Rising up on a rocky slope, the Vocational College Live in Leppävaara, Espoo, has been honed to meet the requirements of special needs students. Barrier-free accessibility guided all aspects of the design, from the facades to the lighting.
Architect JUHA KUJANPÄÄ, Vocational College Live is located in a prominent place along the Turuntie road in Espoo. What is the key architectural idea in the design?
The design of the building was guided by the shape of the site, as well as functionality and accessibility. In particular, the need to control the sunlight and thermal energy entering the interior influenced the choice of exterior materials and the overall massing. The south and west facades, clad with ceramic tubes, intersect with the rocky terrain, forming a harmonious urban frontage. The curved wooden cladding on the yard side seamlessly transforms from the facade into the roof canopy. The form provides protection from traffic noise and creates a sheltered yard.
The students in the building have a wide variety of special needs, so it had to be barrier-free throughout. What did accessibility mean in practice?
Students with special needs include, for example, multiple disabilities, various forms of autism or visual impairments. Alongside the usual accessibility factors, for instance, direct natural light, reflections, disturbing sounds, certain environmental stimuli were identified, as well as the need for guiding, structural solutions.
We wanted the building to be accessible from all sides with roads. An outdoor disabled lift was placed at the entrance from the Turuntie road. All the paths in the yard are marked with guide paths and blister tiles as well as various profiled surfaces that make orientation easier. In addition, routes are highlighted with lighting. The main entrance is equipped with a sound beacon.
The main entrance and draught lobby have wide, automatic sliding glass doors. These were found to be a safer solution for the main route than swing doors. The dimensions of the draught lobby have taken into account wider-than-normal turning circles for electric wheelchairs. In addition, there is space at the entrance for cleaning and storing wheelchairs.
How does barrier-free access show in the interior?
In the interior, the tall central lobby serves as part of the signage. The lobby divides the building into two short wings, which are easy to navigate in, and the location of the lobby is easily visible. The wings are at a slightly different angle to the lobby, so as to avoid long corridors. Certain spaces and functions are located at the same points from one floor to the next, which makes orientation easier. There is also plenty of structural guidance in the building. For example, the circulation routes are lit with guiding light strips, and the floors have distinctive guidance and blister tiles as well as floor strips.
Direct natural light and reflective materials were identified as problems. The effect of direct sunlight indoors was reduced by using shading facade cladding as well as recessed window openings and a canopy. Filtered natural light was enhanced by indirect lighting. Reflective surfaces were avoided in places where they could exacerbate the spatial perception of the visually impaired individual. When moving from a bright outdoor space to a more dimly lit interior space, the amount of light is counter-balanced by artificial lighting, which shortens the adaptation time to the darker space of the visually-impaired person’s visual sense.
Acoustics is a significant part of accessibility, and that was the aspect given most attention in the tall lobby. There is a school canteen and café in connection with the lobby, and the space is also occasionally used for performances. Various sound-absorbing and sound-dispersing surfaces were used in the walls and ceilings.
The choice of materials and colours took into account sheen levels and sufficient contrasts. Surfaces and building components, such as doors, windows, stairs, railings, and furniture, had to stand out sufficiently from their surroundings, yet not be overemphasised, so as to maintain the harmony of the spaces.
How can an architect empathise with design for special needs? What does it involve beyond compliance with regulations?
Understanding special needs required time and background information. The client was actively involved in the participatory process and conveyed information to the design team throughout the design work. We got to know the activities of the school, met students and staff in their everyday life, and got to hear their hopes and ideas for the new school. We also discussed with the various disability organisations about the special needs of the disability groups they represent. The whole project reinforced the notion that the importance of accessibility cannot be overemphasised in projects.
Your office has also designed several other school buildings – according to your website, you have been involved in more than 100 children’s daycare centres, schools and educational institutions. How does Live fit into this group?
We have previously designed learning environments for special groups, but Live differed from the previous ones in its scope. The vocational college has several different learning environments, ranging from teaching kitchens to dance training facilities. In our opinion, the building is a well-functioning and flexible entity that offers students a wide range of educational opportunities, from managing everyday skills to vocational training. ↙