Back in the 1970s, when architect Michael Hall first began designing schools, the procedure was simple.
“The way it worked was that a superintendent would give you a call and say, ‘I need a building with 20 classrooms, a gym and a library. Call me when you have a design,’” says Hall, an architect and chief marketing officer with Fanning/Howey Associates, Celina, Ohio.
Today, the path to creating a school facility involves a lot more steps and a lot more people. Although the process has become significantly more complicated, most educators and architects would agree that it results in school buildings that are more attuned to the desires of students, teachers and the overall community.
To make sure schools and universities build facilities that mesh with the needs and wants of those who will use them, school officials and architects must take into account many elements that can make a building more conducive to learning and more connected to the community.
Talk to architects and you'll come up with dozens of concerns that their designs must address. Here are 10 issues that architects have identified as being among the key points on which they focus as they try to provide schools and universities with buildings that do more than just house students for a few hours each day.
“A well-designed, quality school can contribute to the success of students,” says Steven Turckes, principal-in-charge for educational facilities in the Chicago office of Perkins & Will.
Incidents of shootings and violence, culminating with the 1999 tragedy at Columbine High School in Jefferson County, Colo., have made school security a paramount issue. Since the terrorist attacks on the United States on Sept. 11, concerns about security have become even more intense. Schools can address security with equipment such as video cameras or metal detectors, but for an architect, the best way to ensure that a school building provides a secure environment is to design it with that in mind.
“People are getting more creative in passive approaches to security,” says Amy Yurko, the Chicago-based director of educational facilities for DLR Group, based in Omaha, Neb.
That means designing buildings with elements such as wider hallways to alleviate the congestion that can lead to fights; curved corridors that eliminate corners and nooks where students can hide their activities; administrative offices at the main entrance to the building, so staff members can monitor who enters the building, as well as what is going on in the parking lot outside the school; and landscaping on school grounds that doesn't create places for intruders to hide.
It also means creating a building that instills pride and a sense of belonging in students.
“If you design appropriate community spaces, you will end up with good security,” says Tom Fernandez, an architect with Steed Hammond Paul, Cincinnati.
Other design elements can help students and staff members protect themselves from danger. Schools with several houses or wings often can seal off and lock down individual sections of a school to keep troublemakers out. Having classroom doors that can be locked from the inside provides similar safeguards to individual rooms.
“You want to be able to easily and rapidly respond to an event,” says David Keep, chief executive officer of SHW Group, based in Dallas. “A building can help you do that.”
School security has become more critical because of another design trend: community use of school facilities. To make the costs of building school facilities more palatable to taxpayers and ensure community members feel some connection to the facility, even if they don't have children attending school, institutions have become more open to sharing their spaces with the community.
“People want to feel like a school is theirs, and they are not just an afterthought,” says Yurko.
That can include after-hours community use of gymnasiums, libraries and auditoriums. In some cases, school sites will house community health clinics, recreation centers, social-service agencies — even copying centers. In addition, many institutions form partnerships with other public or private entities to share a facility.
“Some schools view partnership as an unnecessary headache,” says Turckes. “Others are more attuned to them and feel they are good for the community and for kids.”
In North Aurora, Ill., School District 129's Fearn Elementary School was designed by Perkins & Will to be a partnership with Aurora University. Part of the space in the school is dedicated for use by the university as a professional development center for student teachers.
“This way you get 18- and 19-year-olds into the school environment right away,” says Turckes. “The university gets more students into the school on a continual basis, and the school has more sets of adult eyes that can help as teaching aides.”
The South-Western City School District near Columbus, Ohio, is building a Career Academy that takes advantage of partnerships with local businesses. “Students are using what they would be using in a business environment,” says Fernandez of Steed Hammond Paul, which designed the facility.
Creating these shared spaces often comes about because of another trend: collaborative planning. Instead of the exclusive arrangement between a school administrator and an architect that Hall described as the norm 30 years ago, school design now is the product of a diverse group of interested parties — school board members, teachers, other staff members, students, parents, local business people, neighbors, taxpayers and anybody else who might be affected by construction of a new school facility.
Architects digest all this information and transform it into a design that reflects the wishes of all those people (see sidebar).
Educators have realized that schools with too many students can become impersonal, unwieldy environments that leave children feeling neglected and alienated. Those students may perform poorly academically, and they may become a disruptive or dangerous presence in a school. One answer to combat such student isolation is smaller schools.
“Big schools are at odds with what research says schools should be,” says Turckes. “If you can't have small schools, you try to create smallness with bigness.”
By designing schools into separate units, often called houses or clusters, architects can create more manageable facilities where all the teachers know all the students and it's harder for a child to fall between the cracks.
“We try to break the building into more personal, human units,” says Hall.
Smaller learning communities are one way that schools can provide a more student-centered environment. Designers try to create different kinds of spaces that can enhance different teaching and learning styles. Those include spaces for independent learning, group interaction, interdisciplinary team-teaching and hands-on instruction.
“Learning occurs in so many places,” says Peter Kuttner, president of Cambridge Seven Associates, Cambridge, Mass. “Schools should actively promote lots of learning environments.”
Cambridge Seven tried to do that when it designed the Learning Laboratory for Complex Systems at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge, Mass. It includes traditional classrooms, laboratories, a three-story open space known as “the hangar” where students can conduct ambitious experiments such as dirigible contests, and alcoves called “think stops” placed throughout the corridor where students can, as the name suggests, stop and think.
“MIT believes that less than 20 percent of their students' learning occurs in the classrooms,” says Kuttner. “There are a lot of extracurricular academic activities.”
The design of the Learning Lab also tries to enhance learning by bringing together what have often been isolated elements.
“There is a growing awareness that there is a community in a building,” says Kuttner. “We wanted to open up the spaces, so that everything is not so isolated and you can give people a sense of who else is there. Everybody is cross-fertilizing with each other.”
To do that, Kuttner says the Learning Lab design eliminated some of MIT's “famous, unnerving, unending hallways” by removing walls that separated some of the labs from the hallways. “The lab is open to everything,” says Kuttner.
The focus on student-centered spaces results in more flexible school spaces. Architects say that as students' needs and community expectations grow, schools need to take flexibility to the next level.
“Agility is one step beyond flexibility,” says Yurko. “You want to be able to change the space and change back, and do it quickly.”
Keep says that schools being built now may have to be reconfigured seven or eight times over 40 or 50 years. Eventually, he says, schools might be designed more like commercial space — generic space that can be configured quickly to serve the specific needs of a client.
“You want to look at multiple uses,” says Yurko. “What do you really need?”
In schools that have multi-track year-round schedules, students and staff often have to share spaces that must be converted quickly.
“It's mostly a question of storage,” says Yurko. “The big question is what do you do with the stuff that belongs to the students and teachers that are off.”
Schools designed with year-round schedules in mind include additional areas for storage, especially storage that is mobile. They also may use materials with more durable finishes, because maintenance staffs don't have the luxury of doing repairs and upgrades in an empty building during the summer.
Using space more wisely can allow a school to build a smaller facility without sacrificing function.
Teachers want their own classrooms, but that often isn't the most efficient use of space.
“The issue was teachers didn't want to vacate their classrooms because they have so much stuff, and they wanted to have access to it.”
A design that puts teacher offices between classrooms can allow teachers to have access to their materials and allow the classroom to be used by another instructor.
Connected to the Future
One reason that schools are able to manage their spaces with more agility is the unprecedented growth in the power and availability of technology.
“Technology is revolutionizing the way education is done,” says Keep.
Classrooms have become larger to accommodate the computers that have become a fixture in most schools. But as technology progresses, the equipment is becoming smaller, and information can be stored digitally instead of in books and paper. This can free up space that can be used for other purposes.
“With wireless systems and laptops, you can define the whole school as a media center,” says Yurko. “That means the school library is making a comeback. It will have more books and literature, and less data. It will have comfortable furniture — a place for curling up with a good book, maybe even take a nap.”
To allow for easier technology upgrades, schools will have fewer concrete walls.
“There's more going on behind the walls and under the floors,” says Kuttner.
Eventually, as technology becomes more pervasive and provides better learning experiences for students, the classroom as we know it may become passe.
“People are going to say, ‘What is that student doing in a classroom instead of experiencing this via technology?’” says Keep.
As schools pay more attention to students and staff with special needs and to how schools affect the environment, many architects and educators have tried to create more sensitive designs. Schools must abide by the accessibility guidelines of the Americans with Disabilities Act, but the concept of universal design takes accessibility to a different level.
“The idea is that you're not in any way differentiating people with disabilities,” says Turckes.
In 2001, Chicago Public Schools staged a design competition for two new elementary schools that emphasized universal design as one of the key elements. One of the winning designs was created by Marble-Fairbanks Architects, New York City.
“We treat the whole building as a landscape,” says architect Karen Fairbanks. “It has a lot of ramping, sloping surfaces.”
The ramps will allow the entire two-story building, as well as an outdoor courtyard, to be accessible to all students. The facility, which will be organized into clusters to create a more intimate environment, also will include stairs and elevators adjacent to the ramps. Chicago plans to begin construction no later than 2004.
Sensitive design also applies to how a building relates to the overall environment. Facilities that waste energy and natural resources can send students the wrong message.
“Education is especially where you shouldn't be doing that,” says Keep of SHW Group. “Schools should take advantage of the breezes, the sun, the trees.”
At the Roy Lee Walker Elementary School in McKinney, Texas, the building includes many sustainable design features that make the building more environmentally friendly, such as solar panels, windmills, rainwater collection and daylighting.
Besides the lower bills that result from energy efficiency, schools with sustainable design can become part of the curriculum.
“We see a school as a perfect place to combine architecture and education,” says Fairbanks.
That applies not only to the building, but also to the land that surrounds it. At the Walnut Hills School in Cincinnati, Steed Hammond Paul designed two outdoor learning environments for students — one focused on science, the other on art. At Little Miami High School in Morrow, Ohio, the firm reconfigured the design after it unearthed Indian artifacts during construction. Now, students are able to go on archaelogical digs outside the school.
“There is a lot of educational value in the environment,” says Fernandez.
The Bottom Line
One design trend that will never go away is creating schools that stay within the available budget. Cost-effective school design allows districts and universities to get the biggest bang for their buck and shows the community that schools are responsible stewards of taxpayer money.
Wise spending may become more critical for schools as they face potential budget cuts in the face of an economic slowdown.
Careful planning can help schools anticipate their needs and build accordingly. Many institutions are building schools that can be expanded easily. The core facilities — gymnasiums, libraries, auditoriums and cafeterias — are built to accommodate future growth, and the classroom space built initially is designed for a smaller number.
Keep notes that some rapidly growing districts are opting to save construction costs by building the facility to its planned capacity at the outset. “Even though the school won't be full when it opens, it will be in two or three years,” he says. “This way they don't have to go back and add on.”
Some might expect that the recession could slow down the boom in school construction, but Fernandez says that based on the recent bond-election results he has seen, communities are for the most part supporting their schools.
The tragedy on Sept. 11 may have served to counteract any feelings of uneasiness people might have about committing more taxes to schools, Fernandez believes.
“Value is always a concern for taxpayers,” says Fernandez. “But I think after Sept. 11, people are saying: ‘Life is precious. We are willing to spend on our community. We know how precious that is.’”
Sidebar: Polishing Nuggets
Nearly every architect involved in educational design speaks of how critical it is to have people who will be affected by a school facility take part in its planning and design.
“It's a disaster if you don't engage the community in the decisions you're making,” says Michael Hall with Fanning/Howey Associates. “If a district hasn't built anything for awhile, this may be a new concept for them.”
Steven Turckes with Perkins & Will says community involvement is mandatory. “It is part of every project we do — that's just the way it has to be.”
Collaborative planning seems so essential now, but why didn't schools embrace the concept years ago?
Hall believes school officials had a different mindset years ago — they weren't facing competition from home schools and charters, and society hadn't begun to focus on the shortcomings of the U.S. educational system.
“I think they didn't feel challenged to seek community participation,” says Hall.
Turckes says that people are paying more attention to the difference a good design can make.
“Society at large seems to have a more heightened sense of design,” he says.
In some cases, schools are already open to innovative ideas; in others, architects make them aware of the benefits of certain design strategies.
“We try to introduce schools to ideas that may be non-traditional,” says Amy Yurko of DLR Group. “We show them what else might be possible.”
Karen Fairbanks of Marble-Fairbanks Architects says collaboration “creates a real dialogue between architects and educators about how a building can help achieve a pedagogical goal.”
When it works the way it is supposed to, collaborative planning allows architects to help communities realize their dreams.
“You listen to someone's dreams and you supplement them and encourage them to go further,” says Tom Fernandez of Steed Hammond Paul. “We take these nuggets and polish them. We get some really neat ideas.”
Kennedy is staff writer for AS&U.