Design for Education: Innovation at The Harbour School |
Experiential Learning Meets Innovative Design at The Harbour School

Experiential Learning Meets Innovative Design at The Harbour School

The Harbour School takes their flexible, child-centered teaching philosophy and translates it into architectural form

Written by –
Jess Ng
on October 9th 2018
Born and raised in the UK, Jess is NONAGON’s resident historian turned marketer turned writer, drawn to Hong Kong by the lure of dim sum breakfasts and bustling city life. A foodie who loves to cook, food occupies 70% of her brain 90% of the time. When not eating, Jess can typically be found buried in a book or obsessing over making NONAGON’s Instagram #feedgoals.

The Harbour School

Imagine a school so cool the kids don’t ever want to leave. Complete with breathtaking seaside views, a treehouse staircase and working marine biology center, that’s The Harbour School to a T. Perched on the outskirts of Hong Kong’s Southside, the school’s newest campus, The Grove, introduces innovation into design for education. Let’s take a closer look.

“We are child-centered and flexible in our approach. As such, we can’t just suppose that one classroom with four walls is all that children need for learning.” – Dr. Jadis Blurton, Founder and Head of The Harbour School

Design for Education: Exterior facade render of The Grove campus of The Harbour School, Hong Kong |
Image courtesy of The Harbour School.

Design Inspirations

Walking into The Grove, one immediately gets the sense that this school is different. There’s a vibrancy to the place, which is no doubt thanks to the school’s experiential approach to learning. The focus is on stimulating curiosity, imagination and agility – this formed the basis for its design inspirations.

Design for Education: Exterior brick-walled facade of The Harbour School, Hong Kong |
Image courtesy of The Harbour School.

Design for Education

“The field of education is experiencing a revolution of sorts,” explains Blurton. “The jobs of tomorrow require skills like communication, creativity, and the ability to think critically, and they’re not possible to learn if you’re just sitting in a chair for long periods of time listening to a teacher talk.” Instead, you need spaces which enable and encourage action and interaction; spaces which inspire, and spaces which allow for flexibility.

Design for Education: Double height open plan library at The Harbour School with colorful reading nooks and umbrella decor |

All Hands on Deck

True to the school’s hands-on ethos, Blurton enlisted the help of budding architect and (then) ninth grader, Ignacio Hui, for help turning this vision into a reality. Together with Principal Christine Greenberg, Blurton and Hui embarked on a road trip around California to search out inspiring spaces. “We went to Stanford, the Apple headquarters,and Monterey aquarium. By the end of that trip, we had good idea of what we did and did not want,” shares Blurton.

Design for Education: Bright open plan library deck space at The Harbour School |
Design for Education: Open plan tech classroom and maker-space at The Harbour School |

Other design inspirations came from High Tech High in San Diego. They had beautiful classrooms with glass walls, as well as a maker-space decked with laser cutters and 3D printers – these we later adapted to our school,” adds Hui.  

Design for Education: Playful reading nook in the open plan library of The Harbour School |

Bringing the Architects On Board

When it came to executing the actual design, Blurton and the team turned to Joel Chan and Samuel Tse from P&T Architects & Engineers Limited. Having been involved in the design of numerous government and traditionally renowned private schools, Chan and Tse had plenty of experience in the ‘design for education’ field. Yet both agree that The Grove was special.

Design for Education: Elegant traditional library with leather armchairs and deep wood bookshelves at The Harbour School |

“This project maximized the potential of educational building design,” notes Tse, “making it one of a kind.”

Design for Education: The Harbour School before renovation |
Image courtesy of The Harbour School.

New Beginnings

After a lengthy process of bidding for the site, the challenge was on. The mission? To transform a dilapidated government public school into the open, flexible space that stands today.

Design for Education: Behind the scenes of the construction process that went into the building of The Harbour School |
Image courtesy of The Harbour School.

As Blurton recalls, “the design was six floors of six classrooms on top of each other, like a factory or a prison. And it had this incredible view but no windows.” While the essential shell of the old building remains, everything inside was torn out and re-built from scratch.

Design for Education: Innovative classroom design with flexible moving partition walls at The Harbour School |

Flexible Classroom Design

The bulk of the school is made up of open plan classrooms with movable partition walls. As the year progresses, the teachers work together to build a classroom layout in line with their planned curriculum. Past configurations include transforming the whole space into a medieval castle and renaissance fair.

Design for Education: Unique classroom design with custom height doorways at The Harbour School |

One of Blurton’s favorite design features is the variation of classroom door heights. Each floor boasts custom door heights suited to the age of each year group. It’s details like these which help to give the students a sense of ownership of the school.

Design for Education: Double height library at The Harbour School with colorful accents and wood floors |

Hit The Books

While libraries are typically stuffy, serious places, The Grove’s paddy field-inspired version is anything but. The design here exudes whimsy. Steps in varying shades of green mimic the undulating curves of the rice fields, while a slide (yes – an actual slide!) serves as the river rolling downhill.

Design for Education: Paddy field-inspired library with blue 'river' slide at The Harbour School |

“An important concept in the school’s design was multi-functionality,” reveals Hui, and that’s something that comes through in the library. For instance, in lieu of moving bookshelves, the steps open up to become storage, thus ensuring the library remains an open space. What’s more, the steps are wide enough to become seating, allowing the library to transform into an assembly hall.

Design for Education: Fun and whimsical treehouse staircase at The Harbour School, Hong Kong |

Knock on Wood

Given its name, The Grove had to feature a tree somewhere in its design. So why not in towering treehouse form?

Design for Education: Spiral treehouse staircase at The Harbour School |

For Chan and Tse, the treehouse forms part of a wider design objective they had for the school. “To us, the most interesting parts of the school are where we introduced new, playfully designed vertical connections for more interactivity between the various facilities at different floors.”

Design for Education: Working marine biology center with oversized tree and touch tank at The Harbour School |

All At Sea

Perhaps the most memorable part of The Grove has to be the marine science center and wet laboratory. Along with the school’s sailing boat, The Black Dolphin, it’s the epitome of the school’s commitment to experiential learning.

Design for Education: Interactive touch tank at The Harbour School's marine biology center |

“The marine biology center was borne from the idea of place-based education. If we were right next to an airfield, we might have an airplane hanger instead.” – Blurton

Design for Education: Bright open plan library with book tree and reading nooks at The Harbour School |

The Importance of Design

“I think it’s very important for kids to see that we value education, and in a lot of places, that is just not reflected by the physical site they’re in,” suggests Blurton. “It’s reflected at the mall, so they see that we value commerce. But often when it comes to schools, that’s not the case.”

Design for Education: Rustic traditional 'Cabinet of Curiosities' museum space at The Harbour School |
Image courtesy of The Harbour School.

Final Thoughts

Beyond ambitious design, the importance of The Grove ultimately lies in its reminder of the importance of environment when it comes to learning. It’s filled to the brim with innovation and showstopping design features. This bestows upon the school, and by extension education, a physical, tangible worth. “For our students, coming in to a school with spaces that are designed especially for them makes them much more focused and productive,” says Blurton. “Ultimately, it makes them feel as though school is a special place.”

What do you think of The Harbour School’s innovative take on design for education?


For more like this, make sure to check out why we think every kid should get into architecture.


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