Brief encounters in Thailand

Veronica Simpson unearths a remarkable school in Thailand, whose design and ethos
is inspired by the founders’ desire to infuse it with emotional and environmental intelligence

It is rare to find genuine innovation dovetailing in both education and architectural models. But I was lucky enough to encounter a project that delivers on both fronts on a recent trip to northern Thailand. Panyaden International School is the brainchild of German architect Markus Roselieb and his wife, a media producer.

Having spent time in Bangkok, they decided to move their young family north to the calmer, mountainous, less polluted landscape of Chiang Mai, Thailand’s second city. He says: ‘When we moved here, my wife said she couldn’t find a school that was right. So she wanted me to build a school. I said no, of course.’ He laughs (we all do – we know how the story ends). But frustrated by the lack of environmental intelligence in contemporary Thai construction – far too reliant on poorly performing concrete structures, modelled along Western lines, whose materials and design are not remotely suited to the humidity and heat of Thailand – he thought maybe he could do something better.

As luck would have it, at precisely that moment, a Bamboo Congress was held in Thailand, ‘and everything came together’, he says. ‘One of the reasons why we came up north was to be closer to nature. So I thought let’s just make a bigger concept, which relates to materials but also to the teaching. We wanted to look at value-based teaching and not just information-based teaching.’

The roof, which is covered in wooden shingles, drops down in three tiered levels, its structure and shape inspired by the lotus flowerThe roof, which is covered in wooden shingles, drops down in three tiered levels, its structure and shape inspired by the lotus flower

Ten years later, he is the proud designer and, together with his wife, co-founder of one of the most remarkable primary schools not just in Thailand but globally, as well as his own bamboo and earth-structure specialist practice, Chiang Mai Life Architects, and construction company, with a growing roster of clients.

Panyaden’s campus is a collection of delightful bamboo and earth dwellings, set in its own grounds on the edge of Chiang Mai, just near Roselieb’s office and workshops. The first in a series of individual, organically shaped rammed-earth classrooms completed in 2010, to be joined each year by new classrooms and facilities including its own swimming pool and farm. Everything about the design – materials, landscaping and forms – holistically expresses the school’s founding ideals of working in harmony with nature, including its latest, most impressive addition: 2017 saw the completion of a cathedral-like bamboo sports hall, which has subsequently either won or been shortlisted for almost every global architecture award going.

With a design inspired by the cross section of a lotus flower (a symbol of peace in Thailand’s largely Buddhist-derived culture), the school’s roof comprises three tiered, overlapping leaf sections. They maximise shade, capture whatever breezes might filter through and expel the heat generated by up to 300 children performing theatre or games inside it. At 782 sq m, it is big enough to host basketball, volleyball and badminton courts, and has a stage that can be raised automatically.

The classrooms are individual units, set among trees in the campusThe classrooms are individual units, set among trees in the campus

It is a brilliant combination of traditional bamboo craftsmanship and 21st-century engineering: its innovative design is based on newly developed prefabricated bamboo trusses with a span of more than 17m, which need no steel reinforcements or connections.

It has been a massive voyage of determination and discovery for Roselieb and the team. Right from the word go, he sought advice and information from everyone he could find on the subject of earth and bamboo construction, experimenting with and refining procedures on his Chiang Mai site, which now houses a large bamboo treatment and storage facility. The trick of creating greater resilience and strength with bamboo lies in bundling thinner, more flexible poles together. The bamboo also has to be the right kind (the older, more fibrous material on the inside of the stem) and thoroughly treated (he uses borax) to prevent insect infestation. Properly conditioned and deployed, it has a superior tensile strength to steel, he says, and it goes way beyond carbon neutrality.

But the green argument is not the one Roselieb pushes hardest: ‘For me the most important thing was functionality. It has to work. And soon we found out that…with the right combination of these materials you get cooler spaces, and longer lasting if you know how to deal with either material.’

One of the biggest obstacles was finding engineers who really understood bamboo or earth construction. The sports hall innovation was made possible thanks to Roselieb’s two consultant engineers – Phuong Nguyen and Esteban Morales Montoya, who Roselieb found through contacts and serendipity (Nguyen, a Dutch engineer, turned up at his office one day and stayed a year).

So much for the ‘hardware’. Developing the ‘software’ (teaching programme) was equally challenging. However, working with a local Buddhist community, following the Thai Forest Tradition, the team devised 12 principles that help children learn how to manage their emotions and work in harmony with each other to realise their abilities. That was crucial in recruiting parents, says Roselieb: ‘Parents are proud to be with a school that wins lots of awards, but they are mostly happy because they feel their children are super happy here. The children are happy because of everything.

To maximise solar shading, the classrooms’ south facing walls are made of rammed earth, which daylight can penetrate thanks to small round glass tiles embedded in the wallTo maximise solar shading, the classrooms’ south facing walls are made of rammed earth, which daylight can penetrate thanks to small round glass tiles embedded in the wall

The hardware helps: you’re close to nature, nothing is straight, everything is round, you can touch everything; it has something for your hands, for your nose, for your eyes, the light is nice; it all helps. But the most important thing is we put in place an educational system that supports all this, that makes it work.’

It’s not an easy curriculum to embed – the teachers have to go on three or four meditation retreats before they are ready to work in the school. Says Roselieb: ‘We interview about 500 teachers every year, then select 10. We work with the values – which are the same everywhere in the world – that make us happy and stronger human beings. It’s better to understand how the mind works than just fill it up with useless information – or information that’s useful at the time but irrelevant 10 years down the line.’

Now close to their ideal intake of 300 pupils, the school’s successes are not just in wellbeing but also performance. ‘In the maths test, our kids are in the top 10 per cent all the time – better than any American school, and better than most international schools in Thailand – just by teaching them values first. Academic excellence then follows by itself.’

Interest in Roselieb’s work may be hot right now, but, he says, ‘It took a while. Everything takes a while. There was lots of resistance. You just have to take a deep enough breath and keep going. We went bankrupt of course, but I had some friends who were bailing us out…There were always people who helped us. In the end, quality always finds its way I guess.’

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