As we travel along Hessa Street on a busy weekday morning, we scan the horizon wondering how long it will be before we spot the Royal Grammar School Guildford Dubai (RGS Guildford Dubai). The answer is... Not long! While the school is located on developer Majid Al Futtaim’s Tilal Al Ghaf development, it is also within striking distance of Victory Heights, Dubai Sports City and Motor City. Passing the Motor City branch of Waitrose supermarket on our left, and noting just how handy the local amenities will be, we see cranes and what can only be a school campus a little further along and to our right.
Arriving at the construction site, and donning our WSA hard hats, steel capped boots and high-vis vests we enter the site offices for a warm welcome and an incredibly thorough safety briefing. We have to note that, of all the building sites we have visited on our Hard Hat Tours, the attention to our safety and welfare provided by the contractors here is absolutely second to none.
The area currently occupied by site offices and car parking will eventually be the school’s football pitch. Leaving the offices and turning away from Hessa Street, we begin to see some of the attractive design elements of the school. We face towards the school’s multi-purpose sports hall, which is encased in a creamy-white façade and features a geometric design (see image, below) which, we are told, is an interpretation of RGS Guildford’s emblem, the Tudor Rose, an iconic British symbol that has been a part of the school’s fascinating history since 1552. Later, as we continue our tour, we will see more clever interpretations of and connections to the original school. The design details throughout the 40,000 sqm campus give a simple but unmistakable message: The connections to RGS Guildford are valued, meaningful and, more important, permanent.
The sports hall is a good size, and is adjacent to a series of changing rooms. Passing by these rooms, we are given a view of another key sporting facility: two swimming pools (one 25m in length, one a smaller training pool). Both walls and ceiling are of the same geometric Tudor Rose design as the Sports Hall exterior, allowing the two indoor pools the feel of being connected to the outdoors and providing plenty of natural light.
Despite feeling like a cool breeze might pass through here (it is November, after all!), we find out that the design incorporates glass in the void areas ensuring that sand cannot enter the pool filtration and that the temperature can be controlled year-round. On the opposite side of the pool from where we stand there will be broad benches of spectator seating, and behind that and an expanse of glass, the parent café. This is a nice touch, creating a sociable space for parents to mingle and watch their children compete.
Passing again through the sports hall, we exit to a large outdoor area and get our first glimpse of some of the RGS classrooms. Set over four floors, the design of the main school building is thoughtful for several reasons. The building grows wider, floor by floor, effectively creating a ‘V’ shape rising from the sand. This design allows each ground floor classroom to have an individual, outdoor play area adjacent, making them ideal for their intended occupants, the younger of the Junior School children. These individual play areas open further to the main communal Junior School playground.
Back to the building design. The ‘V’ shape is dual purpose: the overhang created by the building becoming progressively wider creates a natural shade as the sun moves higher and the growing schools neatly mirrors the growing children, with older children on the ground floor, through to secondary students on the upper floors.
Green issues have been given paramount importance at RGS, and the in-built classroom shading is one simple touch to eliminate some of the need for air conditioning inside. What’s more, all of the on- campus car parking and flat roofed areas will be covered with solar panels, which the contractors estimate will service much of school’s energy needs. Any surplus energy will be returned to the grid!
We enter the building having stopped to admire the attractive windows over the Junior School entrance. Above this entrance there will be the school library and, above that, the sixth form centre. Our first view of the interior of the school is that of a huge staircase, which will take older students up to their classes. Standing at the end of what we might call an open corridor, but which RGS have termed a ‘street’ it’s now possible to take in the true ambition of this school. One long ‘street’ stretches either side of the building for as far as the eye can see! At this point it is explained that the Early Years department will sit right at the other end of the school, with a separate entrance for the school’s 3-5 year old students.
The view along an RGS ‘street’ is intended to be green – large trees (3m plus high, from the get go, we are told!) will be planted in green communal areas throughout the length of the school. Not just decoration, these will be spaces where children can learn, interact or simply relax. At one end of the building, the school community will also be treated to a vibrant, living ‘biophilic’ wall. From first floor and up, either side of the building will be connected by glass enclosed walkways.
This building is topped with another reference and connection to the original school in Guildford, a roof which looks to be panelled in glass. As we reach the fourth floor of the building, we realise that it is not, in fact, glass but something we have not seen before...
The contractor explains that this roof is a first for Dubai and constructed using a special technique (named ‘Texlon ETFE’). Not being engineers (not even close!) some of the technology here is beyond us, but in layman’s terms this is a roof formed of diamond shaped, air filled ‘bubbles’. Each bubble is comprised of several layers of a high-tech foil. The air inside these bubbles will be constantly refreshed by compressors sat on top of tall internal structures. The technology (the only other UAE example of which is found in Ferrari World Abu Dhabi) creates UV filtration, enables temperature control and allows natural light to pass through a design which would have otherwise warranted unmanageably large sheets of glass. The diamond shapes hark back the original leaded windows in the Guildford campus, and ‘chains’ across each diamond (visible in the image below) are a nod to the ancient ‘chained library’ at the UK school.
On the fourth floor sit the school’s auditorium (which will feature pull out seating for approximately 500 persons), dance studio, cafeteria and, as mentioned before, the Sixth Form Centre. Looking down at the floors below, our tour guides point out Junior School science labs, an expansive suite of music practice rooms and to the ground floor an area that will eventually be a marble floor featuring the school’s emblem.
Each long ‘street’ of classrooms will have a natural flow of home rooms and specialist classrooms to facilitate the school’s intended broad curriculum. These curriculum aspirations are perhaps best demonstrated by the commitment to both languages and music. Prep school students will study first two years of Spanish, then French and finally Mandarin, before making a choice of which language to specialise in for secondary school. Similarly, every child will have two years of violin instruction, then ukulele and finally a wind instrument, all from Year 1 and up.
As we pause for a moment before leaving, we speak with Clare Turnbull, Head of Prep at RGS Guildford Dubai. Clare is the first member of the leadership team in place in Dubai, having moved here in September 2020 following a very successful 13-year stint as the Head of Prep at RGS Guildford.
“What is wonderful about building this brand-new school is that is represents an opportunity to get absolutely every last detail just right and just the way we want it. We are absolutely unrelenting about quality in everything that we do, and here we can look around us and think about how to perfect a classroom layout, where to source the very best resources and how to optimise and facilitate our very broad, truly preparatory curriculum”.
It is also clear that this is going to be a very special addition to Dubai's schools, and we cannot wait to take a second tour of the school after it finally opens its doors and we can see the building come alive with those that matter to it the most, its students.