Building the Perfect School
As school design moves into the 21st century, architects and planners look at trends that are taking hold
By Joetta Sack-Min
Computer rooms, identical classrooms, and long hallways flanked by rows of metal lockers are out. Forget about blackboards, institutional cafeterias, and teacher break rooms, too. Even students’ and teachers’ desks are endangered.
Welcome to school design for the 21st century.
As design catches up to trends in teaching and learning and research on the impact of the school environment, architects and planners are redefining what facilities look like and how space can be used.
Long brick buildings with rows of identical classrooms are now considered obsolete giving way to flexible structures with a variety of spaces that can be adapted to meet teachers’ and students’ changing needs.
“School designs and spaces are starting to reflect our understanding of how all of us learn,” says Judy Hoskins, an architect with the Cunningham Group’s Minneapolis office. “We all learn differently; consequently, there needs to be a variety of learning spaces to support the different styles of learning.”
While the perfect school—if it even exists—looks very different to each community, recent research shows some design elements can make a sizable impact on academic achievement and should be considered when building any new facility. ASBJ surveyed architects and planners across the country to look at which elements will have the most impact on future generations.
Adaptability and Sustainability The biggest design trend these days is the recognition that classrooms, technology, and communities will change over time, in ways that can’t yet be predicted. With that in mind, architects and facility planners are looking for ways to build schools with spaces that can be reconfigured and used for a variety of subjects or different teaching methods.
“This is a real paradigm shift,” says Randall Fielding, the founder and chairman of Fielding Nair, an international architectural firm based in Minneapolis. “This model would say, ‘We’re not going to have so many rooms that look the same, but we’re going to have a lot of spaces.’”
Such schools often have movable—but soundproof—walls and furniture that can be set up in different configurations for each class, whether the size is 10 or 50 students. Some of these “learning studios” look more like meeting rooms, with large tables taking the place of desks and portable workstations that hold students’ supplies instead of the usual gray metal lockers. Stationary appliances like sinks and built-in cabinets are located in the perimeters of a room, so that a science lab or art studio can easily become a lecture hall for a history class.
Lounge-like areas, similar to Starbucks cafes, have replaced hallways in these schools. Students and teachers can comfortably work on laptops, discuss projects, or eat lunch.
What makes flexible space more than yet another passing trend is the ability to modify spaces as teaching and curriculum practices change, Fielding says. Space is used much more efficiently by eliminating the long corridors and circulation spaces that typically take up more than a third of traditional school buildings.
Despite the potential of flexible space, it’s sometimes a tough sell to skeptical school officials and board members.
“People are reluctant to be reform minded with facilities because they’ve seen thousands of reform programs, and many come and go,” Fielding says.
The Technology ‘Backbone’ There’s plenty of evidence of past trends in today’s schools—from relatively harmless color choices to the “open classroom” concept of the 1970s.
Perhaps the most vexing trend for educators has been technology—what to buy, where to put it, and how to fit it into existing and new buildings. Computer labs once were basic necessities for every new school; now, those areas are quickly becoming obsolete as more technology is integrated into the general curriculum, says Michael Hall, an architect with Fanning Howey Associates, a national firm based in Celina, Ohio.
“We’re really seeing classrooms because computer labs and computer labs disappear,” he says. In some schools, Hall says, students already use laptops in place of books, and teachers use overhead projectors and electronic whiteboards instead of blackboards or other surfaces. “We haven’t installed chalkboards in 20 years,” he notes.
Rather than installing one type of technology or designing a space around a current technology that could soon be obsolete, Hall advises districts to pay more attention to the school’s “backbone” and to ensure that the infrastructure is in place to install more computers or technological devices in the future.
One piece of technology that Hall thinks is here for the long term is classroom speakers. Attached to a microphone worn around a teacher’s neck, the speakers ensure that sound is distributed evenly throughout a classroom and all students can hear what is being said. These systems have become increasingly popular, both in new schools and in older classrooms, because they appear to have a large impact on students’ ability to learn.
From Size to Scale School size and site placement also could be considered moving targets in the realm of design trends. These days, smaller schools on smaller sites in the center of a neighborhood are in vogue, after decades of building larger, comprehensive schools on large plots of land away from the community nucleus. Even many large schools are trying to create the sense of smaller space by using school-within-a-school designs or keeping students in pods in one area of a school building.
That ideal arose from research and beliefs about school climate. Many educators and researchers now believe that small schools or small school settings can be better adapted to individual learning styles, and a more personalized school experience will help students learn better and achieve more.
“Even those districts that feel they cannot build small schools recognize that there are attributes of those environments that can be built [into a larger model],” says Hoskins. “One thing that’s come out in light of recent events is that relationships play a key role in successful learning environments, and the way to do that is to create an environment where the kids know each other and know their instructors, not just academically but as people.”
Schools that are easily accessible also can draw in parents and community members, particularly senior citizens and those who have limited transportation options, to volunteer and participate in events. Sean O’Donnell, a school architect based in Washington, D.C., says well-designed smaller schools also can enhance security and discipline.
“People often just think about security in terms of cameras and motion detectors, but if the learning community is working well, most of the problems like bullying are headed off,” he says.
A design strategy O’Donnell uses frequently puts administrators’ offices throughout a building, rather than just at a school’s entrance, to encourage interaction between students and adults.
One critically important, but often overlooked element is scale, O’Donnell says. Architects need to consider how spaces look to small children—from the size of the front entrance to the height of the windowsill—and ensure that spaces are intimate enough for children to learn and feel secure.
“The idea of scale is always critical, as is the developmental need,” he says. “We need to recognize that beyond the purely academic purpose, there are these other developmental needs that address the whole person.”
High school students, for instance, need areas to socialize, but previously the only option was a large institutional cafeteria, where discipline problems often begin, he says.
“It’s so important to a teenager to be able to socialize with peers, and cafeterias are an important part of that, yet they’re often designed as these tremendous spaces with uniform seating,” O’Donnell says. The shopping mall food court model and smaller café-like areas work better for schools, he adds, because those are familiar and pleasant environments.
The Sustainability Search “Green,” or sustainable, construction strategies can also greatly impact the school climate and health of the environment. They also can create a culture of environmental stewardship if the practices are integrated into the curriculum.
Some of the core elements of sustainable design have now become standard practice in school construction, and several of its design practices are now mandated by some states and local governments. Even on a typical tight budget, school officials are more willing to foot upfront costs in exchange for greater savings in future years.
As green design becomes more commonplace, the elements school officials choose to incorporate have evolved. They tend to first look at ways to help improve academic achievement and cut operating costs, says Hall. While a wide range of practices and systems can further help the environment—such as rainwater collection and treatment systems—most schools simply do not have the budget or resources for those extras, he says.
“We’re counseling our clients to focus very strongly on the things that directly affect teaching and learning,” Hall says. “We’re doing a lot with thermal comfort, indoor air quality, daylighting, things that have a proven positive impact on test scores, and we’re doing things that honestly can help lower operating costs.”
Given that natural light and air quality are two leading indicators of sustainability, architects also are looking outside the school walls for other learning social spaces.
Fielding says many new schools – both in the United States and internationally – are building outdoor classroom and meeting spaces by incorporating outdoor seating and doors that open directly into courtyards and outside areas into their designs.
The challenge, notes Jack Williams, architect in St. Petersburg, Fla., is ensuring that campuses are safe and secure. He frequently uses interior courtyards and mall-like areas to allow students access to the outdoors while still remaining within walls.
“Since Columbine, safety and security has been much more prevalent,” he says. “Security has been a driving force in many of our designs.”
Taking the LEED School officials who want to take a larger step to reduce a facility’s impact on the environment can consider the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification.
Although it requires extensive documentation to prove that environmentally friendly materials and workmanship were part of the construction, the certification is internationally recognized. The U.S. Green Building Council, the nonprofit that oversees LEED procedures, recently released guidelines for building sustainable schools because of demand. (These guidelines are available online at www.usgbc.org.)
Williams says more of his clients are looking to become LEED-certified because it is becoming more recognized. His firm, Harvard Jolly, is currently working with school officials in the Charlotte County, Fla., school district to rebuild six schools that were severely damaged by Hurricane Charley in 2004, and all are being designed to meet minimum LEED standards.
Williams cautions that the LEED documentation is much more comprehensive than simply creating an approved blueprint. Architects must document that the construction process follows specific guidelines, for instance, using local materials and recycling scrap materials. Once a facility is built, administrators still must document that they are using its features correctly.
“The owners have to embrace [the LEED certification process] completely because it may impact the way they operate the building,” he says. However, he adds, that could become easier because more companies are offering LEED-approved products at lower costs.
The Value of Community Input Regardless of how a school is designed, one of the most important steps in the planning process is input from the community. Administrators are well-versed in the need for community buy-in for the funding of a construction process, but a good community engagement plan also brings in residents to help direct the design process and ultimately leads to a better sense of ownership of the public building.
In the initial planning stage, Hall convenes town meetings and uses handheld devices that allow participants to register responses to questions. Results are immediately tallied, giving planners a much better sense of a community’s thoughts overall, rather than one or two people dominating the discussions, he says.
Hall recently used the tactics for a series of town hall meetings in Page County, Va., where a rural community spent decades debating whether to replace two high school buildings with one larger, comprehensive school or two smaller facilities.
Ultimately, the district decided to build two schools, each housing 750 students in identical buildings, says Superintendent Randall Thomas. The community engagement process helped persuade the district’s newer board members that spending the additional funds for two buildings was a good choice, he says.
Although the designs are “practical,” Thomas says technology offerings are greatly expanded in the new buildings, allowing for videoconferencing, dual-enrollment courses with other institutions, and laptops in classrooms.
“The technology in the buildings will be very surprising to a lot of people,” he says. “For a rural school division, we are very advanced, and these buildings are going to be evidence of that.”
Design from Scratch Or Use an Off-the-Shelf Blueprint? It’s one of the first questions school officials must decide when planning a new school, and the answer depends largely on circumstances.
Hiring an architect adds to costs, but it’s usually the only choice for districts that need to build schools on sites that are small, oddly shaped, or have unusual topography.
Today, more communities want schools that, in addition to having the most up-to-date features, fit with their surroundings and are uniquely designed to include their priorities.
Typically, an architect charges about 2 percent of a project’s total cost to draw exclusive designs for one site. Prototype designs allow districts to reuse plans for multiple schools, sometimes changing minor details but largely keeping the same footprint.
Districts that need to build schools quickly often use prototypes to save time and money. But the notion of cookie-cutter designs has given them somewhat of a bad reputation.
“The focus is coming back to design because there should be what I call an inspirational factor in schools for both the students and the people who work there,” says Tom Kube, former executive director of the Council for Educational Facility Planners International.
But there are ways to use prototypes and still get a design with many of the elements a community wants.
“There are good prototypes and bad,” says Sean O’Donnell, an architect in Washington, D.C. “A lot of prototypes are just stock plans—the plan doesn’t change, you just try to swing it around on the site until it fits.”
The best prototypes, O’Donnell says, use a “kit of parts” that allow school officials to choose separate designs for areas such as classrooms, offices, entryways, gyms, and other areas. Also, if demand unexpectedly slows, prototype designs can help districts delay or cancel building projects without as much out-of-pocket expense.
The fast-growing Cypress-Fairbanks district, just outside Houston, uses prototypes to keep up with rapid growth, using five elementary plans, two middle school plans, and one high school plan. Using prototypes has helped the 98,000-student district speed up construction and actually complete schools ahead of schedule because of demand, says Roy Sprague, the district’s assistant superintendent of facilities planning and construction.
This year, the district opened an elementary school a year earlier than long-range planning had dictated to accommodate an enrollment surge. Having a prototype in hand eliminated design time and helped speed up the construction process because contractors were already familiar with what was required, Sprague says.
Each school also has a different “shell,” meaning the brick colors and designs vary and the front entries are individually designed.
“Because of the enormous growth and having to expedite our schedules, the only way to meet the demands is by utilizing prototype designs,” Sprague says. “I don’t think we’re losing anything whatsoever. We have built-in flexibility, and we always make tweaks in the layout to enhance the learning environment.”
They Don’t Make Them Like That Anymore The old saying, “Everything old is new again,” is especially true when discussing school design.
Some of the best examples of sustainable design and smart growth policies can be traced to late 18th- and early 19th-century school buildings. Those schools usually took advantage of sustainability’s basic elements—natural lighting and ventilation—because other options did not exist back then.
And because transportation was limited and schools were community gathering places, these buildings usually were easily accessible and sat in the center of the neighborhoods they served.
“Oftentimes there’s so much right about those neighborhood schools,” says Sean O’Donnell, a school architect and chairman of the American Institute of Architects’ D.C. Committee on Architecture for Education.
His firm, Ehrenkrantz Eckstut & Kuhn Architects, in Washington, D.C., has renovated several older buildings that serve as small neighborhood schools. While the classroom configurations tend to be inflexible, new additions brought necessary modern amenities.
“The older historic buildings, if they’re renovated, can be the economic engine for the revitalization of that community,” says Barbara Worth, associate executive director for the Council of Educational Facility Planners International.
School design seemed to veer off course during the Baby Boom era. Starting in the 1950s, districts rushed to build new schools that could accommodate the massive influx of students, and cheap materials often were used. Later, conservation efforts that accompanied the 1970s energy crisis inadvertently led to some unhealthy designs and renovations, such as closed-off windows and natural ventilation. Open classroom designs, another relic of the ‘70s, also proved impractical.
When many states and districts set guidelines for the size of school sites, facility planners had to look outside neighborhoods for plots of land large enough to build a campus, contributing to suburban sprawl.
Preserving historic school buildings has recently become a priority in some areas, and well-placed neighborhood sites fit many communities’ smart growth plans. Now, more districts are taking a closer look at existing buildings—after all, recycling is a cornerstone of sustainability—before deciding whether to build new, says Judy Hoskins, a school architect in Minneapolis.
If it’s not feasible to renovate the building as a school, public officials sometimes try to use the facility for another purpose, such as offices or a community center.
“I think the good news is [school officials] are starting by asking the question, ‘Can we reuse our facility?’” she says.
Joetta Sack-Min (email@example.com) is associate editor of American School Board Journal.
Reprinted with permission from American School Board Journal, Oct. 2007. Copyright 2007 National School Boards Association. All rights reserved.