Mahatma Gandhi once stated, “We must become the change we want to be.” If, as “architects” for education, we want to become the change we want to be, we need to return to the basics of good design.
When you visit Crow Island School in Winnetka, Ill., you don't respond to it in the context of when it was designed, you respond to it in terms of today's standards. It was good design then, and it is good design now.
School designers have to deal with many issues: space and capacity, security, technology, crumbling infrastructure. Is it enough to solve just those immediate problems when they arise? When will this building's opportunity come again?
Why don't architects and educators talk more about design?
Let's start with the issue of building programs. Schools should have a larger variety of spaces to fulfill today's student needs. The net square footage of school programs doesn't seem to be growing on a per-pupil basis, but designers must acknowledge that today's students are learning differently. They interact in the corridors; they plug in anywhere. Technology has allowed students to become more self-paced. It also has enhanced the need for incidental social spaces that promote self-paced, project-based learning. These spaces are taking the form of smaller resource and seminar rooms.
Spaces that traditionally were considered part of the “net to gross” can be part of the answer. Designers can enhance a building's flexibility by understanding how corridors and “nooks and crannies” can be utilized more effectively. For these spaces to be truly flexible, the design needs to provide the support systems that allow multiple uses, including appropriate lighting, acoustics, power and information technology.
Another piece of the puzzle is the scale and syntax of the parts of a school. Students are becoming more sophisticated. It used to be that schooling consisted of a set number of facts presented in a predetermined order. The textbook set the stage. With computers, students learn information within their own contexts. They shape the order and determine how “deep” they research a topic. It depends on the students' interests and specific frames of reference. Project-based learning is becoming more of the norm.
The correct relation of the student to the school will vary from grade level to grade level and from activity to activity. But regardless of the grade, schools should provide an ability to change scales as a student changes the activity. When students arrive, they should feel a communal sense of identity. There should be space that serves as a heart of the school community, and provides a focus and center for student and faculty life.
There also should be places for transition. Students and teachers should be able to pause a few moments, reflect and get ready for the classroom environment. This type of place may be as simple as a bench by a window, a display case outside an art studio, or simply an enlarged area in the corridor.
As spaces become more flexible, there should be an inherent hierarchy within the organization of a school that signals the types of activities that occur in each area. At its worst, a school can become a maze of impersonal corridors and cells that all look the same. Designers need to better identify the scale and provide elements that start to define the character of the school. However, they must be careful to leave enough flexibility in the built product to allow for students to leave evidence of their being.
Scale-giving elements that can help define the character of a school include daylighting, color, materials and art. Recent tests have more conclusively linked daylighting with improved test scores. This should lead to more windows and skylights in classrooms and social spaces to connect students with the outside world.
The use of color can help modulate scale. It can signal specific activities, or it can reflect the context of the neighborhood. The use of materials should enhance the personal experience of a space. Local materials can be introduced into a design so that a school is not just a neutral box, but rather a reflection of its community.
In a similar fashion, art can individualize a space or place and provide another vehicle for providing a sense of place. Art can either be created by artists from the community or can be organized around a program that utilizes student pieces.
The flexibility found in the building as a whole also should be evident in classrooms. As wireless technology becomes more common, the need for assigned computer spaces will diminish, but the influence of technology and different ways of learning will remain. A classroom should be large enough to allow multiple activities, or the school should have a “cluster” of spaces for small- and large-group instruction.
Students also need the ability to work on their own. On a personal level, there has to be the ability for students to connect with what they are doing. As they move into high school, the need for personal spaces that respond to the more complex social and academic environments is even more apparent.
Spaces need to be designed with flexible furniture that allows for changing configurations and uses. A classroom may need to accommodate a lecture one day, a seminar the next, and a series of projects the week after. Designers must take into account not only the square footage of a space, but also the proportions.
Designers have to take the responsibility to team up with educators and policymakers, to provide the proper advocacy for designing, constructing and equipping buildings that go beyond the traditional cells and corridors.
We need to fight for appropriately scaled schools with spaces, connectors and furnishings that can be flexible and responsive to the emerging patterns of learning. The integration of these spaces becomes important in accommodating the transition in learning that must occur between now and 2050.
Loeffelman, AIA, is a principal based in the New York office of Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer Associates, a planning, architectural and interior design firm. Over the past 19 years, she has planned and designed numerous academic projects.