By Kevin Wilcox
The Copenhagen International School embraces sustainability on a stunning site in the Nordhavn harbor district, which is rapidly being transformed.
The school’s facade features roughly 12,000 solar photovoltaic panels that are both functional and aesthetic. Photo by Adam Mørk/Courtesy of C.F. Møller
May 2, 2017—A bold new home for the Copenhagen International School (CIS) opened recently in the city's Nordhavn district, a historically important harbor area that is undergoing an urban renaissance. With the harbor as backdrop, the new building makes a dramatic impression, as ships, cranes, and industrial sites form part of a landscape on its way to a mixed-use future.
The CIS, which has been certified as a "world school" by the nonprofit foundation International Baccalaureate, opened in the early 1960s and over the years grew dramatically to occupy two buildings. Now its more than 900 students from ages 3 to 19 and its 180 staff members representing 82 nationalities will be brought together in the new, 25,750 m² facility.
Members of the CIS board traveled the world to visit new school facilities and determine which educational innovations are working and which are not as they prepared to invest in a new school building. They wanted an open, flexible environment that would facilitate learning and social development for the broad range of student ages that they serve.
C.F. Møller, one of Scandinavia's largest architecture practices, designed the seven-story building. Bold square shapes appear as stacked blocks arranged in a series of towers evocative of the shipping containers stacked on nearby docks. "The building is both inspired [by] and deliberately uses the large-scale architecture which occupies the industrial part of the harbor," said Mads Mandrup Hansen, an architect and partner at C.F. Møller, in written answers to questions posed by
. Even so, Hansen noted that the design team knew full well that this industrial setting would soon change.
"We wanted to create a sustainable educational flagship in the heart of Nordhavn that, in a persuasive way, brings every side of the new quarter to life, using a transparent and open base and a facade that, due to its functionality and aesthetics, is an innovative landmark in the new quarter."
The school’s stacked square shapes are evocative of shipping containers on nearby industrial sites in the evolving harbor district. Photo by Adam Mørk/Courtesy of C.F. Møller
The school is divided into four towers, each designed to focus on the needs of students at a particular stage of development. All four towers share a base that contains large open spaces, including a foyer, three basketball courts, a library, and a theater.
The structural engineering of the project was performed by the Denmark office of the international firm NIRAS. One of the greatest engineering challenges was minimizing columns on the ground floors to accommodate the required open spaces while supporting the towers above, according to Andrew Ferguson Dunn, a project director with the firm.
Although many large public buildings in Denmark are designed with a centralized concrete core and supporting walls, the engineering team, headed by Mikkel Bramsen, chose a robust structural steel system that employs diagonal steel members and large trusses to transfer loads. All told, the building required 2,000 metric tons of steel.
"The building's stability is ensured by using diagonal steel members located strategically at the facade and within the building," said Bramsen, who also provided written answers to questions posed by
. "The building has, therefore, open, flexible spaces [that] support the architectural intention, as well as ensure the possibility [of a] later adaptation of the spaces," he said.
Because the ground floors house three full-sized basketball courts and a theater that are all two levels tall, the engineering team had to develop a solution to carry the loads of the towers over spans of 21 m. To solve this challenge, the team developed large steel trusses two stories tall.
Making the steel trusses that tall offered several advantages, Bramsen noted. The added height increased the stiffness of the trusses, meaning the team could reduce the amount of steel used. It also meant the trusses took up less space on each floor, leaving room for many layouts and uses.
Outdoor spaces connect the students with the picturesque waterfront. Photo by Adam Mørk/Courtesy of C.F. Møller
The trusses had to be taken into consideration as the building was constructed. "During the construction process it was necessary to temporarily support the steel structure until the two floors were completed," Bramsen said.
The concept of sustainability is important to the CIS's leaders, who see it not only as environmental stewardship but also as a key element in human development. The school's design embraces the principles of sustainable development in design and construction in a variety of ways.
The open, modern classrooms have high ceilings and admit a great deal of daylight, which has been shown to improve student performance and ward off seasonal affective disorder during the dark winter months in Denmark. Most of the classrooms are sited at the building's corners to optimize daylight and provide views of the harbor. The school's interiors are finished with such natural materials as oak and bamboo.
"The interior supports modern learning principles," Hansen said. It is designed both to encourage pupils of all ages to meet and interact and to enable them to gather in corner areas or smaller rooms "for privacy and studying in small groups in a quiet environment," he said.
The building's exterior is bold and dramatic, with a dark gray base supporting towers covered in roughly 12,000 solar panels. These panels were not only a key sustainability strategy, in that they are expected to meet about half of the school's annual electricity needs, but also an architectural design choice.
The "aesthetic ambition" of using the solar panels as the primary cladding was to highlight the energy production component for visual impact. The panels "enhance the overall architectural vocabulary of the school, inspired by the large volumetric stacking of containers in the adjoining container terminal," Hansen said.
The school was designed with large open spaces on the ground floor to encourage students of all ages to meet and socialize. Photo by Adam Mørk/Courtesy of C.F. Møller
The small, square format of the solar panels reduces the project to a human scale when experienced up close, but the facade appears as a seamless, flickering wrapper when viewed from afar. The opaque greenish glass panels reflect the sky and sunlight bouncing back from the surrounding harbor basin, which provide "solar production and context united through materiality and form," Hansen explained.
The facade system was the most significant design challenge the team faced. The team had to find tinted glass suitable for solar panels, have it tested for performance, and then make sure it could be produced on time. This required an intense period of research, testing, and negotiations with parties around the globe, Hansen said. The process involved "colored glass developed in Switzerland and produced in the Middle East, solar panels customized and transported to Croatia, where everything was assembled … before [being] transported to the site in Copenhagen," he said.
Other sustainability features include a plan to recycle 100 percent of the paper waste products from the school, to use food waste to feed pigs, and eventually to recycle gray water for use in the school's toilets.
The design of the school also gives students and staff members a link to the surrounding urban environment as the area evolves with the addition of housing and commercial development. This gives the school an open ambience. A promenade along the port will provide opportunities for relaxation and recreation.
The school will also eventually link to the Nordhavn Islands, an urban park envisioned for the surrounding area that will embrace the sea, open spaces, and nature and may serve as a driving force for the area's transformation. "The Nordhavn Islands will lie in close contact with Copenhagen International School, connecting the school with the quarter and the quarter with the rest of Copenhagen," Hansen said.
The students and teachers moved into the new building earlier this year, and the response has been positive. "It's been truly amazing to be in our new campus now for over a month," said Jennifer Weyburn, the director of the CIS, in a video on the school's website. "The facilities are stunning—they are both awe-inspiring and big and grand—and at the same time there are wonderful cozy spaces for students to feel at home every single moment of the day."