Stapaskóli School, Iceland

Pic: Darío Gustavo Nunez Salazar

The newly opened Stapaskóli School marks first phase of a wider project to create a new central “heart” for Iceland’s Reykjanesbær. Verkis created the lighting design, accentuating the architecture of the school.

The newly completed Stapaskóli School is latest part of a planning strategy to create a new central heart in the suburb of Innri Njarðvík, in Reykjanesbær, Iceland.

The project, designed by Arkis architects, is an active urban facility that will play a key role within the neighbourhood, providing an elementary school, kindergarten, music school, sports hall, library and swimming pool.

The school will house 500 students and 60 staff, with classrooms spaced out over two floors, with additional technical rooms below and above. The first phase of the project, which encompasses the elementary school, leisure centre and social centre, spans across 7,700sqm, on a plot of around 33,000sqm. Phase two will introduce the sports hall and swimming pool, while the final phase will see the addition of the kindergarten, which will cater for 120 children.

Speaking of the design concept behind the school, architects Rebekka Petursdottir and Lisa Kjartansdottir of Arkis said: “The baseline of the design language is to create a heart that connects everything. All of the molecules, the strings, the activities, everything is connected.”

On entering the school, the main entrance leads students straight into the heart of the site, consisting of centralised, multi-use spaces. Hallways intertwine in a way that they take on their own roles but can also open up to create larger spaces.

This concept was extended to all open spaces, which can morph and merge, allowing the flexibility to open up for larger school events, or create smaller, more intimate spaces for quiet study sessions.

The classrooms are formed in pairs – all are comparable in size, and again offer a high degree for flexibility depending on the teaching arrangements. The architects took great care to ensure ample daylight was provided; in the centre of each ‘pair’ of classrooms, there is an architecturally defined central sphere, with a light core that provides daylight to both levels. The teaching spaces all connect to the heart, creating a network that informs the school’s sense of community.

This creative use of daylight was complemented by lighting design from Icelandic consulting engineers Verkis. Involved from the tender process alongside Arkis, the bid included that Verkis did all the engineering design for the first stage of the school.

As such, Tinna Kristín Þórðardóttir, lighting designer at Verkis, worked closely with the architects on the lighting design concept. By working closely with the architects throughout, she was able to react to any changes to the design brief as and when they came in, however, she explained that the principles of the lighting concept were always maintained.

“We made minor adjustments during the design and construction processes, but we always referred to the lighting concept,” she said. “And the architects were always quick to inform us of any changes, so we could find solutions based on the concept.

“We had a very good working relationship with the interior architects, Lisa Kjartansdottir and Edda Bjorg Jonsdottir, during the design phase. I was given the freedom to do my work, but also got important input from the architects as well. I find that working closely with the architects is really important during the design phase, and it will show in the end product.”

As the school has been fully optimised to make the most of daylight, while it is available, it was important for Þórðardóttir and Verkis to design an artificial lighting scheme that complemented the abundant natural light. However, as Iceland experiences long stretches of darkness through winter, the artificial lighting elements had to effectively simulate daylight when it was not available. Þórðardóttir explained further: “The school is a very well-designed building, in my opinion, especially with regards to daylight. In Iceland, it gets really dark during the winter time, so we cherish every bit of daylight we can get. For example, there is a daylight element in every classroom. There are large ceiling windows that let daylight into the second floor, and “light tunnels” on the ground floor.

“We made a backlit ceiling on the ground floor to mimic daylight, as well as placing floodlights in the ceiling structure on the second floor, to mimic daylight while it is dark outside.”

This blending of artificial lighting with natural daylight was part of a wider move by the design team to ensure that conditions were comfortable enough for the students to effectively work under. A key facet of this, Þórðardóttir explained, was ensuring that the project was designed according to the latest standards and recommendations, both Icelandic and international. These included the Icelandic standard IST EN 12464-1: 2011, and the publication Licht.wissen 02 – Good Lighting for a better learning environment.

“The design was also based on a Danish study conducted by Henning Larsen Architects, DTU, Fagerhult, the City of Aarhus, the University of Aarhus and the Danish Centre for Educational Environment, which investigated whether focus lighting or task lighting would encourage students’ concentration, and thus also improve the acoustics of the building,” she continued.

Schools of this size are intended to become a community of their own within the wider community. This has been translated into the design, in the form of parallels found in each unit. Whether looking at the smaller or larger units, the design offers a transparency in all teaching spaces, with the possibility for multi-disciplinary approaches and the opportunity for understanding between disciplines to become more open. 

Furthermore, the design of the school seeks to extend the facility into the environment from which it originates. As such, the design team sought to stimulate the connection between teaching and the external environment with an increased understanding of sustainability and a greater awareness of nature. This was achieved with the recurring use of birchwood, coupled with concrete, inside. Such materials are offset by pops of playful colour, which are intended to provide each teaching space with their own individual identity.

To complement the architectural design principles, there is also a consistency and cohesiveness in the school’s lighting design. Whether in the elementary school or the more social areas, Þórðardóttir believes that there is an overall “uniform, cohesive design”.

“The overall design is, in a way, ‘fluid’, in that we do not have a strict symmetrical design,” she continued. “All the luminaires are ‘randomly’ placed in the ceiling to give it a fun, lively look. This meant that it was easy to adjust the location of the luminaires if there were any collisions with other systems, for example sprinklers, ventilation nozzles and such.”

Verkis opted for a number of fixtures from Intra Lighting, iGuzzini, Fagerhult and Rovasi, alongside LED panels from Modus and Osram, which are complemented by Exenia’s colourful Willy pendants. Þórðardóttir explained further the selection policy for the project: “We looked for luminaires that we know we can count on, where the quality and the price is good for our client. I also find it important to calculate all rooms in a calculation software such as Dialux, and therefore I also look for products that I can easily use to calculate. Not all companies offer that option, but as a lighting designer, I find that very important.”

Þórðardóttir’s attention to detail in this regard, and the close communication across the entire design team throughout the construction process, has led to a school that proudly sits within its surroundings, becoming an integral part of the local community while honouring it’s environment. The lighting is a key facet of this, complementing Arkis’ architectural designs.

Þórðardóttir is equally pleased with the end result. “We are very happy with the final outcome,” she said. “During the construction phase, we visited the site many times to see how the project was coming along, consulting with contractors and solving issues along the way.

“Seeing the final product is such a good feeling, seeing everything coming together, and as our goal was to emphasise the architecture, it was really pleasing to see that we achieved this.”