The aim of modern school construction is to support new forms of teaching architecturally - that is, the equal participation of all pupils and lessons tailored to individual needs – and to facilitate inclusion. Cluster schools, which have long been standard in Scandinavia, are also slowly gaining ground in Austria. The pedagogical concept behind this idea is concerned with teaching in small groups, flexible usable spaces and diversified open areas, preferably outdoors. Inflexible floor plans have been characteristically dispensed with: There are no classrooms along the access corridors; instead, open layouts allow different forms of teaching and learning. In recent years, various local school buildings have been architecturally implementing these requirements in a very different manner. Dietrich | Untertrifaller have delivered a radical, uncompromising example in the recently completed Unterdorf elementary school in the Vorarlberg municipality of Höchst.
In a plain, elongated, ground-level wooden building, four identical clusters are placed on the east side; the special education classes and the admin area are located on the west side. A spacious hall connects the special education area with the gym. The clusters comprise two central classrooms, an open group area and a quiet room as well as toilets and wardrobes around a central lounge. Each lounge is topped by an elevated, truncated pyramid through which daylight flows. A direct exit into a private garden and the outdoor classroom area provides outdoor space and enables short access routes. Large-area glazing provides the necessary transparency so that the teachers can always see their students, for example when they are learning or playing in small groups in different rooms. These visual axes also act as a constant invitation to use the space in the middle, strengthening the sense of community within the cluster. The breaktime area in front of the hall is connected by several paths to Unterdorf's wider network of roads. Parts of the outdoor areas are available to locals as a freely accessible play and leisure area.
The entire school is of pure timber construction. The multi-layer, glued-together solid wood panel surfaces are unclad and the timber framework is visible in every room. Students benefit from the better learning environment and a pleasant, warm atmosphere in the building, which also saves on heating costs. The materials used are based on the fundamental principles of sustainability and ecological efficiency. The renewable, regional building material used dramatically reduced the "gray" energy factor. With 940 points, the school in Unterdorf has been awarded one of the highest values for a new building in Vorarlberg's "communal building records".
A working group made up of teachers, community representatives and consultants was involved from the outset in the competition's bidding stage as well as the planning, and also regularly participated in the building meetings. This close cooperation was a key factor in the successful implementation of this forward-looking pilot project, which sets a new standard for schools in Austria and, hopefully, will stimulate further timber construction in Austria. In the face of these developments, it is hoped that the relevant authorities show flexibility and courage to innovative concepts and apply them to the partly very rigid school building guidelines and rigid standardization practices, which dictate even the angle of seating to the blackboard.
The Dietrich | Untertrifaller office won the competition for the new school building in 2013 - thanks to this innovative architectural concept and to their many years of international experience in school construction. In particular the school in Edlach (Dornbirn), nominated for the State Prize for Architecture and Sustainability award, led the way for the conception and planning of the Unterdorf Elementary School as a direct predecessor building.
The office, founded in 1994, is one of the iconic agencies of the renowned School of Vorarlberg. The entire spectrum ranging from single-family homes through alterations of existing buildings to large-scale buildings and urban structures defies specialization, constantly challenges and inspires creativity and an inquiring mind. Flashy architecture in the formal sense is not our style, but rather exciting architecture is, which is always developed from the relationship to the respective place and its environment and the required program. A decisive factor in all our work is the resource-saving and appropriate use of materials and structures, with a particular interest in and commitment to contemporary timber construction. The office is lead by Helmut Dietrich, Much Untertrifaller, Dominik Philipp and Patrick Stremler and employs today an international team of 70 architects working in Austria (Bregenz and Vienna), Switzerland (St Gallen), France (Paris) and Germany (Munich).