Flexing with the Times

With a little planning and a lot of creativity, schools can be designed to meet the needs of today's and tomorrow's students without breaking the bank.

Flexibility always seems to be the first word uttered in the initial meeting to design a new school. However, how to achieve flexibility and how to make it work is not always easy to figure out. Flexibility is not an end in and of itself. School facilities are not configured with movable walls just to watch them move. According to Webster's dictionary, flexible means "capable of responding or conforming to changing or new situations."

Changes and new situations constantly are found in education: -People change. Each teacher brings a unique style to the classroom and demands the room function accordingly. -Resources change. No one could have anticipated how computers would stretch the seams of today's classroom. Computers and bulky accessories take up space, require electricity and demand phone lines. Classrooms must allow for advancement in resources. -Curriculum changes. Teaching different things in different ways means spaces need to support a variety of activities. Schools need areas for independent study, small-group projects, full-group lessons and two- or three-class presentations. Rooms must allow the possibility of any and all demands. -Enrollment changes. With flexibility, a classroom is able to universally accommodate any age group. With funding harder to acquire, flexibility has become a necessity to plan a school that will last.

Planning ahead The best approach is to design a school with spaces supporting the classroom. Once thought extravagant, common areas and pullout spaces are necessary to accommodate change.

Often, 25 square feet can make a difference. As more schools turn to pods, consider an open common space and two small teaching spaces in each pod area, which will allow a school to grow as enrollment increases. This arrangement would allow teachers to send small groups of students out to the commons area to work on computers without losing the ability to supervise. Specialists or parent volunteers can break students out of the classroom into the small teaching spaces.

Flexibility means that any teaching space adapts to meet the needs of dramatically different teachers or students. Therefore, design a generic classroom. Casework, dry-erase space, coat racks, sinks, water fountains and cubicles should be at a height that works for any age group.

A little goes a long way Flexibility means the same space can be used in many different ways. The ideal classroom allows combinations of areas that accommodate any function. The same classroom space that works for a group of 25 should have potential spaces for groups of 15, 5 and 1. With flexible walls, that space should allow for a gathering of 55 to show a film or listen to a special guest.

Other space combinations should be considered. Determine if the classroom can have wet and dry areas. There should be natural light, as well as a glare-free computer zone. Each area should have acoustically private areas.

The key is to furnish, not build. The more a school builds-in its environment, the tougher it is to change. Choose pieces for a workable classroom, such as rolling bookcases, movable dry-erase boards and movable storage closets. Bookshelves and storage closets can create instant and effective barriers between soft spaces, pullout spaces and large-group areas. Roving teachers can have rolling bookshelves to move resources to a new classroom. If furnishings are chosen correctly, teachers can swap items and move them around without sacrificing space.

Education is a people profession, so flexibility must be people friendly. Every district has a curriculum preference; each principal instills an educational philosophy; all teachers have a distinct teaching style; and every student has a best way to learn. It is imperative that schools make flexibility available and convenient to all.

Many schools have movable walls that require a maintenance work order and a lot of sweat to reconfigure, often forcing teachers to live with the setup for the entire school year. Teachers that enjoy sharing classrooms for various activities find it hard to make a year-long commitment. A better solution is walls that are open--some partially and others completely.

Saving money Flexible schools do cost more. Flexible elements, such as moving walls and rolling furniture, demand more funds than their stationary cousins. But designed skillfully and sparingly, a district can achieve a flexible effect without breaking the bank.

Most times, teachers only open the end panels of movable walls, not the middle section. Therefore, save money by providing moving panels at the front and back of the room and leave permanent walls in the middle section.

Another way to save is to not have everything move. Elements such as movable overhead lighting often are not utilized.

Pettit, AIA, is a principal with DLR Group/John Graham Associates, Seattle. The firm designed the Cougar Valley and Green Mountain elementary schools.

Observing the learning process at two sister schools designed to be flexible reveals past expectations and the reality of present uses.

Opened in 1989, Cougar Valley Elementary School, Silverdale, Wash., is designed to hold 524 students; the school has a present enrollment of 500. No wall in Cougar Valley is fixed. Casework and writing surfaces move. The maintenance staff can remodel classrooms over the summer. Three pods with six classrooms each surround central school functions such as the office, lunchroom and library. Each pod contains a small soft space meant to house specialists throughout the day.

Sister school, Green Mountain Elementary School, Bremerton, Wash., was built in 1992 and took the flexibility concept a step further. The school serves 473 students. This time, though, the walls move and the casework rolls. Teachers can redesign their space daily. Tracks in the ceiling allow the creation of small teaching spaces within the classroom environment. Students and teachers utilize common software on personal computers throughout the facility with a local-area network.

Focus on items that are key to a flexible environment, such as: -Well-thought-out spaces that offer acoustical privacy. -Wet/dry spaces. -Natural and glare-free lighting. -Ability to handle groups of 5,15, 25 and 55.

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