How to move a school without losing its spirit

Denmark's first international school is building a brand-new, high-tech facility in the developing Nordhavn district. But as ambitious as Copenhagen International School's new campus might be, it's not without risk

It’s that time of year again: the summer holidays are over, the days are getting shorter, and all around Denmark, teachers and students are headed back to school. While it’s a time of uncertainty for some, for others, ‘back to school’ is an exciting time of the year marked by a whole spectrum of newness – new courses, new books, new classmates, a new year, and a chance to start again.

But for the Hellerup-based Copenhagen International School (CIS), there is another ‘new’ on the horizon that has students, parents, staff and many in the Copenhagen community palpably excited – the opening of the new, 25,000 square meter CIS Nordhavn campus, scheduled for January 2017.

As of the 2014-2015 school year, CIS’s Hellerup campus (pre-K, primary and middle schools) and Østerbro campus (high school) were operating at nearly full capacity, serving around 900 students in total. When finished, the new school will be the largest in Copenhagen, housing all four divisions of CIS’s student population on a single site, with the potential to accommodate between 1100 and 1200 students.

The collective anticipation surrounding the new school is not the simple excitement that comes with moving to a new building in a new location, but seems instead to be charged with a kind of identity-defining ambition.

“The whole project fits with our pioneering spirit and reflects our history,” says CIS Director of Communications Thomas Nielsen, who describes the CIS Nordhavn endeavour as essential not only to the school’s expansion, but also to its soul.

“We’re not willing to rest on our laurels. If we are going to encourage our students to be risk-takers every day, then as a school we also have to take risks.”

Risk is certainly an apt word for the ambitious new school project. Not only is CIS taking a chance by moving from the suburban and transport-friendly Hellerup to the under-development Nordhavn district, but the school is also counting on the continued influx of professional expatriates coming to Denmark.

Last June’s election saw a move to the right and a significant strengthening of the anti-immigration Danish People’s Party. In late August, the party announced that it would seek to limit the number of highly educated foreigners moving to Denmark.

While the party is in a minority on the issue, they support a government that plans to publish adverts warning refugees against seeking shelter in Denmark. The proposal was condemned by representatives of Danish industry, who warn that the adverts would make Denmark less attractive as a destination for highly-educated knowledge workers.

So, the question is: after moving to Nordhavn, will it be possible for CIS to continue to thrive as a haven for Copenhagen’s transient international community without becoming even more isolated from Danish culture and the city of Copenhagen?

Community spirit
Anders Smith – an architect and one of the CIS Nordhavn project leaders – believes the answer to this question is ‘yes’. He argues that the school’s new location can and will be an ideal bridge between the international community of CIS and the city of Copenhagen.

“Nordhavn is the only place for the new school to be. It will allow CIS to become a city school and not just a suburban school,” he says, explaining that by designing and building from scratch, the new campus has the potential to become something the existing site couldn’t: “A destination not just for students, but for the community.”

The school’s facilities will be open to the public during as well as after school hours – facilities that include a library, fitness centre, four full-size basketball and indoor football courts, drama studios, a theatre, individual music lesson pods, studio space for artists and makers, a learning kitchen, and  a top-class cafe and restaurant.

Looking ahead to phase two, Smith can’t help but dream out loud.

“We’re already discussing sailing facilities, a naturally-heated swimming pool, and community garden spaces,” he says, beaming.

CIS students at the official inauguration of the new campus' building site in June, where mayor Frank Jensen spoke.

CIS students at the official inauguration of the new campus’ building site in June, where mayor Frank Jensen spoke.

Hi tech
The functional space is not the only thing that is likely to draw visitors to the future CIS Nordhavn campus. The school’s innovative design and energy profile promise to attract the attention of architecture aficionados and green energy admirers alike. By incorporating over 12,000 custom-made solar panels into the scale-like facade, the new school is expected to generate at least half of its own energy needs and will live up to 2020 European energy standards.

Undrinkable saline water is drawn up out of the ground beneath the building to be used as a coolant and balance the excess heat generated from the school’s extensive windows. The water is also used to flush the toilets. Inside the building, LED lighting, oversized classroom windows, full HD interactive screens and signage will help increase student and teacher performance and overall experience.

“By considering all of these things from day one, we’ve been able to make energy use and user experience the core of the building’s DNA. These are not overt things you may notice as you use the space from day to day, but you will certainly feel that it is a different kind of environment,” says Smith.

The new CIS Nordhavn campus will push the architectural and functional boundaries of what a school building can be. Thomas Nielsen explains that this will not make CIS more exclusive. On the contrary, he argues that it will allow the school to be more open and inclusive.

“Despite upgrading to the new campus, the fees for students and families will not increase significantly. What families pay in fees goes to the running of the school – the new building is a separate entity entirely.”

But, of course, all of this progressive design and technology comes at a price. Ejendomsfonden for Copenhagen International School (ECIS), the non-profit foundation charged with developing and managing the building project, has projected the total cost of the project to be approximately 500 million kroner. More than half has been donated by Danish corporations and foundations, including the A. P. Møller Foundation (Maersk), the Villum Foundation (Velux), and the Novo Nordisk Foundation.

And while ECIS is receiving no public funds for the school’s construction, CIS does and will continue to receive the school tax subsidies available to all public and private schools in Denmark.

However, the new CIS building isn’t just about improving the facilities for foreign families. With its move closer to the Copenhagen city centre, as well as its location along the future M4 Metro line, there is also a chance that the school will become an attractive option for Danish families looking to expose their children to the international school experience.

“Our hope is that by moving closer to the Nordhavn and Østerbro neighbourhoods, we will see our Danish student population continue to grow and engage with the other eighty nationalities represented here at CIS,” says Nielsen.

Keeping the spirit
Touring the CIS Nordhavn building site with a group of fifth and sixth graders this summer, Smith taught us about the complexities of architectural superstructure while the cranes worked above us. We climbed an unfinished stairway to the first floor and, from the elevated position, the students took in the work in progress all around them: the concrete shell of the performing arts centre, the expanse of the future football pitches, and the skeleton of four classroom towers above.

Decked out in hard hats and steel-toed boots, the students saw, touched and heard something that few people get to experience – something that CIS Director Walter Plotkin calls “an idea becoming a building.”

According to Plotkin, two concepts have guided every decision connected to the new CIS campus: a desire to create an optimal learning environment for every student, and for CIS to continue to be a community-centric location.

And, as this idea turns into a building, the current CIS students, staff, and families will have to sort out just how to make the transition from their current home to the new campus without losing the spirit of their current school community.

“We have launched a Cultural Advisory project and invited students, parents and staff to help us define and record the CIS culture. It is relatively easy to plan the moving of books and computers, but it’s another matter to ensure that the many and diverse things that make today’s CIS a special place will move with us to our new campus. By understanding our culture as a school and as a community, we will be better prepared to maintain our identity as we transition to our new campus,” says Nielsen.

With this new venture, CIS Nordhavn represents a sea change for the school and for Copenhagen. A new address, a new facility, and, perhaps, a new standard for other international schools of the future.

“Symbolically,” reflects Anders Smith, as we look over the building site, “this new school represents who we are – right here on the edge of the water, looking out toward the world, doing our part to write a better story.” M



By Austin Sailsbury

Born and raised in the American wild west, Austin Sailsbury is a freelance writer, editor and creative projects junkie.

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