Buildings That Teach

Incorporating the environment into school design can enhance the learning process.

Districts face the task of building and remodeling old schools. Every other facet of American life has changed over the last 20 years, and this task is no exception. Forward-thinking communities are taking a hard look at learning environments and applying the results to school design. Architects are beginning to include these new ideas in buildings they design. One innovative approach is using buildings as instruments of learning. Essentially, this refers to design elements that represent the environment. Windmills, eco-ponds and fire sprinkler controls, for example, become teaching tools, as well as effective architectural elements.

Instruments of learning

Facilities are sprouting up that are testaments to this architectural style. How this is accomplished depends on the school in question. The possibilities are extensive. Planning a school's design takes on a whole different approach when using this architectural style. For example, sustainability is one component of how buildings can be used as teaching tools. The primary focus is environmentally sensitive design, yet it also teaches students about environmental conservation. Characteristics of this style include:

  • Daylighting

    The idea is to provide daylighting (using sunlight as the principal source of internal lighting) for at least two-thirds of the day, minimizing the need for artificial light in the learning spaces. Learning benefits of daylighting are a real bonus. Studies have shown that students benefited significantly by attending schools where sunlight was the primary source of internal lighting.

  • Solar systems

    These are used as a means to reduce peak electrical demand. The technology can be incorporated into a school's “eco-education” program. This program is designed to incorporate the sustainable school into the curriculum so that students can understand its design and how it affects the environment.

  • Site planning and landscape design

    This involves evaluating the regional impacts of the school on the environment and protecting and retaining existing landscaping and natural features. As a teaching tool, this educates students about how to incorporate environmentally friendly design solutions, such as sound erosion control, stormwater retention, xeriscape landscaping principles, or using plants and greenery needing little irrigation.

  • Water conservation

    Rainwater is collected for site irrigation and toilet flushing using separate plumbing to channel this gray water. Wastewater is minimized by waterless urinals, low-flow and water-conserving fixtures, and insulating piping to reduce hot water waste. As a teaching tool, some schools are installing tall, clear glass tubes that serve as rainwater gauges. This allows students to monitor annual rainfall.

Energy efficiency

High-performance schools address sustainability issues, among others. As the name suggessts, they outperform in most areas. Among them:

  • Address academic performance.

  • Create healthy and comfortable environments.

  • Provide good first-cost dollar value.

  • Provide low operating and maintenance costs.

  • Become 3-D textbooks (buildings that teach).

  • Reflect community values.

  • Include energy-efficient and energy-renewable elements like daylighting, indoor air quality, natural building materials, recycling, rainwater collection and natural vegetation.

Untapped potential

The school environment can have a dramatic effect on the educational process; however, this reality often is overlooked. Instead, many schools take on what's called the typical egg crate, closed-style classroom that limits the incentive for discovery and stimulus for creativity. Many consider that the architectural and physical settings of most public schools are unacceptable. Combine that with research supporting the heavy impact of environment on the learning process, and the change sounds quite welcoming.

Since educators are closest to the picture, they are crucial contributors to the success of any project's outcome, whether it's a new design or a remodel. In fact, every teacher or administrator are potential designers when it comes to the application of school environments to their curriculums; they simply know it the best. Furthermore, outcomes are always more positive when designers work closely with educators. Administrators can offer general overviews of each grade's curriculum, while teachers can get more specific about the major projects each grade will complete. From there, designers can incorporate learning tools into the architecture of a building or campus.

Everything within the environment is a potentially interactive learning tool. Not only every object, but also every object's color, texture, size and placement might be the foundation of an experience that significantly augments the learning process. Rather than teach third graders from a science book about eco-ponds and their natural habitats, let the students learn by spending an afternoon exploring the schoolyard pond. Instead of lecturing on the technology of solar energy, show them how the school's solar panels are lowering the school's heating bills. That's why designers are wise to ask about the educational implications of everything. Although it requires careful thought, time and efficient planning skills, the result of such involvement is an optimum learning environment.

Confronting resistance

Especially for schools in larger districts, opposition to this style of school design can be expected. District administrators usually are more concerned with space issues first because it's what the budget considers first in its allocation of bond money. Yet, while protecting the environment is one of the chief concerns, there are financial rewards for building such a school. For example, upfront costs for carrying out the daylighting concept into a new school are minimal, and the payback can be realized within about three years. Actually, the added costs of these teaching tools are paid back over time with their influence on the teaching process.

It's tough to dispute the overwhelming benefits that come from using schools as instruments of learning. To begin with, countless studies have been conducted linking the architectural characteristics of schools to attitudes, behaviors and achievements. Over and over again, studies released by Cornell University showed direct connections between educational architecture and high performing students. Such results are to be expected. When a school environment goes from being a passive area storing various objects, to being the window to the way the world works, there is bound to be healthier attitudes and increased enthusiasm. Yet, perhaps the greatest value supplied by the high performance, sustainable school doesn't lie in the environmental responsibility it provides, but in the environmental responsibility it teaches and in the healthier, happier students it serves.

And, practical approaches to architecture have always been the acceptable standard from a school system's cost standpoint, as well as usability. With new trends in school design on the rise, in most cases, it's tough to argue against new buildings that are environmentally sound, energy-efficient and that lend to the educational process. Ideally, as new schools are required or old schools remodeled, the future will pave its way to more educationally beneficial architecture.

SIDEBAR: High-performance design at its best

One of the most comprehensive, high-performance, sustainable schools around is Roy Lee Walker Elementary School in McKinney, Texas. Showing sensitivity to the needs of the environment and the needs of the students, Walker Elementary has been regarded by many to be the most energy-efficient and environmentally sound school ever built.

“Walker Elementary represents a great effort of developing, designing and building the world's most advanced sustainable elementary school,” says Wyndol Fry, assistant superintendent, McKinney Independent School District. “This only happens once in a person's lifetime.” For example:

  • Rainwater harvesting system

    Outside the school, a rainwater harvesting system collects rainwater from 68,000 square feet of roof space into six cisterns where dedicated filtration systems filter out debris. From the cisterns, the water is pumped through the school's irrigation system using wind energy generated by a classic Texas windmill. By putting these natural resources to work, the independent school district supplies its own water for campus irrigation and toilet flushing. Students are taught these facts in addition to being responsible for monitoring the quantity of rainwater currently stored in the school's cisterns.

  • Fire sprinkler controls

    Typically, sprinkler pipes are hidden behind walls. Here, they've been left exposed and painted bright red to demonstrate how a building's fire sprinkler system works.

  • Rainbow theme

    In the main hallway, colored tiles in the arched roof celebrate the school's rainbow theme. The theme was chosen to represent the project's efforts to incorporate and protect the natural environment.

  • Water habitat

    A water habitat developed with natural vegetation provides a unique teaching method. An old-style pump allows students to draw water from the pond for experiments.

  • Wind energy

    A 30-foot windmill converts wind power into school power. This spectacular teaching device is operable and provides the energy to circulate collected rainwater from the cisterns through the school's irrigation system.

  • Weather center

    A computer station weather center is located in the school's science classroom and includes a periscope that extends straight through the roof to monitor campus weather. It allows students to check readings supplied by state-of-the-art soundwave sensors, solar radiation converters and calibrated barometric pressure sensors.

  • Outdoor amphitheater

    An outdoor teaching space allows students to experience the school's natural habitat.

  • Materials selection

    Wherever possible, materials selected are recycled and/or manufactured or quarried in Texas. This is made known to students in an effort to educate them about recycling, as well as explain the benefits of keeping certain business relationships local.

  • Sustainable Stations

    Touchscreen computer stations provide detailed information about the school's unique design. This helps reinforce the benefits of the students' experiences.

  • Sundial

    A large sundial teaches students to identify winter and summer solstices, the shortest and longest days of the year, as well as how to tell time.

Cunningham is marketing coordinator for SHW Group, Inc., Dallas.

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