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Creating LEVEL 5

"First design the learning, then you can design the space."

- Ewan McIntosh

This quote has stuck with me as I've explored and designed different learning spaces over the past few years. If we believe in restoring learner agency, leveraging constructionism and engaging in transdisciplinary, open walled experiences, then what form and function should our spaces take?

This is an overview of the design and construction of Level 5, a new agile space for creativity, innovation and learning based in Shenzhen, China.  

For simplicity I've broken this post into three sections; *function, *form and *fit-out.


From the outset I was cautious with branding Level 5 as a maker or hackerspace.  Not that I'm opposed to these concepts, in fact my feelings are quite the opposite.  However if I wanted to truly influence thinking about learning, Level 5 would need to serve both a broad audience and a litany of purposes.  It needed to be a space for art shows, scientific investigation, debates, reading buddies, performance art, action research and more.  

From this need emerged our core design themes of open, agile and modular

Quick note. Make Space, The Third TeacherThe Language of School Design and Creating Collaborative Spaces that Work were all of tremendous inspiration during this process. I also took some learnings from previous design work.


Original floorpan  vs proposed layout of Level 5

The original floorpan consisted of a series of administration offices, a conference room and the staff lounge.  With admin moving downstairs we decided to do a complete retro-fit of the floor, opening it up into a large work space and separate project room.

After gutting the floor we installed whiteboard sliders along each main support beam. This allows us divide the space based on learning intent and also provides a multitude of writing surfaces for brainstorming, collaboration and more. The boards can be completely removed and stored to open the entire floor up.  

Varied layouts of Level 5

"Dry-erase surfaces support instantaneous innovation"

- Make Space

flexible learning spaces


We wanted to rethink traditional storage and provide easy access through both fixed and mobile options. On each wall we created built-in cupboards with sliding whiteboards doors.

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We also took advantage of windows by creating three long bars for people to perch and work at.  These areas are also used to store frequently used items (like 3D printers and vinyl cutters).

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We use IKEA Raskog trolleys for markers, art supplies and other smaller, regularly used items that need to be close at hand. 

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Tools are stored on mobile peg boards to also make them more accessible (while also freeing up wall space for whiteboards and other storage). 

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Given the large number of windows on Level 5, lighting was a relatively easy win.  We fitted the windows the blinds to control light levels.  We also fitted the entire floor with LED fixtures in the 'daylight' range. 

"Daylight can also have an uplifting effect on feelings of wellbeing and health" 

- The Third Teacher

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I was lucky to have some talented friends at hand for support with interior design.  Brittany Morgan, Alex Gutierrez and Rebecca O'Brien (all educators and practising artists) spent many afternoons, evenings and weekends throwing around ideas and executing some fantastic design.

Alex used opposing geometry and glass to mitigate some of the structural eyesores in Level 5.  The rigidity of one wall was broken with a large trapezoid while he disappeared two load-bearing columns by encasing them in mirrors. 

Breaking up wall outline
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At the same time Rebecca and Brittany transformed rooftop from an underutilized dump into a functional outdoor space using spray paint and bright geometry. 

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The two also worked in collaboration with Katie Hobbs to bring warmth to a smaller area in Level 5.  Through the use of carpets, soft lighting and most importantly a stunning tryptic art piece, they created a retreat from the hustle and bustle of the other workspaces. 

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I've played with designing furniture over the last few years including a low-cost standing desk, modified Periodic Table (from the and the not so useful Death Cube

The Periodic Table has once again returned and is a staple at Level 5.  They're modular, agile, robust, writable, cheap (140US), make great AV carts and are perfect for both standing and sitting. Most importantly, they push users to be active.

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An agile workbench was harder to find so I decided to remove the tops of two Periodic Tables and replace them with a single, solid pine IKEA worktop.  This worked better than expected and has given us a set of agile benches that can take a beating.

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For seating we use a combination of modular stools, couches, armchairs and beanbags.  The stools easily stack and the couches are all on castors making them easy to move.  A few comfortable armchairs provide alternative seating options and bean bags are easily pulled in and out of storage as required.

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"To invent, you need a good imagination and a pile of junk."

- Thomas Edison

I first saw this quote in Invent to Learn, a compelling read on constructionism and making by Sylvia Martinez and Gary Stager.  We've done well collecting junk for Level 5 and have also acquired some specialised tools.  

In what can only be described as serendipitous, I met designer, Grant Guilliams during a work trip to NY.  I was in the nascent stages of procuring equipment for Level 5 and had my mind blown during a tour of his design studio in Brooklyn.  After seeing how he blended various technologies to create advertisements, movie props and more I rewrote my requirements list on the spot.  

A design studio in Brooklyn NY

With this insight and reference lists like this we've acquired a solid set of creative tools. Some highlights below.  

  • 3D Printers (Form1+, Robo 3D & CreatBot) - The Form1+ is an amazing piece of hardware and I can't recommend it enough.  Easy, fast, beautiful prints.

  • LittleBits Pro Library - A versatile set of prototyping tool appropriate for ages 5 through 50.

  • Arduino Starter Kits + Grove module - The Grove is a real winner here as it speeds up prototyping with pluggable sensors (no fiddling). 

  • Sewing Machines (IKEA and Singer Heavy Duty).

  • Lego Mindstorms - Fantastic for physical computing them but a pain to keep organised. Tempted to just pour them all into one box. 

  • Make Do - Creative tools for cardboard construction.

  • Vinyl Cutter

  • Stack of MacBook Pros & iPads. 

It's still early days but we've already produced a functioning phonograph, pollution detector, painting robot and Twitter notification tool using the tools above. 

You can find out more about upcoming events at Level 5 from our website, Facebook and Twitter


None of this of course happens by magic.  Huge thanks to:

  • Diana Beabout, Mark McElroy & Marty Ruthaivilivan for being a sounding board over the last 12 months.

  • Ah Chen & crew for the relentless maintenance requests.

  • Katie Hobbs, Brittany Morgan, Rebecca O'Brien and Alex Gutierrez for their art and design.

  • Robert Park and the IT Ops team for technical procurement.

  • Dragon Huang for all other procurement. 

  • Dale Cox and Jeannie Sung for letting us use Shekou International School as a base.

  • Angela Ke for operational assistance.

  • All the staff at Parkside for relocating their faculty lounge. 

  • And last, but not least, Helen Zhou for all her work managing and liaising with contractors and vendors over the last 6 months.

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