Space to Grow: Creating an Exciting New School



Catherine McKinley, Director, Green Shoots International School, Vietnam


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We may be a small school, but we like to think big.

Green Shoots International School was established in 2011 in Hoi An, a sleepy coastal town in central Vietnam famed for its candlelit lanterns and tailoring shops. The beautiful UNESCO protected ancient fishing port draws coachloads of tourists every year, and a small but growing expatriate population is forming to serve them in boutiques and restaurants and on day trips and tours. To provide the infrastructure needed to support these expatriate families, Green Shoots was born.

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Since our inception as a kindergarten with fewer than a dozen children, we have grown to a school of over one hundred students ranging in age from eighteen months to sixteen years and hailing from over twenty countries. We are accredited by Cambridge International Exams and joined the Council of British International Schools. Our focus on mindful learning and sustainable living attracts families who are keen to raise their children in a family-based environment where each child is a valued and special member of our community.

Our rapid growth, while welcome, brings challenges, the most pressing of which is a critical shortage of space in the rented buildings we currently inhabit. But in typical Green Shoots style, we are turning this challenge into an opportunity by planning what may become the most innovative school campus in Vietnam. Our aim is to create a new purpose-built campus that reflects our learning style and educational philosophy. Recycled building materials, renewable energy, and creative learning spaces will define our new home.

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Before asking our architect to come up with ideas of what such a campus might look like, we went to our most important stakeholders— our students. Over several weeks, children from the kindergarten, primary, and secondary sections built concepts and put on paper their vision for what the new Green Shoots campus might look and how it might function. Ponies factored heavily into one class design, while another featured classrooms in the trees. Some of our older students put their heads together and came up with ideas for sustainable grass roofing as well as wind, solar, and water energy systems.

From there we turned to our staff: What kind of spaces, inside and outside, did they believe would best support a Green Shoots education? How should those spaces be equipped? How should the different sections of the school connect, and how should movement between them flow? More ideas emerged and more inspiration was unleashed, from the weird and wacky to the ultra-practical. It was amazing brainstorming from amazing people.

Stakeholder input in hand, we went to our architectural team members and asked them to integrate what they could into a functional design. Their initial concept offered two alternatives, the first based on the idea of a flowing river, the second more urban and edgy.

The river concept mirrored the river systems here in central Vietnam, where water from the Lao mountains flows to the sea along Vietnam’s 2,000-kilometer coastline. It also represents the flow of a child’s life, from birth—protected, nurtured, and safe within the confines of a mountain stream—to emerging adulthood—fast- moving, agile, and ready to launch from a fixed course to the limitless possibilities of the open sea. The design was soft, flowing, and organic, a mixture of earthy solidity and watery freedom. It used recycled tires, soil, and plenty of trees. While the ponies were sadly absent, a school farm and organic garden offered solace to our budding agriculturalists.

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The second design drew inspiration from the increasingly common recycling of shipping containers and from our students’ dream of learning in the trees: we called it our Forest Canopy concept. Boxes, piled high, would create a multilayered space in which the free flow of air between learning spaces would minimize the need for air conditioning in this part of the world where summer temperatures can often surpass 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit), and overhead shade would keep the hot sun off outdoor areas. The boxes’ outer surfaces would offer students dynamic art spaces to leave their marks as they already have on our current campus.

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But where would this new school be? And how large would it be? The region we call home is growing fast, and the expatriate population is keeping up with that growth, so we decided that to retain Green Shoots’ focus on family and community we will remain a relatively small school, capping our eventual maximum student body between 600 and 700. A school for this number could easily be developed on a small plot of land, perhaps only one hectare (about 2½ acres), but we are fortunate to be in an area where larger plots are available, and the local government is keen to support our growth. In fact, the local government has generously offered us a three-hectare plot (over 7 acres), midway between our current home in Hoi An and Danang, Vietnam’s third largest and fastest growing city 30 kilometers to our north. Not far from the sea, that area benefits from sea breezes most of the year, allowing us to use natural airflow to cool our campus.

The plot is currently still in use by local farmers, and we hope to integrate them into our campus by offering a new livelihood within the school to replace the one they will have to forego as their farmland is reclaimed by the government to support our growth. We plan to offer the farmers retraining so they can work as organic farmers within the school. English lessons will help them communicate with our students and prepare for more lucrative jobs in the tourism sector if they choose to move on from Green Shoots.

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Existing fish ponds will be integrated into our design, perhaps serving as spaces for floating classrooms or for continued aquaculture. One idea is to bring in decommissioned fishing boats and outfit them as quiet study or mindfulness spaces.

At the core of our building plan is sustainability: not simply “green building,” but true sustainability through which the longterm needs of our community—and the community that hosts us—are considered and provided for. We will do this in two ways. First, we have hired a sustainability consultant to help us ensure that our new space meets the conditions set out in the Vietnam Green Building Council’s LOTUS certification system. That system helps ensure that building projects use environmentally friendly practices and create spaces that are energy efficient over their entire lifetimes. Green Shoots will be one of the first to be assessed under a new rating system developed by the Council to certify buildings that are larger than a single house but smaller than a multi-story hotel or business complex. Second, we are developing our school using a Sustainability Compass developed by Compass Education, which focuses on four areas of sustainable living and learning: Nature, Economy, Society and Wellbeing. The compass guides all aspects of our growth and will provide a critical focal point as our campus project progresses.

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There remains much to do. Our concept designs must morph into something more concrete before the project can progress. Vietnam is not an easy place in which to create something outside the box, and permissions can take longer than anticipated to come through. Designs sometimes change at the last minute to accommodate changing laws and regulations, and land clearance is a long and arduous process under the best of conditions. But we remain positive. Here in this beachside haven, we believe that anything is possible. And we intend to prove it!

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Published in ISS NewsLinks: Volume XXXII Number 3

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