Considerate architecture shields delicate senses at Stensager School

Stensager School in Aarhus is a school for pupils with special needs. That’s why the architectural firm RUM has literally thought outside the box to create a learning environment that protects and includes pupils at the same time.

Troldtekt acoustic panels have unique sound-absorbing properties and ensure superior acoustics in schools and educational institutions

The City of Aarhus decided to build comprehensive specialist educational facilities at Janesvej in Brabrand. The former Tovshøj School site, covering a total of 11,740 square metres, was renovated and expanded so that the Stensagerskolen special school could move onto the site in 2023. The new building also houses a day care centre, leisure facilities, a specialist dentist and an ordinary school dentist.

The ambition was to create a safe and well-functioning environment for a diverse group of students with learning difficulties, profound developmental disorders, autism or other forms of disabilities.

The project was put out to tender as a design and build consultancy, and the City of Aarhus selected RUM as the winner in collaboration with MOE, Rie Ollendorff and ByplusLand. Not least because of RUM’s experience from similar projects in Kruså, Randers, Aalborg and Jægerspris.

Troldtekt acoustic panels have unique sound-absorbing properties and ensure superior acoustics in schools and educational institutions

A diverse user group

Experience with the target group and legislation covering the specialist area were valuable, as it was a complex task that awaited. In addition to school pupils and younger children in day care facilities, the building’s users include sports clubs and dental clinic patients. For that reason, the construction group focused strongly on creating a good flow in and around the building, especially because many of the users arrive in disabled buses or taxis.

"The original Tovshøj School dated from the time when schools were built well in terms of materials and space management. That gave us a good starting point," says Karin Elbek, director and partner at RUM.

Elbek emphasises that it was important to understand the target group’s varied needs, cognitive level, reactions and behaviour. For example, some users are sensitive to sounds or sensory input, while others have physical disabilities and reduced mobility.

"The school’s staff had done a lot of preparatory work and put together eight different personas that represented the different users. This allowed us to understand them and discuss their needs without becoming too specific. We were also very careful not to focus on a narrow group so that the other users were overlooked."

Significant improvement for the indoor climate

In order to take as much account as possible of the users who are particularly sensitive to sensory impressions, the building group thought carefully about the school’s interior and indoor climate.

The acoustics in the rooms are regulated by various sound-absorbing elements, including Troldtekt acoustic panels in the ceiling and perforated wooden walls, where small solid panels break the hole pattern to prevent visual disturbances and flickering of the eyes. Across the school, for example, uniform wayfinding with pictograms has been established.

"We've worked in accordance with the modern, up-to-date legal requirements for acoustics, daylight and lighting. The unsolicited feedback we hear from users is that the acoustics are wonderful. They are surprised that it can be so quiet even when large groups are present. So our focus on light and sound has given such a big boost to the indoor climate," says Karin Elbek.

The art of shielding without insulating

In addition to the indoor climate, a lot of focus also went on the school’s interior design. Through a series of tangible processes with the working group, RUM was able to define three zones that could form the framework for the interior design: a green comfort zone, a yellow development zone and a red insecurity zone. Using these zones as a guide, the architects put together a learning space that can challenge and invite a sense of community without overstimulating or isolating.

"One important lesson to learn is that comfort is not always provided by the most enveloping and enclosed areas. For some, feeling comfortable lies in space and movement. We also learned that recovery is not only about relaxing, but also about recharging your batteries by moving. That was the theme we jointly worked on. We needed to create a framework that could be adapted to the development of the target group, prevent conflict and make it easier for the students to find a new friend," says Karin Elbek.

Boxes in the border zone

RUM came up with a number of concrete design proposals that could support their work with red, yellow and green zones. Two themes in particular were consistent.

Firstly, the classrooms in the school were furnished with a number of add-ons to increase flexibility. For example, half doors, curtains, mobile walls and hanging points for swings.

Secondly, the architects invented a concept that attracted a large donation from the A.P. Møllerske Støttefond and called it “Out of the Box”: a series of flexible elements, children's houses and boxes that support play and the creation of different environments. They give pupils the opportunity to participate in a game or to withdraw and immerse themselves.

"We've placed the boxes in what we call the border zone in architectural terminology, i.e. the transition area where different activities or uses meet. In this way, we expand the yellow and green zones and ensure that the children can be part of the community without feeling pressurised," explains Elbek.

In order to ensure that the concept is used optimally, the school’s staff engaged in an extended pedagogical and didactic process, which included a detailed manual compiled on the elements are to be used.

Troldtekt acoustic panels have unique sound-absorbing properties and ensure superior acoustics in schools and educational institutions

Facts about Stensager School

  • Stensager School used to be located in smaller premises in Viby before moving into the renovated premises in Brabrand.
  • The school has room for 250 pupils in a total of 30 special classes from grades 0-10. This capacity was already fully utilised when the school opened in June 2023.
  • In conjunction with the school, a new day care facility with a floor area of 1,550 m2 is to be built aimed at 0–6 year-olds with special needs. The day care facilities can cater for 26 children.
  • The premises are also used by several sports clubs, including a weightlifting club and team sports for wheelchair users.