Clarion School is like no school construction site we’ve visited before; everything from the small intimate two-storey building under-construction, to the ‘chicest’ on-site Portacabin- we’ve ever encountered, it’s all just so, thoroughly well thought-out.
Our first view of the school is through the vast panorama window installed in the site Portacabin, and we have to say, the construction is diminutive compared with the other schools we’ve viewed throughout the Hard Hat Series.
At capacity the school will accommodate just over 1,200 students. And, while this is only phase one, (phase two, the Secondary, will be built at a later date), not only is the building low, (ground plus one floor),but the footprint is also remarkably small.
The view however, is not.
Facing Downtown and the Burj Khalifa, the school located on 318th Rd in Al Quoz 1, has a staggering uninterrupted view of Dubai’s most iconic structures, “to inspire,” says Aparna Verma, Clarion’s founder and owner.
Back in the site/assessment office Portacabin we can’t help but admire the floor laminated in faux-pine, dotted with a combination of small Persian and Ikea rugs. There’s a play area, mini library and a series of large toy trucks and diggers for children.
The central planning/interview/coffee table sits alongside a vast panorama window looking straight onto the construction site.
Verma says, “it’s about children making the connection. They see the work outside and they mimic it with the diggers and trucks we have here.”
And with the real thing clawing at the ground only inches from the glass, we have to admit we find ourselves idly pulling the toy digger back and forth as we chat.
And, that’s the thing about Clarion, you can’t help but get the feeling every aspect of the build is not only deeply personal to Verma herself, but has been developed with the future students’ firmly in mind.
At the centre is the ‘Street,’ a play area and walkway which will tie the buildings together and create a place where the children play and move between the defined areas of the school.
Verma likens it to her childhood days, when kids went out to play for hours at a time and when her parents asked, “what have you been doing all day?” The children simply shrugged and said, “nothing, just playing on the street.”
“We didn’t design everything though,” says architect Frank Nowacki of the area, “we still want the children to take it to where they want it to be… kids need to design their own play.”
While the building itself, might be small, the classrooms are actually vast. Each room has numerous full length external windows, plus wide double internal doors and large observation windows creating a visual link to the internal corridors.
We can’t decide if it’s the amount of glass or just the sheer size, but the rooms feel more like exclusive modernist living-rooms than any conventional classroom we’ve seen. Even more impressive is that each will have only 20 students even at full capacity.
“We tried to make a space where kids want to learn,” says Verma.
Architect Nowacki of John R Harris and Partners, says of his use of natural light on the site, “we’re not troglodytes… we’re creatures of light.”
“I start by finding out where the sun rises… then set about bouncing light off surfaces, using windows, and paints.”
And it works. The building- both inside and out, feels communal and intimate, yet the spaces are large, bright and welcoming.
Clarion is the first prefabricated concrete school construction we’ve visited. While the method has allowed much of the process to take place off-site, (we bet, much to the relief of Clarion’s neighbours), the method is not without its issues.
The biggest of which must be the fact that with all insulation and services already preinstalled, once the pre-made sections arrive at the site, there is little opportunity for any cost-effective changes to be made.
Given how much has gone into the designing of Clarion, and that it would appear to have been an evolving process, this must have been tough for everyone involved.
Site and project manager, John Alford is no newcomer to the school-building business, having previously overseen construction at JESS Arabian Ranches, DIA, DESC, Uptown and a further 12 UAE schools.
“My favourite was always JESS, but this (Clarion) will be as good - if not better, I’m sure once it’s done it will be my favourite.”
On completion Clarion will have: a full size football pitch, two swimming pools, a library, a large multi activity room, library-café, parent café, cafeteria and more.
As we discuss the second phase with Verma, she says, “when we constructed Scholars (Verma’s first school) in Dubai we completed the foundations during the summer holidays and made sure the workforce came on site after 1pm when the children had left, so when we start phase two, I don’t see it affecting the students.”
Fixtures and fittings at Clarion are as well thought-through as the construction. “Our tiles are from Spain,” says Verma, “the bamboo pergolas from Bali and our furniture and play equipment is from US firm Community Play.”
As discussion turns to the financials of the school, Verma looks sheepish and says, “lets just say Clarion will be not-for-profit for a long, long… long time!