Focusing on Human Factors

Aug. 1, 2003
Personalizing the 21st-century school.

Much has been written about the environmental problems that students and teachers struggle with: noise, glare, mildew, mold, ventilation and temperature extremes. Unfortunately, the role that architectural design plays in learning and teaching often is ignored. Designers should look at the human factors in spatial design, which emphasizes people-oriented design in behavioral terms.

In designing a school, architects and planners must do more than just meet building code requirements or state-recommended guidelines. Using the criteria of health and safety, performance, comfort and aesthetics, designers need to create a humanized physical environment that stimulates interest and provides motivation for learning and teaching. The human factors in design are a sense of place, ownership, community, presence, comfort, security, aesthetics, performance and privacy.

Students must feel a sense of place — that they are in a school and are there to learn. Physical-education facilities, a football stadium with lights, landscaping, driveways, parking lots, school buses, lockers, room numbers and an entry sign all help identify a building as a high school.

Good sense

Human factors in building design also can help establish a sense of place. They focus mainly on people's behavior as they interact and use spaces. The major ingredient is the architectural design: aesthetics (including color and texture), form, scale, proportion, function, daylight, equipment and furnishings. For example, examine the design options for a lecture room that serves 120 to 150 students:

  • An auditorium design that positions all students forward to view the teacher standing in front.

  • A “thrust stage” lecture room, with rows of students around a lecture stage.

  • A “forum” lecture room that provides student seating in a horseshoe-shaped pattern with the teacher in the center.

The forum creates a more effective sense of place by recognizing behavioral patterns. The delivery methodology is enhanced because the teacher becomes a centralized participant in the educating process. The learning process is enhanced through interaction among students and the teacher.

For students who struggle in a normal school environment, a sense of place can be created in nontraditional settings with alternative scheduling and curricula. One Minnesota district has four small high schools and four alternative schools in shopping malls, and one in a converted city hall. Another district has a school in a remodeled warehouse in an industrial district.

A sense of community is created with facilities that foster interaction and socialization, belonging and connectedness. Locker commons, cafeterias, libraries, courtyards, computer centers, patios and flexible team-learning areas provide opportunities to design spaces that create this sense of community. Even a teen-parent daycare center within a school building can create a feeling of belonging. Culture and heritage reflected in a design enhance a sense of community and ownership.

A sense of ownership results from respect for surroundings. Spaces designed with aesthetic pleasantness, complementary colors in proper furnishings, and galleries or a wall of fame that display student artwork and trophies contribute to a sense of self-worth and ownership. Childcare programs that allow teen parents to attend school and care for their children also contribute to this feeling.

Both a sense of ownership and a sense of performance can be found in technology/media centers as they incorporate new technologies, increased Internet use and enhanced study spaces. Almost all schools have enhanced libraries and technology head-end areas, and many have television studios, audio-recording studios, an Internet radio station and a television station.

Technology can enhance a sense of security, as can a facility's design; it recognizes human behavioral patterns and creates spaces, corridors and lobbies with active and passive supervision.

The facility design must create a sense of presence. Students need to see and be seen to feel connected and know that others are aware of their presence. Food courts, patios and student locker commons relate to this sense. Students are bigger today than in the past — a sense of comfort is found in wider doors, corridors, locker bays, toilet stalls, cafeteria seating, auditorium seating and laboratory stations.

Feeling good

A sense of aesthetics humanizes spaces and stimulates learning, studying and socializing experiences. Being in a beautiful space rather than an ugly space enhances a student's performance. Creating a beautiful space involves designing facilities with the appropriate scale and proportion, symmetry and asymmetry, light and shadow, pattern and texture, as well as using the correct color and furnishings.

Research by Maslow and Mintz in 1956 found that the mean rating given by the subjects in a room considered “beautiful” was in the range defined as “energy” and “well-being.” The mean of the ratings given by subjects in “average” or “ugly” rooms was in the range defined as “fatigued” and “displeased.” Students in a beautiful room expressed feelings of “comfort, pleasure, enjoyment, importance, energy and a desire to continue their activity.”

A 1997 study by R. W. Phillips indicated greater student achievement in school buildings of higher aesthetic standards. Many studies have been developed on the positive and negative psychological effect of color and light on occupants in a school.

A school's physical environment must incorporate human factors in its design to respond to students' needs and personalize their environment. A student must feel valued to stimulate performance. This occurs through psychological and physiological humanizing of spatial design elements.

Sidebar: Culture, community, place

Recognition of culture and heritage enhance the sense of personal value, community, ownership, aesthetics and comfort. The design metaphor for Stillwater High School, Stillwater, Minn., reflects the city's history as a Mississippi River town. The floor plan mimics the winding river as the primary circulation route — eddies creating student gathering points and tributaries forming the classroom wings.

The legacy as the oldest high school in Minnesota is reflected in the shape of the historic courthouse cupola in the tower, housing the bell used to summon students from 1873 to 1939. This enhances a sense of community.

Students seek a variety of spaces throughout the building for studying, reflecting their need for privacy. And aesthetics is enhanced with the human scale and proportion of such spaces.

Upon entering the building, the scale details of the brick walls, floor logo, the design of the balcony railing, display cases and interior of the ceiling dome of the rotunda provide beauty. Unique sense of place and ownership is created by the visual of the motto of the first graduating class in 1876 on the balcony soffit: Non Scholae, Se Vitae Discimus; “We learn not for school, but for life.”

Sidebar: Architectural scale

Aesthetics deals with beauty — the quality that gives pleasure to all of the senses.

Architectural scale is one ingredient of aesthetics and is defined in three steps as one approaches a building: urban scale, which looks from a distance at buildings, forms, streets, parking, sidewalks, landscaping and site development; building scale, which looks up close at individual buildings and forms; and detail scale, which encompasses architectural elements that are related to the human hand in size, such as bricks, tiles, mosaics, paintings, sculpture, windows, doorways and decorative elements that scale down for variation and interest.

Scale is the size relationship of one ingredient to another. The human body is used as the measurement of scale to determine if something is “large” or “small,” “comfortable” or “uncomfortable,” visually and emotionally “pleasant” or “unpleasant.”

The 3,000-student Wayzata (Minn.) High School nestles into a hillside and a surrounding forest to create a comfortable urban and building scale. Design goals were student-centered: make a big school feel small, create a sense of belonging, provide security, maximize programs for the individual, and create physical relationships to enhance programs. Restricting one grade level to each floor minimized movement, one of the more troublesome concerns for administrators. A sense of community develops because students relate to 750, not 3,000, students.

A patio provides detail scale; students start the first day of the school year with a picnic to initiate a sense of community, comfort and belonging. Proportion is another ingredient in aesthetics and is the ratio of one element of the building with another. Building scale, detail scale and proportion work together to create a beautiful structure.

Rydeen, FAIA, is an architect/facility planning specialist and former president of Armstrong Torseth Skold & Rydeen, Inc., Minneapolis.

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