DRONTEN – No-one would assume that a giant greenhouse in the middle of the Netherlands would enclose a school, but this building challenges the preconception of an exclusively formal climate for institutions of higher learning. Designed by BDG Architecten, the CAH University of Applied Sciences in Dronten (a school for agricultural studies) symbolizes a new educational vernacular.
In line with BDG’s programmatic doctrine, the overall design of the building is driven by a strong sustainable concept based on the efficient exploitation of sunlight, rainwater and clean air flow. Despite their preference for a rigid high-tech framework, the architects focused on a circulation system that would ensure a relaxed environment.
The solution was a 16-m-high greenhouse, inside which two buildings provide space for both people and plants. The greenhouse functions as a huge air duct, regulating ventilation through an integrated smart climate system. Passive cooling in the form of solar blinds and etched-glass panels prevents overheating in the summer. Rainwater is collected and reused to flush toilets and to clean the building. Although these technical provisions afford a comfortable working environment, the real climax lies in the architects’ inside-outside juxtaposition of volumes.
Composed of a skeleton of white steel trusses and modular glass panels, the outermost structure encompasses a pair of timber-clad buildings whose solidity cuts through the otherwise light-filled structure. The incorporation of vegetation at various places increases the flow of fresh air and further diminishes the sense of enclosure.
Although these inner buildings have independent staircases, classrooms, auditoriums and office spaces, they are linked at ground level and by a first-floor plaza – two areas intended as informal meeting places for teachers and students. Layers of programme and materiality exist between the project and its surroundings, yet none of them creates noticeable boundaries. The effect is more like soft partitions that are meant to encourage a new way of learning.