How We Designed a Montessori School in Egypt in One Month

Charlie Jahnigen

One of the fascinating aspects of our business is that every day presents a new opportunity to change the lives of students across the country, and occasionally, around the world. It’s what motivates us and gets us out of bed in the morning.

Thursday, October 15, 2015 was certainly one of those days. It started with a simple email that came in through the “contact us” page at SHP.com. Little did we know at the time that this email would result in one of the most unique design challenges our team has ever faced.

From an Email Arose a Challenge

The email in question was from Egypt, where school administrators at Kernel International Montessori School were seeking a firm to help design a new school. Montessori education is unfamiliar to most Egyptian designers, so the school leaders began looking online for firms that could help. They were impressed with our Montessori designs at Sands, Pleasant Ridge and others, so they reached out in hopes we would be able to assist them.

It was during a Skype interview just a few days later that we learned the magnitude of the project. This wasn’t starting from scratch with a new design. Instead, the building site had originally been designed as a three-story mall and the concrete slabs and columns were already poured. We anxiously awaited the CAD drawings our Egyptian clients proposed for the site, but these too would prove unusual. To say they were “bare bones” would be an understatement. There simply wasn’t the level of detail we were accustomed to seeing. The experience really made us appreciate the great technology we use on a daily basis.

However, the biggest challenge came when they told us they were under a tight deadline and needed the design files by mid-November. This meant that there was no time for us to visit the site; we would have to design based on the tools we had available. Despite all the obstacles, we said yes. Sure we were intrigued by the idea of designing a school in Egypt, but more than anything else, there were more than a thousand students who needed this learning space. They were our real motivation.

Leveraging Available Resources

Without the benefit of a site visit, we turned to whatever resources we could leverage to learn more about the area. First, we asked for as many photos as they could send of the current site to better understand how the concrete slabs and columns would influence the new design. Next, we received videos (often shot from a cell phone) of the existing structures around the new school site, which included a gated community and a road that intersected the school site and the proposed athletic fields. Where we still had blanks to fill in, we called upon Google Earth to learn more about the area. It was a little different from our typical daily routine, but every new image and video added to our excitement on this project.

After gathering these external resources, we then focused on our internal team. We didn’t have time to piece the design together one element at a time, so collaboration was key. We held multiple integrated sessions that brought together our building and landscape architects with the interior designers. Having everyone in the same room really amplified the creativity. For two weeks, we collaborated frequently in a Revit model to hammer out all the intricate details of the design. We couldn’t wait to share our plans with the Egyptian school leaders.

The Final Product

On November 15 – exactly one month after we received the initial email – we delivered a 20-page package of floor and site plans to Kernel International Montessori School. Design highlights (shown throughout this post) include the light courtyards that embrace the abundance of natural light available to the school, the outdoor classrooms and amphitheater that reflect Montessori’s love of nature, and the bridge which spans the intersecting road and links the classrooms to the athletic fields. These plans were turned over to a local architect, who continued the evolution of the plans into the final video that can be viewed here.

While every design is unique, what I’m most proud of is how our team came together to address a unique challenge put before us. We were able to quickly use the limited resources available and collaborated both internally and externally to create a one-of-a-kind building that will have a lasting impact on the students at Kernel International Montessori School in Egypt. And to think, it all started with an email.

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