In ‘Learning Spaces’ contest, international group designs outdoor learning and play spaces

The “think globally, act locally” catchphrase encourages problem solvers to consider global health and local communities as they work. For “Learning Spaces,” an outdoor classroom design competition, Norwich University thought and looked globally — inviting inventive high schoolers from around the world to submit ideas for outdoor spaces for learning and play.

Fifty-seven people from 10 countries on four continents registered for the contest, which ran Nov. 12 through Dec. 13. Forty-two students entered, including students from India, Sri Lanka and Canada. The first-place winner submitted from Poland.

A seven-person jury, including six Norwich faculty and a graduate student from the College of Professional Schools, judged the entries and announced the winners in a Dec. 19 GoToWebinar teleconference.  

“Everybody who participated in the contest is involved in learning every day. And, so, not only is this (challenge) something you can relate to intimately, it’s the kind of thing a good designer likes to chew on.”Aron Temkin, dean, College of Professional Schools

Tolya Stonorov, an associate professor of architecture and practicing architect, led the contest and its jury, which included College of Professional Schools Dean Aron Temkin; School of Architecture+Art Director Cara Armstrong; CityLab:Berlin Program Director and architect Christian Dengler; Associate Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering Tara Kulkarni; Associate Professor of Architecture Timothy Parker and architecture graduate student Kenechukwu “Kene” Onwe.

The contest’s organizers had planned to award individuals or members of four-person teams $2,000 Norwich scholarships ($500 per year for four years) for submitting complete entries, $4,000 ($1,000 per year for four years), to the second-place finisher and an $8,000 scholarship ($2,000 per year for four years), to the first-place finisher. But Stonorov said the submissions were so excellent that awards were added for third place and honorable mentions.

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A screenshot from the Dec. 19, 2020, GoToMeeting session shows the winning design from Adam Bigas of Silesia, Poland. (Screenshot from GoToMeeting/Norwich University.)

The jury also issued a Global Resiliency and Security Award, announced by Kulkarni, who directs Norwich’s Center for Global Resilience and Security.

Adam Bigas of Silesia, Poland, won the contest. Temkin said Bigas’ design, dubbed “Nature Hub,” stood out starkly, making the selection of winner unanimous and fairly easy. Jurors particularly liked that Bigas’ design was both concept and system, Temkin said, both closed and open, geometry and construction. Bigas seemed to have thought about different places the design could stand and factored in furniture and storage, Temkin added. A hand-drawn comic strip finished the project with whimsy, showing the space used for lessons.

“Even in the description, you could tell the designer was thinking about not just the role of the student but the role of the teacher,” Temkin said.

One juror said, “I love the integration of the narrative and conceptualization in building the design. That the structures were not permanent was extremely thoughtful, allowing any space to become and outdoor classroom.”

Another juror said, “Laudable use of multiple modes of explanation, rigor with a sense of humor.”

Bigas described his design as a transformable pavilion that could invite students to go forth to explore nature and then return to for learning. He said he imagined the space furnished with multipurpose cylinders that could fit inside one another for easy storage.

By contest parameters, the classroom-play spaces could be no bigger than 20 feet wide by 20 feet deep by 20 feet tall or exceed a 20 feet tall-by-400-square-foot footprint. The classroom had to be specific to the grounds of a school in the entrant’s or entering team’s locale.

Following tradition

Temkin said the contest let Norwich connect with potential students and let students join Norwich’s tradition of problem-solving and public service. 

In 2011, after Tropical Storm Irene dropped 11 inches of rain and caused $733 million in damage, Norwich students looked for low-cost ways to restore or rebuild dwellings that were among the 800 homes and businesses the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration estimated were wrecked.

Armstrong counted eight low-cost cost-efficiency home designs from students in the School of Architecture+Art and its Design+Build Collaborative since 2011. The most recent were for a pair of LIFT houses in Barre, Vermont, led by Stonorov, Danny Sagan, an associate architecture professor, and Mark Atwood. a civil engineering lecturer. (The most recent LIFT House was sited Dec. 17.)

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In a homemade comic strip, Adam Bigas shows “Nature Hub,” the outdoor space he designed, in use for lessons. (Screenshot from GoToMeeting/Norwich University.)

Norwich Design+Build Collaborative students also designed three outdoor classrooms, including NEST at Union Elementary School in Montpelier that won awards from the New England and Vermont chapters of the American Institute of Architects. Other projects have included a solar-powered geology lab; a mobile classroom and design gallery; and a day camp and classroom building.

“The students come here because they want to make a difference in the world,” Temkin said. “Everybody who participated in the contest is involved in learning every day. And, so not only is this (challenge) something you can relate to intimately, it’s the kind of thing a good designer likes to chew on.”

Parker, who announced the 33 Concept Submission Award winners, said submissions were as diverse as the entrants. Some used handmade drawings; others three-dimensional models or photographs. Some showed architecture relating to surrounding landscapes, architecture, nature or views of either. All showed flexibility, versatility and adaptability of materials.

Parker praised the students’ imagination and courage.

“It’s an acknowledgment of what’s really involved in putting yourself out there — for criticism, for evaluation of your ideas,” he said. “You think of things, you find ways to represent the ideas and we honor that effort.”

* * *

The winners circle

First place ($8,000 scholarship): Adam Bigas, Silesia, Poland.

Second place ($4,000 scholarship): Ming-Huei Fisher, New York, New York.

Third place ($3,000 scholarship): Youstina Riad, Roselle, Illinois.

Global Resilience and Security Award ($3,000 scholarship): Niyati Pragya, Mumbai, India.

Honorable mention: Luke Zelis, Belmont, Vermont; Parker McMillan, Greenbrae, California; Xiangchun Lin, Staten Island, New York, and Nathalia Marmol, Bronx, New York; Katie Connors and Denia Mittleman, Greenbrae, California; Nadalia McLeary, Ledyard, Connecticut.

Concept Award winners: Meghan Brennan, Brookline, Massachusetts; Pradnya Bhoir, Shritej Karkhile and Harshada Tapare, Maharashtra, India; Kyle Stejskal, Bethel, Connecticut; Marjaan Abakil and Sundus Abakil, Pierrefonds, Quebec; Jean Jules Cyubahiro Gahogo, Rwanda; Sandeep Kute, Nikhil Chaudhari, Nishant Jadhav, Hrithik Gandhe, Maharashtra, India; Saloni Mandavkar, Maharashtra, India; Samantha Teree, Kentfield, California; Colbie Miller, Milton Vermont; Bruce Bowler, Tiburon, California; Morde Santosh, Kunal Morde, Bhushan Muluk and Pratik Dalvi, Mumbai, India; Jack Callaghan, Mill Valley, California; Zorenza Kleinberg, Greenbrae, California; Siddhant Madhavi, Maharashtra, India; Katie Lui, Hong Kong, China; Sonam Pahlajani, Delhi, India; Vanya Garg, Delhi, India; Rylie Fisher, Newbury, Vermont; Jaden Paquette, St. Albans, Vermont; Mrunmayi Nikam, Maharashtra, India; Ian Churchill, Corte Madera, California; James Hunsucker, Somerville, Tennessee; Arpita Goel, Delhi, India; Neri Landi, nation unidentified.

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