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At the Drawing Board

Teaching methods and learning programs are changing in schools and universities, and the door to creativity and innovation in education design has swung wide open. Architects savor the challenge and have responded with several ideas and strategies that can be used to create optimal learning environments for today's students.

Architects have seen schools and universities begin to experiment with a more interdisciplinary approach to teaching, and some are using project-based learning.

“The idea is that learning settings are not just supporting one teacher that delivers the message while the student figures it out later,” says Stuart Brodsky, architect at OWP/P in Chicago. “The teacher becomes the facilitator. Students work in groups because it's important for people to learn to work together.”

These changes require careful planning that allows for future changes and more flexible environments in schools.

Building flexibility

Schools and universities are beginning to understand the importance of creating a comprehensive master plan, says David Hart, principal at Steinberg Architects in Los Angeles.

“Institutions are not just thinking about the future, but thinking about the consequences of today's decisions,” says Hart. “There is a little more awareness that the things we decide today may limit us in the future.”

Many times full facility assessments are conducted to determine how to better use existing space throughout campus to ensure that the institution does not overbuild.

In response to the need for interactive spaces, many schools are striving to create small-school environments and areas for socialization in common, shared areas. Hallways can be designed to open up into seating areas where students can gather between classes, says Brodsky.

Getting disconnected

In the past, education institutions have had to figure out how to integrate equipment into a classroom. As a result, classrooms grew larger to allow for a wall of computers, says Brodsky. Planners had to find a way to integrate computers so they didn't interfere with sightlines to the front of the room.

Classrooms now are gaining more flexibility to handle technology. Education institutions are interested in getting rid of wires, says Brodsky. They want to create environments where students can carry laptops or where a computer lab can be created by bringing charged mobile carts into a room.

Classroom walls also are becoming more fluid, says William Katz, senior associate at SMWM in San Francisco.

“Instead of your typical drywall with a white board and an eraser and a clock on the wall, the walls of classrooms really have significantly changed, where the whiteboards slide up and down beneath blackboards, revealing electronic devices, which have fume hoods behind them,” says Katz. “You can, in a sense, slide away one class, and another one can appear on top of that.”

Consider it green

More education institutions, especially universities, are demanding sustainable projects, says Katz.

One way to design for sustainability is to leave mechanical structures exposed.

“When you expose things, and you have fewer layers covering things, you save costs there,” says Katz. “What used to be thought of as looking too industrial is now being embraced.”

Some spaces allow for natural ventilation, which can be as simple as operable windows or as complicated as radiant floors, radiant ceilings, or trickle vents, which are small vents in walls that are open at all times and are adjacent to windows that allow for continuous air flow, says Katz.

Some education institutions are exploring displacement ventilation to improve indoor air quality and save energy.

“The air is less mixed with other contaminants in the room, and you just simply end up with a more comfortable and healthy learning environment,” says Brodsky.

Hall, associate editor, can be reached at [email protected].



Median cost, per square foot, of a new school (elementary, middle and high) built in 2004.

Source: American School and University's 31st Annual Official Education Construction Report, May 2005.

Adapting to curriculum

Many schools are beginning to see the value in curriculum that allows different subjects to overlap one another, giving students a more interdisciplinary learning experience. To accommodate this method of learning, education architects must design environments that reinforce the overlapping curriculum and promote a sense of community.

When Crystal Springs Uplands School, Hillsborough, Calif., a co-ed, college-preparatory day school for grades 6 to 12, set out to build a new facility, its idea was to create a mind/body program by combining physical education with its typical curriculum. The architect, SMWM, worked to ensure the building design accommodated the curriculum envisioned by the school.

“There were a lot of discussions with the athletic instructors, as well as other teachers to see how we could really adapt the building spaces,” says William Katz, senior associate at SMWM in San Francisco.

The Griffin Center has a classroom that can be used for science; teachers can move a folding partition and transform the room into a larger studio to conduct experiments. The room is situated so that students can oversee the gymnasium below, witness examples of health education, and tie that experience back into the classroom lesson, says Katz.

Transparency and exposed structural systems also help the facility adapt to the learning program. Transparency within a building can be achieved by overlapping spaces three-dimensionally, and creating an interesting section in a building to allow for views from above and below. Surfaces, whether horizontal or vertical, allow for transparency, says Katz.

Exposing structural systems allows students to see how water and electricity flow through the building just by observing the systems from their classrooms.

“It's being honest with the building, expressing as much of it as possible, and trying not to cover up the systems,” says Katz.

Sustainable design

LEED standards have made the issue of sustainability a hot topic in education design and construction. Several strategies can help a building be more energy efficient and environmentally friendly, and they are more effective when considered early in the design process.

One issue to consider in the planning stages is how stormwater will be managed on the site. When left until the end of a project, stormwater detention basins usually are made with whatever spaces are left over on the site, or an underground tank is put in.

At Lakes Community High School, Lake Villa, Ill., the issue of stormwater management was considered from the master planning stage. In this project, the stormwater was conveyed by surface, so the architect, OWP/P, created a new pond that looked native. It then integrated the pond into the design of the building.

“We oriented classrooms toward that side of the site where it was quieter, so students could look out over these elements,” says Stuart Brodsky, architect at OWP/P in Chicago.

The ponds are basically re-created wetlands. They clean the water, store it temporarily, release it at a slow rate, and when the water is released from the site, it conveys by surface to a lake in that area.

Teachers say that the science students are using the lake to do experiments investigating water quality.

“It becomes a part of the identity of the school,” says Brodsky. “The fact that the wetlands were restored, maintained and newly created becomes a whole culture to the way the team approached the project.”

Planning for technology

Designing for technology is especially challenging, because it is always changing. But today's schools and universities seem to understand that incorporating new technology requires more than just bringing electronics into a room and plugging them in.

Steinberg Architects is designing the M.E. Fox Center, a new $10 million campus technology center for West Valley College, Saratoga, Calif. The facility will include interactive technology and distance-learning classrooms; faculty and staff resource areas and meeting spaces; and a 100-seat lecture hall for use by the college and the community. A couple of prototype classrooms will be set up to allow the college to test the latest technology and audio-visual systems. Equipment will be easily de-mountable, so speakers, projectors, screens and interactive displays can be easily put up or taken off the wall or the ceiling. A pipe grid allows users to try out different lighting, so it's a very flexible space, says Hart. The spaces also are used to train faculty about how to use the new technology.

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