Skip navigation
Facility Planning
Facility Planning: Sense of Place

Facility Planning: Sense of Place

Old and new school building designs can be memorable and stimulating by possessing a meaningful sense of place, yet many are depressing and forgettable. So, which elements create a desired sense of place in education facilities?

Creating inspirational educational spaces and places begins with the architecture, which is equal parts art and science, intellect and emotions. Architecture responds to the soul and the spirit by converting, controlling, shaping and ordering the physical environment into an effective, expressive and harmonious setting.

The aesthetics of architectural design are expressed in a variety of forms, materials, proportion and scale, color and texture finishes, lighting, furniture, fixtures and equipment. Displays, banners, photos, art, murals and people as they interact and use spaces contribute to an exciting sense of place.

The environment of a place contains a spirit. The ambience of a physical space influences our lives and our emotions directly. Aesthetics attracts customers to restaurants or into appealing retail establishments. A healthcare study found that surgical patients housed in hospital rooms with a view into a landscaped area had shorter hospital stays, used fewer narcotics and needed less nursing care than patients who had a view of another building. If beautiful surroundings can do all of these things, it is reasonable to conclude that aesthetics can enhance the teaching and learning environment.

Historic settings such as the Piazza san Marco in Venice, L'Enfant's 1791 design of the National Mall in Washington D.C., and many college malls create a wonderful sense of place. The physical environment in schools is the product of an architect's design philosophy and creativity, responding to the institution's educational philosophy, building philosophy and program needs. Some examples:

  • Classrooms and breakout spaces alive with visual displays, activity locations and artwork.

  • Indoor courtyards, student commons and food courts with informal, relaxing eating environments encourage multi-tasking for various activities.

  • "Forum"-styled lecture rooms in a horseshoe-shaped pattern with the teacher as a centralized participant, enabling visual and verbal interaction.

  • A design metaphor reflecting a city's history as a Mississippi River town; the floor plan mimics the winding river as the primary circulation route, and eddies create student gathering points and a sense of place.

  • A soffit mural, which had encircled the lobby of a 1905 school, depicted the history of the Indian tribe and pioneers that settled the town. It was uncovered during a remodeling project and was restored.

  • A courthouse-styled cupola in a school houses a bell that summoned students from 1873 to 1939. It also has an entry rotunda with the design of the floor logo, domed ceiling, display cases and balcony railing soffit with the motto of the first graduating class in 1876.

  • Marty Indian School in South Dakota is designed in the shape of the sacred eagle, and a landscaped series of circles expresses the "Land of the Friendly People of the Seven Council Fires."

  • A design honoring the Prairie School architecture style features a restored historic clock tower in the lobby.

  • A student commons features a large sculpture of a bald eagle noted for wintering on the community's Mississippi River banks.

  • Outdoor classrooms: ponds, streams and wetlands; butterfly, art, and wildflower gardens; bird sanctuaries; arboretums; amphitheaters.

Students seek a variety of spaces throughout a building for learning. Good architecture is essential to creating a sense of place where occupants — students, staff and community — are affected on a visceral level. The sense or nature of place is the unique combination of how the "place" appears and how the people engage activities within that place.

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

Hide comments


  • Allowed HTML tags: <em> <strong> <blockquote> <br> <p>

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.