The Quebec Revolution: school spaces that help to learn, be active and eat healthy

Since its inception in 2017, The Lab-école started with only one goal in mind: creating a learning environment that offers more space and flexibility for students to learn better, be more active, and eat healthier.

Founded on the initiative of three passionate volunteers: the architect Pierre Thibault, the chef, animator, and entrepreneur Ricardo Larrivée, – cofounder and ambassador of the Chantier Alimentation, and the athlete and speaker Pierre Lavoie, cofounder and ambassador of the Healthy and Active Lifestyle Shipyard, the non-profit organisation aims to revolutionise pedagogy all over Quebec.


It all started when I was on a business trip and my friend and I were out exploring the tree-lined streets of Copenhagen. Just for fun and inspiration, we wanted to discover a new architectural project every day, and it was right then and there when we came across Skolen i Sydhavnen by JJW Architects and that was just out of this world.
Pierre Thibault, the architect and co-founder of Lab-école
Pierre Thibault


Being inspired by this particular Danish school, Thibault took to the local media and expressed concern about the education system in Canada. He added: "It was around the time I was releasing my book, and during an interview on one of Montreal’s most famous talk shows, I began to talk about the dwindling state of public schools in Canada. I was surprised to see the reaction of people who saw that interview, it was like a light-bulb moment for everyone, including Pierre Lavoie who called me after and said, "We must do something!”


Photo: Stadacona Elementary School


While Thibault’s architectural background added a lot of value to the schools’ designs, and Lavoie’s athleticism helped instil healthy levels of physical activity and develop movement literacy among children, the duo felt that there was still something missing in the trifecta.


"After a lot of discussions, we both reached the conclusion that we needed another partner. We thought if you want to create the best learning experience for children, you must provide the best environment to learn, move, and eat, and that’s when we reached out to our third partner, Chef Ricardo Larrivée," said Thibault.


With the majority of primary schools in Quebec lacking designated eating spaces, a tradition that dates back to the 1960s when children would go home for lunch, the first problem the trio aimed to resolve was to build food halls that were flexible, well-lit, and inviting for kids to socialise and indulge in various food-centric activities because it serves not only as a dining area but also as a place for socializing and sharing important and enjoyable moments. The school kitchen will become a learning space for children to practice their mathematics skills when dividing recipes in half or presenting their “ special muffin recipe” in French class in front of their colleagues.

Photo: The Lab-école


“Ensuring food security and food literacy is crucial and we believe schools offer the best opportunity for that. Children nowadays spend a lot of hours at school and in order for them to function properly, they need fuel. Our aim is not just to feed our children; we want kids to learn  about nutrition by creating educational culinary projects that incorporate pedagogy and engage them in the journey of their meals from the garden to the plate.


“We believe that by investing in healthy food education, we will create a healthier society and reduce healthcare costs in the long run. Not to mention the joy children experience when cultivating, cooking, and eating together at school.”


But as with any new idea that challenges the norm, the Lab-école was met with a little resistance. Restructuring Quebec's, and hopefully all of Canada's, public school system was not an easy feat. After months of discussions, planning, surveying, and strategising, the trio formed a committee that linked members of the community to the Ministry of Education. Thibault explained: "Every year the ministry holds an annual meeting with local school boards to discuss challenges, areas for improvement, and demands. At the annual meeting, we sent out a survey to all the school boards, asking them a few questions about how we could improve the education system in Quebec. To our surprise, we got over 50 responses and inspiring replies from field experts. The only thing we were missing? The ministry’s budget approval."

Photo: The Lab-école


Estimated to cost roughly 25 per cent more than the standard, the non-profit organisation had to convince the ministry to not only increase the budget but also increase the size of the schools by up to 3 metres per student to allow for more space and flexibility. According to Thibault, Quebec’s budget guideline for school construction is around $3,000 for every square metre or about $278 for every square foot. In his opinion, this is not a lavish number, and in fact, the architect argues that it’s inadequate. "The layout of schools has not changed in 50 years," he says.


"Think of a bar-shaped building, with a corridor down the centre and classrooms on either side. "But students have changed, and the pedagogy has changed."


In 2019, to address this issue, the organisation and Quebec’s Ministry of Education launched open-design competitions for five school construction and repair projects. This was the first school building design competition to be held in Québec in nearly 50 years. More than 160 proposals were received for the five school projects. In a media interview, Thibault said: "We felt holding an architectural design competition was a logical way to keep up our innovative momentum.

Photo: The Lab-école


"Competitions generate a wide variety of designs. They also help demonstrate Québeckers’ immense creativity, which will be put in service of the educational sector. It was important for Lab-École to step off the beaten path and invite novelty. The impressive number of proposals we received also shows Québec architects want to contribute to these new living environments."

The five winning designs are to be implemented at schools in Gatineau, Maskinongé, Québec City, Saguenay, Shefford, and Rimouski. Designed to offer more space and flexibility, with brighter gathering spaces, inviting dining halls, and wider hallways that will form ‘learning alleyways’, the schools are anticipated to create an immersive learning experience that facilitates teaching practises adapted to the needs of today’s students.

Photo: The Lab-école


The designs stem from two years of intensive research-creation, consultations, and the mobilisation of hundreds of key players (teachers, architects, researchers, citizens, parents, daycare service representatives, municipal elected officials, organisations, and more).

With the first Lab-école school inaugurated in 2022, the organisation observed the effect of the new system over the course of a year. Students have been monitored to see how easy it was for them to integrate into this new environment, the ease of making new friends, and the effect of this enhanced atmosphere on the learning curve.


The infrastructure serves as a catalyst for changing the mindset of educational stakeholders. The learning environment of the past no longer meets the needs of today's children in preparing them for an unknown future. The Lab-École project contributes to mobilising all stakeholders to better understand spaces and ambiance.
Denis Morin, Coordinator of Educational Services and Evaluation at Lab-École and former school principal
Denis Morin


Overall, the Lab-École concept stands out for its comprehensive approach, multidisciplinary collaboration, adaptation to students' needs, community involvement, and ongoing research. These combined elements make Lab-École an innovative concept aimed at creating quality educational environments conducive to student learning and well-being.

Thibault concluded: "If you want to arrive at a new result, you must apply a new process. We are very passionate about what we do. We understand that each community has individual requirements that need to be met, and so we aim to tailor bespoke plans to suit each and every community. You cannot apply an age-old system to modern communities and expect positive outcomes."

Photo: The Lab-école


All authors contributed to the conception and completion of this article. Ideation and primary research were performed by Marie Christine Llorca from AGO Formation Innovante. The interviews, research and final draft of the article were written by May Rostom.

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