Most Influential Projects 2022

43 The New School at Sundby

The New School at Sundby

For centering its coursework—and its building—around social impact that benefits its students and the community

Some schools are celebrated for their architecture, others for their progressive curriculum. The New School just outside of Sundby, Denmark is designed to deliver on both—with a clear eye on supporting U.N. Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) through its physical structure and its coursework.

The basic idea? Given the sheer hours that kids spend in school, what they learn and where they learn has a profound and lasting impact on their lives. 

Sponsored by the Guldborgsund Municipality, the project stands to create a new kind of eco-entrenched experience for kids—and the community.

“It will in every way be a completely unique school and a common house in the local area for the benefit of all citizens in the local community,” said Morten Janik, chairman of the school board, at the groundbreaking last year. 

Located approximately 103 kilometers (64 miles) from the capital city of Copenhagen, the primary school will be the first in Denmark to earn the Nordic Swan Ecolabel when it opens its doors in 2023. To achieve the designation, buildings must adhere to strict requirements for sustainability of materials and health impacts on inhabitants. “It’s a very direct way of understanding that this is a safe place to send your children,” says Eva Ravnborg, partner and project director at Henning Larsen, the Copenhagen architectural studio leading the school’s design. And once the school is completed it will house about 580 students.

Here’s a peek inside the project.

Winning Over the Locals

In a small village like Sundby, with a population of approximately 3,000 people, the primary school serves many functions. By day, it’s used for teaching students, but by night or on weekends, it may be used as a hall for public gatherings or as a facility for adult continuing education. That means the team had multiple stakeholders to please—and, initially, village residents weren’t enthused by the school’s location on the outskirts of Sundby.

“It was almost that feeling of relocating the city center,” Ravnborg says.

To win over the skeptical stakeholders, the team worked toward two goals: making the most of the wide-open landscape and creating spaces that nonstudents would also find appealing. 

The solution? Creating an unparalleled vista. 

Sundby is devoid of high elevations, Ravnborg says. So the team constructed a grass slope rising from the ground level to the top of the two-story building, upon which children can play and adults can stroll and take in the view. 

Respecting the Past

A bird’s eye view of the New School reveals a footprint in the shape of a swooping letter “C.” That isn’t by accident—it’s meant to evoke early Viking settlements that often took a circular form. 

For today’s students and teachers, the design facilitates ease of movement between the indoors and outdoors, with the building’s first floor terraces opening directly into a courtyard and playground areas in the center. 

“It can be very packed in these hallways if everyone has to run for the same door,” Ravnborg says. “The whole idea is that after you put on your jacket and your outdoor shoes, then you're just out—you don't need to run through the entire building to get out the door.” 

Nods to the area’s ecology can also be found on the facade of the building: The outer ring is covered by locally sourced straw—another design element that harkens back to earlier times. The inner ring’s facade, meanwhile, is clad with wood paneling to evoke a more modern urban village feel.  

Building in Sustainability

All materials used in the school’s construction—whether hay, glue or paint—are free of harmful chemicals. While sustainable materials don’t cost much extra money, the district had to approve expenditures for the administration of the Ecolabel paperwork. And the team hopes the eco-forward approach also influences the curriculum. 

“We wanted to actually use the Sustainable Goals as a way of teaching,” says Ravnborg. “We wanted to point out where in the building—and also where in the surroundings—the teachers could go and talk to the children about these issues. It’s an interesting approach to say the buildings themselves and the surroundings you create can support pedagogy.”

And, from Ravnborg’s perspective, the school has already become a community draw. “You can actually see the effect in the surrounding area that suddenly they have more families moving to the village,” she says. “It's really kind of reviving the area.”