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The school construction boom that began in the 1990s has given administrators and designers a chance to go beyond the traditional school layout of double-loaded corridors stacked on top of each other. Those building schools for the 21st century are recognizing that the schoolhouses they attended no longer may be suitable to meet the needs of today's students.

Designers and educators have many opportunities to incorporate innovative strategies and systems that can enhance the learning environment for students and teachers. Here are 10 areas that schools and universities can explore to bring about more effective school facilities:


Clogged hallways can increase the tension in a building and lead to student conflicts. Classrooms already too small that have to give up critical square footage to accommodate a bank of computers will not be able to function at optimal levels. Designs that provide enough space will allow students and teachers to maximize the resources available to them.

A study of daylighting conducted for the California Energy Commission by the Heschong Mahone Group found that even more than daylighting, teachers craved more classroom space.

“While the teachers we surveyed generally had a preference for windows, daylight and views in their classrooms, these preferences were not found to be driving classroom preferences,” the study states. “Far more important was an almost universal desire for more space (and) lots of storage.”


The traditional approach for a school building construction project is to hire an architect to design a building, and after the design is presented, hire a contractor to transform the design into bricks and mortar. But some schools and universities have begun to use the design-build approach on school construction projects.

In a design-build project, a single entity is responsible for the design and construction of the facility. From the beginning, those involved in designing the project are working together with those who will build it.

“Design-build can be the best way to get a school built when there is an accelerated schedule and a limited budget,” says Tom Perry, director of engineering services for Shawmut Design and Construction. “You can control costs during the design. The whole team — architects, engineers, consultants, the owner and the construction manager — are working together. We're all part of it. We're not working in a vacuum.”

Adaptive reuse

For schools and universities with limited capital budgets, constructing needed facilities may be too costly. In other cases, the land required to build a new campus is not available, or the need for space is so urgent that institutions can't wait for a new facility to be built. In many of these instances, administrators have turned to existing non-education facilities — office buildings, hotels, department stores, factories — and converted them into schools.

The National Clearinghouse for Educational Facilities says that schools considering a building for adaptive reuse should make sure the building layout can accommodate classrooms and other required spaces; that the building can meet health, safety and accessibility requirements; that the mechanical, plumbing and electrical systems are in good condition or can be upgraded; and that the building can provide a safe environment for students and staff.

Universal design

The requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) have forced many schools and universities to upgrade their facilities to accommodate the needs of those with disabilities.

Some school planners have gone beyond just accommodating those with special needs; they have embraced universal design, which creates spaces that all people can use without any special modifications.

The Center for Universal Design at North Carolina State University identifies seven principles of universal design: equitable use (the design is useful and marketable to people with diverse abilities); flexibility in use (the design accommodates a wide range of individual preferences and abilities); simple and intuitive (use of the design is easy to understand, regardless of the user's experience, knowledge, language skills or current concentration level); perceptible information (the design communicates necessary information effectively to the user, regardless of ambient conditions or the user's sensory abilities); tolerance for error (the design minimizes hazards and the adverse consequences of accidental or unintended actions); low physical effort (the design can be used efficiently and comfortably and with a minimum of fatigue); and size and space for approach and use (appropriate size and space is provided for approach, reach, manipulation, and use regardless of user's body size, posture or mobility).

Sidewalk curb cuts benefit not only those in wheelchairs, but also those pushing strollers or riding bicycles. A universal design approach leads to installing wider doorways, placing drinking fountains and electrical outlets at heights that everyone can reach, or selecting door handles that don't have to be gripped or twisted to open.

Joint use

Schools and universities that partner with other governmental units or private agencies to create joint-use facilities benefit not only by providing students and staff with a facility that might not have been feasible without the partner's involvement, but also by bringing the valuable resources the partner possesses into the school environment.

When a school gymnasium or recreation center is made available to the public after school hours, it enables communities to gain greater access to the buildings their tax dollars pay for. When a school partners with a public library, students have access to a wider array of materials, and community members can take advantage of computers and multimedia technology used by students during the school day.


Violent incidents on school campuses and in society at large have forced schools and universities to re-examine the security systems and approaches they have on their campuses and in their buildings. Administrators are learning that the more security features they incorporate into the initial design of a school facility, the more effectively those features will protect people and property on campus.

The strategy is known as Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED). The San Diego County Office of Education lists four strategies key to effective CPTED: natural surveillance, territorial reinforcement, natural access control and maintenance.

Steps such as laying out a school building to maximize the visibility of parking areas and building entrances, or keeping shrubbery cut low to allow visibility from classrooms, can boost security without imposing harsh restrictions on students and staff.

Outdoor learning

Rather than stay confined in a classroom and learn about a subject from words printed on a page, educators often try to give students hands-on experience as part of a lesson. That could mean loading students on a bus for a field trip, but it can be as simple as exploring the grounds around a school building.

“School grounds may contain useful instructional habitats such as wetlands, woodlands and meadows,” says “Planning School Grounds for Outdoor Learning,” a guide from the National Clearinghouse for Educational Facilities. “They may also have gardens from which herbs, flowers and vegetables are harvested.”

Other potential outdoor learning spaces, the guide says, include nature pathways, play structure areas, sandy spaces, aquatic areas, seating areas of various sizes, ball fields, dramatic play areas, and covered pavilions or porches.

Flexible space

A generation ago, not many people knew how critical computer technology and Internet access would be to public education. The designs for schools back then didn't anticipate that classrooms would need to be bigger to accommodate personal computers, that classrooms would need more electrical capacity to power the machines and data lines to connect the computers to networks, and that greater cooling capacity would be required to keep the machines from overheating.

The schools being built today will serve students for many years to come, but educators don't necessarily know what paths education will take and what changes will be necessary to adjust to the twists and turns along the road. So forward-looking schools and universities are making sure that the facilities they are building now are flexible enough to adapt to the advancements and new ideas that will come to classrooms five years from now or 25 years down the road.

That means features such as classroom walls that can open to accommodate large-group instruction and team teaching, and spaces that are less specialized and can be used for many functions.

Phone systems

Years ago, phones in classrooms were a foreign concept for most schools. A school's central office had a phone, but most of the rest of the building was cut off from a form of communication that was commonplace in most other workplaces.

But technology has made it possible for many schools to enter the modern age of phone communication. The computer networks that transmit data to and from classrooms also can be used to install a phone network using Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP). Giving every classroom the ability to communicate with the rest of the school building and the outside world is an important step in facilitating communication with parents and in bolstering school security.

A study by the Consortium of School Networking of a 21,000-student school district in Wisconsin says that the district plans to install a VoIP system in all of its 40 campuses by 2006, and projects a savings of more than $400,000 a year over a traditional phone system. The key factor in cost savings is that the system won't have to pay for intra-district phone calls that travel over its own data lines.

Interactive whiteboards

Another technological advancement that schools are embracing is the interactive whiteboard, a high-tech replacement for the traditional chalkboard and overhead projector. In addition to projecting notes or a computer application onto the screen, it can send those notes or other information over a computer network to a student's individual computer, and it is connected to the Internet, so it can retrieve information in an instant.

Used successfully, the interactive boards can transform students from passive listeners to active learners engaged in a collaborative process.

Kennedy, staff writer, can be reached at [email protected].

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