Nuuk School: Outstanding Arctic architecture

The architecture of Nuuk School is dictated by the landscape and the unforgiving climate.

Replacing a number of run-down schools, the school will have capacity for 1,200 children, but will also serve as a cultural centre for the rest of Nuuk.

Read about KHR Architecture’s thinking behind the design of this unique building in this article.

The people of Nuuk know it doesn’t matter which way the wind is blowing. While the north wind brings biting cold, the south wind off the sea typically blows in plenty of snow. And the wind speeds can be such that you cannot open the door into the oncoming wind.

The wind is just one of the elements that Janina Zerbe, architect and partner at KHR Architecture, had to factor into the planning and design of Nuuk School – or “the school on the plain”, as it is called.

“Because the winds can be so extreme, we’ve incorporated entrances and sheltered spots on all four sides of the school buildings,” she explains.

Janina Zerbe and her colleagues at KHR Architecture have extensive experience in what is known as “Arctic architecture”. The firm has been designing projects in Greenland since the construction of the Greenland Institute of Natural Resources and Malik Swimming Pool in 1998 and, besides Nuuk School, the architects are also behind the Hans Lynge School, also in Nuuk.

“The uniqueness of the Arctic climate necessarily influences the architecture and calls for quite different solutions when it comes to the indoor climate, building methods and general building design. You can’t build the Danish way in Greenland,” she says. 

New school is a landmark

Nuuk School is located near the centre of town and close to Nuuk Town Hall, and the project is extremely important to the citizens of Nuuk, as Janina Zerbe explains:

“It’s more than just a school. It is going to be a landmark, heralding Nuuk’s international future. Right now, the capital of Greenland is rapidly developing into an international city.

The bold ambitions for the school are reflected in its design, she says:

“The school’s design is based on Greenland’s history, with nature as the constant backdrop to the lives people lead. At the same time, it’s indicative of a way of building in Nuuk where what matters most are the indoor climate, daylight and beautiful spaces where people can live and thrive.”

Focus on light and landscape

One respect in which an Arctic building like Nuuk School differs from traditional Danish school buildings is in its relationship with light:

“If you’re designing a school in Nuuk and want a good indoor climate, you have to prioritise both daylight and artificial lighting in a way you wouldn’t in Denmark, even though it would still be a priority in Denmark,” Janina Zerbe explains.

With that in mind, the buildings of Nuuk School feature distinctive roof structures with skylights to allow daylight to flood into the common assembly rooms from two directions (north/south and east/west).

KHR Architecture lets the climate and landscape govern the design of the actual buildings in the same way.

“The buildings need to be shaped according to the prevailing winds, and they have to harmonise with the landscape,” she explains. “So, if you look, you’ll notice the fact that the roof line of the school buildings mimics the mountain formations around Nuuk. This shape stops snow from settling on the slanted skylights, too,” according to Janina Zerbe.

At the same time, the school blends in with its surroundings in Nuuk, where one end of the school site meets relatively tall buildings close to Nuuk Town Hall.

“We worked on gradually scaling the buildings down from the town centre out towards the landscape of Narsarsuaq, the ‘Great Plain’,” Janina Zerbe comments.

The different building sizes are also designed to reflect the different school classes, so the smallest children – right down to kindergarten level – start in the smallest buildings and gradually move up into the larger buildings.

“It’s important for children to be able to identify with the spatial scale of the learning environment,” Janina Zerbe says.

Child-centric interiors

The harsh Arctic climate also dictates the choice of materials at Nuuk School, where wood and metal – forming the durable Kalzip building envelope – are recurrent features. But while the climate and the landscape dictate the exterior of the school buildings, the children’s well-being and lives are the focus indoors.

“Inside, our starting point is the child at school, and the sensuality that comes so naturally to children. We pretty much only work with two materials – wood and cast-in-situ concrete,” Janina Zerbe says.

Wood is used on floors, in wooden furniture, as wooden slats and as a raw material in Troldtekt acoustic panels to regulate the acoustics.

“We had to find a material to clad these ceiling shapes, which are very expressive and have lots of sloping surfaces. Troldtekt was a perfect match because not only does it regulate the acoustics, it also helps distribute daylight in the school.” Janina Zerbe continues:

“We have a light scientist here at the studio who knows that when daylight comes in, ideally it needs to be refracted to ensure good colour reproduction. And the roughness and light reflection of the Troldtekt acoustic panels effectively refract the light,” she says.

Janina Zerbe, Creative Partner at KHR Architecture.

FACTS: About Nuuk School

  • Construction is scheduled for completion in early 2024.
  • The school has capacity for 1,200 pupils, divided into 5 streams with up to 26 pupils per class. The school houses Years 0–9, special needs education, an after-school facility and a daycare institution.
  • The school is designed so that the main building can be used as a cultural centre for the people of Nuuk – outside school hours.
  • The budget for the project is DKK 600 million.
  • See more of KHR Architecture’s educational building reference projects here.