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Commons Sense

Without a doubt, the hardest working space at Williamston High School is its commons area.

From 6:30 in the morning to late in the evening, the 4,600-square-foot area, located at the nexus of the Michigan school's community-use facilities and academic wing, is in constant use. On a typical weekday, for example, the commons may serve as a classroom in the morning; a cafeteria at noon; an exhibition center later in the day; and a lobby for an athletic contest, theater production, or community event at night. The commons also is a hub for the students, providing them with an ideal location to gather between classes, hold informal meetings, or get a head-start on homework while waiting for the bus.

"Without the commons, our school could not fully serve its mission as a community resource," says Randy Bowles, principal. "Not only would we be limited in our ability to stage activities, the students would sorely miss having a place where they can interact in a less formal setting."

Commons areas have become indispensable features of many educational facilities-serving both student and community functions. Despite the proven value and versatility of these spaces, many school systems debate their inclusion when confronted with limited construction budgets for new schools or modernization programs. Through careful planning and design, however, a commons can successfully pass the tests of utility and cost without sacrificing size or appearance.

With careful planning, education officials and facilities managers can transform the perception of a commons from an expendable "luxury" into one of the facility's most cost-effective spaces. The result is sure to be a valuable, long-lasting resource that benefits students and local residents alike.

A place for interaction When weighing the merits of a proposed commons, many people first think of high-profile uses such as special ceremonies or overflow lobbies. However, these areas play an equally important role in facilitating student socialization and interaction-a cornerstone of the learning process from kindergarten to high school.

"Students literally and figuratively need 'their space'-a place to meet and interact with their peers," says Al Diver, principal of Dakota High School, Macomb, Mich. "Nearly every student at our school visits the commons several times a day for lunch, between classes, and before and after school."

While Dakota High School's two-story commons and atrium fulfill this valuable role every day, Diver recalls an incident that best illustrates the area's importance to the students.

"When the last class let out on the final day of school this year, the seniors instinctively went to the commons," he says. "For four years, they had used that area to meet friends, help each other with assignments, and make their plans for the weekend and the future. And they knew that this was the place to gather one last time."

Diver also believes that this special attachment to the commons inspired another much-welcome tradition among Dakota's students-taking care of school property.

"Because our commons doubles as the cafeteria, I was initially concerned that we would often have a big clean-up job after lunches," says Diver. "But almost from the day we opened, the students have made the extra effort to pick up after themselves and keep the area clean. "

Multiple uses and spaces The practical value of a commons may be enhanced by integrating the ability to subdivide the space into smaller, fully functional areas. Extendable drop walls and curtain partitions provide an attractive, acoustically sound alternative to the familiar steel "cage" barriers. In addition to tailoring a large area's size to its anticipated use, movable walls create temporary storage or preparation areas for large events, "green rooms" for performers, or m eeting areas for conferences and exhibitions. The drop walls also can provide an extra measure of security by limiting access to classrooms, offices and other areas during non-school hours.

Optimum location The location of the commons is an important planning decision. A commons space that has been strategically positioned adjacent to large, public venues such as an auditorium, cafeteria, spectator gymnasium, or natatorium can serve a vital role in accommodating circulation-acting essentially as large corridor or surge space for arriving or dispersing crowds. The commons can support a variety of activities related to the main events, such as ticket and program sales, concessions, and exhibits and displays. The space also will allow students and visitors to wait indoors for transportation during inclement weather.

A commons also can play an integral role in the success of a major renovation/expansion project, such as at Hamilton Southeastern High School, Fishers, Ind. Here, a commons became a structural interface between the existing and new facilities-helping to transition different building heights and structural systems. This space also is a dynamic street where students can interact on their way to and from classes.

For maximum flexibility, the commons should be located within the overall plan so that it can be used on its own. If additional "zones" of the building must be opened in order to access and use the commons, supervision will be compromised, and building security and energy efficiency will be diminished.

Light and heat In larger schools, it is not always possible to bring in natural daylight by incorporating windows in every instructional area. Consistently, however, teachers and students refer to the inclusion of windows and light as one of the most important aspects of school design.

By including windows or clerestory lighting in the commons, natural light can be brought into the heart of the school building. This was a critical element in the recent design of the new West Valley High School, Fairbanks, Alaska, where available light in the fall and spring must be maximized.

Often, the biggest facility-management concern related to a commons is the cost of heating and cooling, particularly atrium spaces that extend upward two or more stories. By making energy planning a part of the programming process, however, the added cost of keeping a commons area comfortable can be minimized. In calculating the facility's energy load, for example, remember that all large areas (auditorium, gymnasium and commons) seldom will be in use simultaneously. The resulting heating and cooling system can be designed for two-thirds of the total load, with area components activated or shut down as needs dictate. Continuing advances in temperature sensor and control technology also can help improve the efficiency of the facility's overall energy system.

The economy of a commons is realized when multiple functions are served by a single, multipurpose space. A commons can allow the same square footage to serve as a cafeteria, lobby, gathering/social space and meeting room-rather than requiring several dedicated spaces. The design challenges are greater, but the benefits to the school and the community are significant.

As with other multipurpose areas within school facilities, a commons area must withstand rigors that may range from the daily movement of equipment and furnishings to spilled food and beverages during banquets or community events.

Several affordable, long-lasting materials have proven highly successful in helping a commons area retain its showpiece appearance, even after years of use. Quarry tile, porcelain ceramic tile and terrazzo (either traditional or pre-cast installations) can sustain years of traffic with little or no extra maintenance. Along with preserving the appearance of a high-visibility area, these materials contribute to the long-term durability of the entire facility.

Durability of furnishings and interior finishes is especially important for those facilities-particularly elementary schools-where a commons may provide the only venue for performances and other major events. Flexible lighting and acoustical treatments can further enhance the versatility of a commons space, opening the door for students to experience or participate in performing arts, special demonstrations and other large-group activities.

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