What is Flexibility?

One of the most maligned terms in school design is “flexibility.” Educators, administrators, facility directors, educational planners and architects all may define flexibility differently.

In 1968, the Educational Facilities Laboratories published Educational Change and Architectural Consequences. It stated that flexibility was an abstract concept that needed to be defined in four specific terms:

  • Expansible space — can allow for ordered growth.

  • Convertible space — can be economically adapted to program changes.

  • Versatile space — serves many functions.

  • Malleable space — can be changed “at once and at will.”

Some say school programs should dictate the design of a space and not the other way around. Yet, experience teaches us that education changes constantly. It is not possible to find a school using every space as originally intended. So, how does one design a school that will best serve and respond to changes during its lifetime?

  • Expansible space is most easily accomplished by using a structural steel frame with long-span steel joists. This creates non-load-bearing exterior and interior walls. Structural walls carrying floor or roof loads create limitations.

  • Convertible space using demountable partition systems can create open, semi-open, or traditional closed classroom configurations. From 1966 to 1971, components from the School Construction Systems Development (SCSD) project spread into more than 1,300 U.S. schools. One of its successes was the use of relocatable partitions to convert spaces to adapt to program changes.

  • Versatile space accommodates multiple functions. Examples include a house concept using a central open learning area tech-hub surrounded by classrooms, or an entry lobby concourse that acts as a multiuse forum for learning and activity space for school and community functions.

  • Malleable space that can be changed “at once and at will” is best found in large open classroom learning environments. Open learning environments respond easily to decreasing class sizes, thus freeing up space for evolving educational needs.

The term flexibility has taken on new meanings over the last 40 years. It's time to update our vocabulary with a more pertinent term — “responsive:”

  • Space and systems need to be responsive to evolving educational programs, philosophies, delivery methodologies, and student and staff needs.

  • Space and systems need to enhance student responsiveness.

  • Space and systems need to be responsive to the ever-expanding societal needs of the community the building serves.

Rydeen, FAIA, is an architect/facility planning specialist and former president of Armstrong, Torseth, Skold & Rydeen, Inc. (ATS&R), Minneapolis. He can be reached at [email protected].

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