Facility Planning: Designing Safer Schools

Jan. 1, 2000
How can architects design safer schools?

In the wake of the Columbine High School shootings, the American Institute of Architects (AIA) has been besieged by the question: How can architects design safer schools?

I think we can do so by creating smaller, neighborhood buildings that are airy, light, bright and clean, and that reflect the principles of "defensible space."

Knowing terms First, let's define terms. Do I believe that an architect can produce a school that, by its design and construction, can preclude disasters like Columbine? Probably not. After all, architects and corrections experts have been trying for years to design prisons that will prevent inmates from causing harm to other inmates, yet prisons are among the most violent places in the United States. Clearly, if a disturbed individual wants to kill or incur violence, no building design will prevent this.

On the other hand, can school designs encourage pride in the school, create an atmosphere in which students are less likely to feel isolated, and form spaces that are easier to supervise? I firmly believe that the answer is a resounding "Yes!"

Assorted groupings In the General Accounting Office's 1995 report on the nation's public school facilities, deteriorating buildings accounted for much of the $112 billion in needed improvements. When students have to learn in spaces with leaky roofs, poor lighting, dirty floors and walls, and plumbing that does not work, it is easy to see how many students can assume that society places little value in them and their education. In turn, they can become hostile to their environment and, eventually, to their classmates.

Schools with thousands of students can create fringe groupings of students of the sort that were responsible for the Columbine shootings. Few of us want to be just another face in the crowd. In large groups, we often try to develop an identity that stands out because we feel lost in large, anonymous groups.

Smaller, neighborhood schools can help eliminate the feeling of anonymity. Students grow up with and know their fellow students. In much the same way, teachers can achieve a closer, more personal relationship with each student.

Bright, clean, imaginatively designed spaces that are uplifting and can create a sense of pride and ownership among students will encourage them to respect the space and what goes on within it. Recent studies indicate that natural light improves student performance and student behavior. Additional studies support the idea that "architecturally well-defined behavior settings" and environmentally healthy schools contribute to longer student attention spans and decreased interruptions.

Aesthetically speaking It seems that sometime in the 1970s architects began to design school buildings that looked like factories (at the same time that we were designing factories to be more open and attractive). Long rows of box-like classrooms on either side of a corridor had a dulling sameness. Schools that were built without windows, often to improve security, may contribute to negative behavior by their occupants. Many schools, built before the energy crisis, have had their large windows partially or completely blocked.

Today, using efficient new glazing systems, school districts are reopening these windows and celebrating high ceilings and tall windows that can impart a sense of importance and excitement to a space.

Many new finishes, as well as a number of attractive, time-proven finishes, can create a softer atmosphere with color and texture while, at the same time, addressing maintenance concerns. These finishes may cost a little more at the time of construction, but often can save significantly more than that over the life of the building.

Instilling pride Finally, the concept of "defensible space" can generate schools that, by their design, eliminate dead-end corridors, unsupervisable alcoves, and opportunities for unseen violence. All of these concepts can improve the performance and behavior of students while increasing student pride in schools, plus they make good sense.

Well-designed, safe schools are the product of an informed collaboration between architects and educators-a collaboration that takes time and resources. "Fast and cheap," the marching orders of the 1950s through the 1970s, should not rule school design-the goal should be buildings that encourage our students to develop a community that has pride in itself and in its surroundings.

Can good design foster safer schools? What is the facility's impact on learning? No one knows the definite answers to these questions, but it is clear that design plays a key part in the perception of safety, as well as the overall atmosphere for students. In addition to safety, the U.S. Department of Education, in its National Symposium on School Design last year, developed a list of six principles for designing school facilities that meet current and future educational needs. A summary of the principles:

-Enhance teaching and learning, and accommodate the needs of all learners.

-Serve as the center of the community.

-Result from a planning and design process that involves all stakeholders.

-Provide for health, safety and security.

-Make effective use of all available resources.

-Allow for flexibility and adaptability to changing needs.

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