Consensus by design

Continuing our series focused on “building a bridge of understanding” for innovative design, let’s address the architect’s role in collaboration and partnerships. Designing innovative schools to support and enhance current and future teaching/learning processes is an architect’s challenge and opportunity. 

The Architect and Design Specialists

Specialists create unique comprehensive facilities solutions: mechanical/electrical/civil/structural engineers, landscape architects, interior designers, furniture specialists, facilities planners, technical specifications writers, technology designers, LEED specialists, acousticians, lighting specialists, daylighting experts and more. The architect must channel this creativity into solutions that meet today’s while providing future flexibility. 

Flexible learning/support spaces define innovative environments. These spaces are designed with indoor air quality, energy-efficient mechanical systems, appropriate lighting, effective daylighting, ergonomically-designed movable furniture, interior-to-exterior visual connections to landscaping, anytime-anyplace mobile technology, excellence in acoustics and/or sound reinforcement, etc., which support individual-to-large group project-based learning. Effective partnerships with design specialists bring all these elements together for innovative solutions.

The Architect and Educators

Collaboration between the architect and educators is essential. Architects and educators interact regarding master schedule data, facility capacities, curriculum, space needs and adjacencies, and new advances in technology. User-group involvement during design ensures teachers get spaces designed to deliver current curriculum with opportunities to grow.

Collaborative activities including school facilities tours, “new directions” workshops in educational trends and outcomes, and brainstorming spur innovative designs. User-group workshops with “what if?” questions will generate creative ideas that support learning concepts for the future. 

The Architect and Manufacturers

Product vendors/suppliers are essential for generating new design ideas for schools. Manufacturers constantly research new products and technologies for education. Recent developments along this line include “pivot walls” and “collapsible transparent walls” that enable easy transformation of enclosed spaces into blended learning areas. Product representatives can keep architects updated on innovative features and conveniences, highlighting opportunities for innovation.

The Architect and the Community

When a community sees value and benefit in design innovation, and participates in the visioning process, its support (especially in relation to bond referendums) may mean the difference in bringing that vision to reality. Consider the Austin School District in Minnesota where educators and architects partnered with the community to incorporate University of Minnesota data regarding STEAM’s (science/technology/engineering/arts/math) impact on project-based learning and how design enhances “seeing learning” to inspire student inquiry. The result was a successful referendum, a new school with a data-driven STEAM program, and national recognition for innovative design.


By involving stakeholders in the planning and design process, an appreciation for innovative design is cultivated. The architect balances those energies into the design process and creates spaces to support teaching/learning for today, while providing innovative space for the future.

Paul W. Erickson, AIA/NCARB/REFP, is president of ATS&R Planners/Architects/ Engineers, Minneapolis, a firm specializing in pre-K to 12 and post-secondary school planning and design.

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