Asumag 2440 Rydeen 2013

Facility Planning: Material Influence in School Construction

May 1, 2012
Considering wood in school facilities.

Frank Lloyd Wright once said: "Wood is universally beautiful to man. It is the most humanly intimate of all materials."

A recent study at the University of British Columbia (UBC) and FPInnovations (Canada’s Wood Products Research Institute) says wood is one way to create a more healthful built environment. The study, "Wood in the Human Environment: Restorative Properties of Wood in the Built Indoor Environment," by David Fell, states "… [W]ood provides stress-reducing effects similar to the well-studied effect of exposure to nature in the field of environmental psychology. The practical implication of this effect is that wood may be able to be applied indoors to provide stress reduction as a part of the evidence-based and biophilic designs of hospitals, offices, schools, and other built environments."

The use of wood was prevalent in my elementary school, built in 1889; my junior high school, built in 1931; and my high school, built in 1892. Hardwood floors in corridors and classrooms were typical. Doors and frames, blackboard framing and chalk trays, windows, frames and sills were hardwood. Hardwood wainscots were typical with the area below covered with hardwood, and student desks attached to the hardwood floor were hardwood, as was the teacher’s desk.

But since the 1960s, the majority of school designs have made minimal use of wood. The philosophy of education institutions seemed more centered on constructing buildings that could withstand the use and abuse for many years to come, which was probably a reaction to the low-cost schools built following World War II.

Plus, many new materials, systems and finishes have been developed and available for architects to use.

Much has been written about building characteristics that affect student performance: indoor air quality, acoustics, lighting, physical safety and security, color, maintenance. Fell’s study provides evidence of the aesthetic influence of wood in creating a more healthful environment and improving performance. The study found that wood in office environments creates stress-reducing effects; it stands to reason that using wood in schools could help lower stress in students and teachers.

In January 2012, Fell commented in Architectural Record, "Any built environment activates our sympathetic nervous system to some degree … By adding natural elements back into the built environment these stress reactions can be reduced."

Appealing aesthetics attracts customers to a restaurant and retail establishments. A healthcare study found that surgical patients housed in rooms with a view into a landscaped area had shorter hospital stays, used fewer narcotics and needed less nursing care than patients who had a view of another building. If beautiful surroundings enhance healing, encourage appetites in a restaurant and persuade people to purchase products, it is reasonable to conclude that attractive aesthetics will enhance the teaching and learning environment.

Studies have shown that students perform better in beautiful spaces compared with ugly spaces. If children are accustomed to exciting and stimulating environments at a mall, theater, video arcade or fast-food restaurant, how can they react favorably to a school they find sterile and boring?

Architecture affects our intellect and emotions, influences performance and motivates achievement. The use of wood laminated beams, arches, roof decking, paneling, cabinets and floors helps create warm and friendly interiors. But the job doesn’t end there. Creating warm, friendly educational environments should embrace many elements, such as scale, proportion, shapes, form, color, texture, lighting (artificial and natural), systems, furnishings and a variety of materials

Rydeen, FAIA, is an architect/facility planning specialist and former president of Armstrong, Torseth, Skold & Rydeen, Inc. (ATS&R), Minneapolis. [email protected].

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