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Libyan Schools by LCE Architects

LEC Architects’ flexible exemplar school model for Libya could be rolled out to 180 schools across the country

In July 2007, Brighton-based practice LCE Architects was appointed by Libya’s Ministry of Education to create an exemplar school model. The firm, which recently opened an office in Libya’s capital city of Tripoli, could see its design rolled out in a building programme for 180 new schools across the country.

LCE was asked to create a model that is affordable, locally procurable and considers the country’s various climatic zones. Project leader Mark Davies says: ‘We were contracted to produce a robust standard school exemplar, a kind of Stage D design that could be implemented in schools for the five to 14 age range and could be modular to accommodate nine to 24 60m² classrooms. The standard model we’ve come up with can be modified to take account of four different conditions: mountain, coastal, desert and urban regions.’

LCE has produced a complete specification for the design; ‘enhanced employer’s requirements’ comprising general arrangement drawings, typical 1:20 details and a performance specification. It outlines everything that a local architect and contractor will need to complete the projects. Two Tripoli schools (one coastal and one urban) have since been approved.

Davies says the firm maintained a pragmatic approach throughout. ‘We were acutely aware of the speed of the anticipated building programme and the need for thermal mass in the construction, but we didn’t want to resort to pre-cast solutions. We opted for in-situ concrete and a simple awareness of constraints,such as the position of shear walls, so as not to compromise the model’s flexibility. The use of locally procured materials was a given,’ he adds.

The standard school model has been inspired by local vernacular and the ‘Madrassa’ open square courtyard model, which is traditional in Islamic schools. The basic organisation consists of two parallel 900 x 400mm concrete frame structures on concrete pad foundations, oriented north-south in order to minimise solar gain. Openable windows sit on 200mm blockwork walls with 100mm insulated render. These are separated by a 14.7m-wide external central courtyard, which allows for cross-ventilation, covered by a tensile tent roof.

One block, on a 12 x 8.4m grid, contains libraries, refectories and a gymnasium, constituting the public face of the school. The other block, with an 8.4 x 8.4m grid, typifies the classroom module. Both blocks are fed by staircases and balcony circulation off the central courtyard. The structural grid is extendable according to school size, and ground-floor spaces such as the refectory can spill out into the central courtyard if necessary.

The central tented courtyard, with its cross-ventilation strategy, is fundamental to the practice’s solution to climatic variations. Simple actuators, attached to thermostats, control windows and airflow through classrooms to ventilate the space. They can exhaust or store it according to the time of day or year. ‘It took time to convince the Libyan Ministry of Education that the courtyard tent roofs were viable,’ says Davies. In the desert exemplar (see page 40), the roof seals the courtyard from hot wind and dust. The air of the internal spaces is conditioned with ‘Badgir’ wind towers and sub-ground plenum cooling.

For the coastal exemplar, the roof becomes a ‘wave’, its crest capturing the prevailing wind and directing it towards the courtyard. In the urban exemplar, the roof acts as an exhaust for air drawn in via an acoustically attenuating double-skin facade.

There are variations in the facades as well. Exterior shutters shading the facades on the standard model extend up and over the structure to shelter the roof in the desert. By contrast, on the mountain model, vertical reflective louvres are installed on the north side, directing east light and heat into the classrooms. This ‘kit of parts’ pragmatism makes the system adaptable to every local condition.

For LCE, the office set-up and consultation process has involved a steep learning curve, dealing with the bureaucracy, regulation and cultural nuances of Libya. Managing director Nick Lomax says he was encouraged to enter the country’s market after a young, British-trained Libyan architect joined the firm. Now, LCE must wait to see if and when the Libyan government builds the two Tripoli projects. ‘We have no time frame - it could be tomorrow or never,’ says Davies. ‘But to design a school model for a whole nation in the space of 16 months? You would never get that in Britain.’

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