Entering the GEMS Nations construction site it's immediately obvious how imposing the school will be, and in many ways already is. Even now, months from completion, it already has the air of a quintessential American campus. At its core are the all-important sports fields, and, arranged like bleachers around the edges, sit the buildings.
Work began back in August 2013 when soil improvements and stone piling commenced, and since then, the site bordering the American School of Dubai off Hessa St has been transformed.
Right now, the team is nearing completion of phase one, ready for the first students in September 2016. However, unusual for many schools developing a two-phase construction, phase two has also been ‘built,’ although as its not required until September 2018, it will be ‘sealed-off’ for the next two years.
“This means we don’t have to rip-up the sports tracks and playing fields, or impact the students in any way, when we’re ready to utilise it,” says principal Tom Farquhar.
Although traditional in its lengthy design the four storey building has a contemporary feel thanks to the curvaceous ‘snaking’ design which sits the full length of the 1,000,000 square foot plot.
“GEMS cherry-picked the crew for Nations, from design to construction,” says Farquhar.
Inside the classrooms nearing completion, the environmental considerations become apparent. Thermal mass cooling systems run throughout, allowing the building to cool itself by lowering the temperature of the entire ‘mass’ of the building. GEMS project coordinator, Peter Stapley notes that while the technology is not entirely new to the UAE, Nations will be the first school to utilise the system.
Stapley, GEMS’ Senior Client Manager & Education Specialist, for design and infrastructure, has been on site daily to see the plans are both put in place and adapted when the need arises.
To create the optimum ‘sound levels’ in each classroom, acoustic treatments have been added. The treatments lower noise reverberation to below 0.4, allowing the kids to hear clearly and meaning the teachers won’t be required to yell.
Talking about the IT rooms, Farquhar says, “the traditional ‘IT’ room will be where students go for programming and such, but really the whole school will be an IT room.”
Nations is not all 21st century though, in a nod to its heritage and location there are several Arabic inspired design features, these include buildings which ‘shade’ each other from the sun and various light filled atriums dotted throughout the snaking design.
The theatre is a little special too, built on the first floor to conserve precious space, it boasts seating for 600 and a freight elevator for heavy props and pianos. Stapley, says of the set-up, “it's high tech for sure, but not that hi-tech the children can’t operate it themselves come years 11 and 12.”
“We’ve created numerous large volume spaces, to encourage flow and multiuse,” he says, “in many ways, we’re trying to ‘future proof’ Nations.”
Clustered around the theatre are the music rooms, exhibition spaces, recording studio and black-box theatre. “For us, it’s about keeping topics together,” says Stapley.
The central atrium between the school and the sports hall is what gets principal Tom Farquhar animated. Four storeys high, it will eventually be glassed in and contain spectacular lighting and fixtures. “We can use this for so many events and activities, it really is going to be spectacular,” Farquhar enthuses.
The sports hall is vast, so large in fact, that three full games of basketball can be held simultaneously, while the first floor (indoor) 60 metre running track snakes above the players heads. For big games and competition matches, the retractable bleacher type seating allows for the centre court to become the focus.
Within the sports complex there are also various sports science classrooms and a canteen. Through a walkway is the adjoining Olympic sized swimming pool, “it’s actually 52 metres, instead of the conventional 50,” says Stapley, “this will allow space for the movable bulkhead which divides the pool into two- 25 metre pools when required.”
Farquhar admits that he watches the site develop throughout his working day from the Nations offices in the Fraser suites. “I’ve got time-lapse shots of the traffic flow from my office," he says, “I know when students arrive at ASD (next door) and when congestion is bad…and I’ve planned for it.”
With phase one nearing completion and furniture ordered earlier in January, Farquhar seems confident he’s left little of the Nations set-up to chance.