. The Architects, Geoff Fox and Graham Cochrane from Architectural and Planning Studio, have used bright colours extensively in the design – partly to be visually stimulating and exciting and also to informally demarcate the different learning zones. The colours were carefully selected to enhance and draw focus to key elements. Whilst the external colours respectfully pay reference to the adjacent buildings, the bright palette chosen for the internal spaces is intended to de-institutionalise the learning environment and provide young minds a vibrant and inspiring space to explore mixed media. The book collections were highlighted with plum purple and apple green accent colours and further accentuated with hidden LED feature lighting to draw attention to the new and old book collection. The structural steel was painted sky blue and concrete load bearing columns, beams and terraces painted citrus orange to emphasise and bring focus to the architectonic elements.

The north side of the ground floor opens up to the existing outside amphitheatre which is an ideal space for open air theatrical productions. There was an existing bunker room adjacent to the amphitheatre intended as a backstage changing room but it was completely impractical and seldom used. The building also functions to square off the Great Court creating a kind of quadrangle, bound by science classrooms on one side, the chapel on the opposite side, and the administration block at the top end.

When first introduced to the plans for the Peterhouse Megahey Centre we were very excited. From previous Conference Centre installations we had a pretty good idea of what equipment would form the backbone, but with the addition of new technologies and updated equipment we had the chance to install a system that surpasses any other presentation system we’ve seen or heard of in the country. The challenge with any large scale audio video system is making it easy to use. In the past functionality would be sacrificed for simplicity but that’s not the case any more. The Megahey Centre is split into 7 different audio zones out of which three zones have televisions installed for presentations. Presentations can be wirelessly sent to any or all of the television screens, from computers, tablets or smartphones (via WiFi), allowing for a tidier cable free environment, without any fuss over cable compatibility, damage and loss.

Audio and music sources can be played throughout selected zones, wirelessly streamed from personal devices or from hard wired sources from within the rack. Microphones are available to be used for larger presentations with the system capable of running separate presentations concurrently, splitting the microphones between zones, or extending a selected microphone’s audio throughout any or all of the seven audio zones. In order to make this system easy to manage and control we employed an automation controller. This is a small robust purpose built computer processor that connects to every audio and video device within the system. The automation system we use allows us to, in the Megahey Centre’s case, design a webpage that runs on the librarians PC – and allows the librarian to control each input, output and source.

This control page can also run on smartphones and tablets, which is how many of our clients with our multi-room audio video systems installed into their homes choose to operate their systems. Designing the page ourselves means we can eliminate pages of unnecessary buttons for features or inputs that are irrelevant and boil the control page down to the basic essentials. A system that would otherwise require a manual and hours of training to use can now be controlled by anyone who has the control page on the PC pointed out to them.

Part of the brief to the architect from the Peterhouse Steering Group, (Headed by Rector Mr. Howard Blackett, with notable direction from Board Member Mr. Chris Paterson) reads, “The new building should be an appropriate 21st Century design and respectful of its position as the bridging building which completes the Great Court. The Fieldsend Hall, the Science Block, and the Gibbs Court, all marked considerable Architectural advancements on the original 1950s school as built: the Megahey Centre should represent a further advance.” These aspects of the brief needed serious consideration. The new building needed to be both modern and progressive while still blending in seamlessly with the existing older structures. Fox has achieved this difficult dichotomy admirably – the new building echoes the existing buildings facing onto the Great Court in its use of granite cladding and a somewhat restrained facade made up of alternating granite, painted and plastered brick work, and open balconies.

The south facade is altogether more contemporary as it doesn’t need to relate to other existing buildings. Large glazed windows provide a view towards the Wedza mountains and allow for gentle light to permeate the open plan interior. There’s also an outside paved area to allow guests for functions to spill outside and to tie the building into the landscape. On the west side blinds help to control the afternoon sun flooding into the pod rooms which overlook the old library. Work on the site began in early 2016 with main contractors Rio Douro Construction and was completed on target towards the end of the same year, overseen by the consultant team of architects (APS), Quantity Surveyor (Matt Dove Associates), Structural and Civil Engineers (Dickie and Kunaka), Mechanical and Electrical Engineers (ASMEC) as well as Mr. Jason Driscoll, the Projects Manager for the Peterhouse Group of Schools, who has an intimate insight into the history of the school and the related infrastructure. The result is an exemplary and groundbreaking learning centre that will change the way that students will be educated in the future.

Text by Michael Nott

Additional Photos, Drawings and Plans by Geoff Fox From Architectural and Planning Studio (Aps)

Photos by Tami Zizhou

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