Re-thinking school spaces under conditions of latent pandemic

The perspective of returning to attend school in person after the first lockdown phase in Italy called into question the spaces of existing school buildings: the management of activities in class, the in- and outflows of people, the organisation of daily breaks or the movements of students inside and outside the buildings are just some of the many challenges posed by the current epidemic emergency to primary and secondary schools. Starting from these very concrete problems and re-contextualising them into a broader perspective, the Future Urban Legacy Lab (FULL) in collaboration with Fondazione Agnelli developed a project to intervene on the spaces of schools with a twofold aim. On the one hand, the research project is intended to provide operative solutions to identify and adapt existing spatial resources in order to ensure the best conditions for a safe return to school. On the other hand, a wider purpose of this work is to address strategic planning actions in order to activate a process of renovation of the school building heritage in the medium and long-term.



Principal investigator


Fondazione Agnelli

Andrea Gavosto, Marco Gioannini, Stefano Molina, Raffaella Valente


#Urbanism #PostPandemicCity


Research project

1. The starting point: support decision-makers in school spaces adaptation

One of the first objectives of the research is to provide the school directors – and local authorities – with a practical tool to identify the spatial resources available in their schools and the possible measures to adapt them to the social distancing requirements. The design solutions proposed respond to a double time horizon perspective: in the short term, they will give guidance to make the spaces of schools “Covid-fit”; in parallel, they aim at activating a medium-term process of renovation of the educational infrastructure. The current emergency is therefore interpreted not only as a challenge, but also as an opportunity to enhance didactic innovation through the transformation of school spaces. Moreover, the extension of the abacus of the design solutions proposed beyond the areas of pertinence of school sites – including also the neighbouring context and public spaces – enlarges the field of interest of the research, tackling such issues as territorial welfare and proximity services.  

2. The method: from typology recognition to design action

To tackle the issue at the territorial scale, the research team elaborated a method aimed at structuring concrete and replicable design proposals for the almost 40.000 school buildings constituting the overall Italian educational heritage.

2.1 Territorialise

The first step of the work consists of a study of the impact on territorial systems of the opening, closing and/or digitalisation of the didactic activities on the national scale. By integrating digital skills and competencies of urban geography and economics, the purpose of this part of the research is: firstly, to diversify the relevance of risk factors at the national scale on the basis of an analysis of the differentiated territorial distribution of contagion; secondly, to quantitatively assess the resources at disposal both in terms of spaces (that is the demographic pressure on the infrastructure) and staff (considering also the availability of teaching staff not assigned to specific schools); finally, to evaluate the impact of the reopening of schools on social inclusion and on the relationship with local economies.

2.2 Classify

The second step involves the measurement and classification of school buildings (layout, connective spaces, classrooms, etc.) and of their micro-urban context (accesses, relationship with the street network, etc.) according to some recurrent typologies. These typologies result from multiple historical factors and legislations which have produced different seasons of educational infrastructure on the national territory. FULL project confronts and integrates this historical-legislative classification with specific spatial cluster analysis and quantitative information on the existing building heritage. Those analysis are obtained by integrating the Anagrafe Nazionale Edilizia Scolastica (National Register of School Building) database with other regional databases, starting with the Anagrafe EDISCO Piemonte, a repository of detailed information on the spaces of all the the schools in Piedmont region.

2.3 Transform

The classification “by types” allows the working group to identify and extrapolate some recurrent situations (e.g. classes overlooking corridors, central courtyards, main entrances from the street, etc.), in order to explore their potential of transformation at the architectural scale. On the basis of data analysis, it is then possible to construct a statistically based correlation between recurrent morphotypes and possible actions to be developed on each building type. To do that, classification and cluster analysis represent the starting point for verifying the statistical relevance of those spatial situations which become the object of specific design indications. This ensures that the design indications developed for short and medium-term perspectives are also replicable in other similar cases identified through a significant correlation between “individuals” (single buildings) and “types” (groups of buildings with similar features). In fact, the design solutions referred to “types” are independent from specific places and cases, so being adaptable to different contexts on the national territory.

3. First outcomes

The first phase of the work resulted in the redaction of a document entitled “Fare spazio. Idee progettuali per riaprire le scuole in sicurezza” (Make space. Design ideas to reopen school in safety). The report aims to provide a series of suggestions directly addressed to school directors, in order to help them and their collaborators to identify the best solutions to adapt the space for didactic activities and to ensure the best conditions for a safe return to school.

The report is based on three main guiding principles. Firstly, the suggested transformations must be timely: as a consequence, to “make space”, or rather to make more space, the construction solutions proposed in the report are “light” and immediately buildable. Secondly, they must be achievable with the available resources: there will be time in the future for more structural renovations of school buildings. Lastly, transformations must be reversible: in view of their temporary nature, any intervention shall be able to be removed in a short time and at low cost if necessary when Covid-19 emergency will be over.    

The design proposals are based on a detailed quantitative analysis conducted at the scale of the single didactic space on a sample of 3.200 school buildings registered in Piedmont. The analysis allowed to ascribe the great variety of schools in Italy to five main recurrent building types, resulting from different historical periods, technical cultures and legislative frameworks. For each building type specific spatial resources which could be activated to face the current emergency have been highlighted, suggesting ad hoc design solutions and technical tools for a rapid, light and efficient transformation. As a result, the whole report is conceived as a toolbox which can easily be employed by technical and non-technical users as a guide to identify the best spaces to be transformed and the techniques needed to do that. As a matter of fact, the ultimate goal is to offer a tool for empowerment to face a challenge which is, as statistically underlined in the first part of the report, necessarily based on manifest territorial variables due both to historical reasons and to the different conditions imposed by Covid-19 emergency.

4. Next steps

In the coming years school buildings will be one of the main targets in the allocation of European and national funds. In this context, as a next step the research project could become a tool to support Italian Regions in the redaction of guidelines and strategic planning actions for the transformation of the existing patrimony of school buildings. Following the methodology tested in the report, a number of statistical analytical processing can be employed as a starting point to identify areas of priority intervention (e.g. assessing weaknesses of technical or territorial nature or questioning the relationship between spaces and didactic activities). So, after a focus on the emergency in the first phase of the work, the phase 2 calls into question medium and long-term transformations, thus bringing to the forefront further issues, and above all, an effort of re-conceptualisation of the relationship between schools and territories.