Architects Go Back to School

Rising to the design challenge of creating safe, efficient and inspiring environments for children

For almost sixty years, ever since the post-World War II Baby Boom created a classroom shortage of unprecedented proportions, school design has received a tremendous amount of attention within the architecture and education communities. So why, then, after decades of study, is there still no one “correct” way to design a school? One of many answers to this question is that architects, educators, and parents are by nature optimistic. Because they believe what they’re doing for their children ought to be the best it can be, school design will always evolve.

Efficiency is probably the greatest enemy of innovation in school design, and changing what is known to be efficient—long corridors with classrooms on each side of them, for example—means that those who hold the purse strings must take chances. Unfortunately, it is notoriously difficult to definitively establish what makes any kind of environment successful. Anyone brave enough to add to this already challenging task by trying to demonstrate how an environment should be arranged to significantly enhance academic achievement has taken on one tough assignment. It isn’t easy to convince a district to build a school so it can be used to study a hypothesis—good research takes years and there is always the chance that the results won’t be as hoped. The urge to try new things, even if they are not costly, nearly always clashes with risk aversion.

The probability that established design practices will be overhauled is greatest when changes in social, technical, and environmental norms collide at a given point in time. This is such a moment. One catalyst for change is a new concern about the environmental impact of buildings. The need to make our schools sustainable and energy-efficient, and in turn more healthy places to occupy, is undeniable. This requires a rethinking of the design of the school building envelope, which materials are specified for it, and what its mechanical and lighting systems will be. Better alternatives are already in limited use, and their benefits are proven.

Another change is that advances in computer technology have occurred more rapidly than anyone could have ever imagined—the word “Internet” does not even appear in a book on school design Architectural Record published in 1993. Educators are always among the first to envision the ways in which technology can be used to teach children and to envision how space should be reconfigured to enhance the experience, and architects need to be attuned to their thinking.

Where the opportunity is

In recent years construction activity has been robust. According to McGraw-Hill Construction Analytics’ Special Sector Study: Education, which will be released in January of 2007, in spite of a downturn early in the decade, between the beginning 2000 and the end of 2005 a total of 44,537 K-12 education projects broke ground with an associated construction cost of $167.1 billion. Of these projects 9,064 were new construction, costing $79.1 billion, while an additional 21,188 projects were alterations to existing structures, where no additional square footage was added, with a construction cost of $31.9 billion. And, during this period there were a total of 14,285 addition projects which cost $56.1 billion.

How much construction occurs in the future depends on two things: enrollment and funding. The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) says that between 1990 and 2003 K-12 enrollment jumped by an impressive 18.4 percent over the previous 13-year period, and that’s left a quarter of U.S. schools overcrowded, with enrollment averaging 5 percent over intended capacity. It only expects enrollment between 2003 and 2015 to grow by about 5.6 percent. Still, that is an increase of 3.1 million students. According to the Special Sector Study, “that figures to an additional 260,000 students each year. If the average class size is 25, the U.S. will need to build more than 10,000 K-12 classrooms each year just to keep up with enrollment growth.”

This offers those responsible for school design a tremendous opportunity, especially in the area of building sustainable schools. About 65 percent of designers, contractors, and owners say they expect educational facilities to be the largest growth sector for sustainable construction, according to a Green Building SmartMarket Report published by McGraw-Hill Construction and produced in conjunction with the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC). A similar report focusing only on the green school construction market is due out in the first quarter of 2007.

Portable school buildings are a reality, and efforts to improve them have received a lot of attention. This design by Hord Coplan Macht, a Baltimore architecture firm, won an honorable mention in a competition sponsored by the Montgomery County Public Schools, in Maryland, the USGBC, and Council for Educational Facility Planners.

As part of this new interest in sustainability, the USGBC’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design rating system, known as LEED, has emerged as a widely accepted standard for green building design. To date, the USGBC has certified about 30 schools under its LEED for New Construction (NC) system. Another 750 schools, representing about 27 million square feet, are in the pipeline for possible certification.

Undoubtedly, certification of schools will grow after release of a new version of LEED tailored specifically K-12 projects. The new system, slated for release in February, will look very much like the LEED NC product, but will be tweaked to address issues of particular importance in schools, such as children’s sensitivity to chemicals, classroom acoustics, and mold prevention, says Lindsay Baker, USGBC LEED for Schools program coordinator.

Proponents of high-performance schools say that the greater first costs associated with building green are minimal, according to a new report released by Greg Kats, managing principal of Capital E, a green building energy technology consultancy. The study, which drew data from 30 green schools across the nation, found that the buildings cost less than 2 percent more than conventional schools, or an additional $3 per square foot, but provided savings more than 20 times as large (see table, right). The financial benefits quantified by the report included those that accrue directly to the school, such as lower energy and water cost, lowered teacher-turnover rates, and better occupant health. It also quantified benefits to the broader community, such as the savings associated with a reduction in required public infrastructure. It is hard to imagine that innovation in the design of sustainable schools should be thwarted by these practically negligible costs.

The design of sustainable portable classroom structures is also receiving a great deal of attention. The Modular Building Institute estimates that today approximately 300,000 modular classrooms are in use. They are a reality in a world where too often rapidly-shifting student demographics meet insufficient budgets and strict teacher-student-ratio regulations. The Baltimore architectural firm Hord Coplan Macht, was recently honored for its entry into a design competition for portable classrooms. Its concept for a transportable classroom has many options for wall infill panels, windows and doors, as well as sustainable features such as photovoltaic panels and a green roof.

Changing the design paradigm

In 1960, the American Association of School Administrators published, Planning America’s School Buildings. Its authors take such a patronizing tone toward the desire of teachers (and similarly school board officials) to collaborate that it is painful to read. They wrote:

Unfortunately, all too often in past years teachers have wasted time set aside for educational planning in playing at being architect. Few teachers clearly visualize space and the implications of space. They were not trained to do this. In planning, therefore, teachers should do that part of the job they can do best—describing the teaching process—and leave to the architect the responsibility for designing space that will house these activities now and in the future.

This was not the only place where the AASA got it wrong. The book frequently refers to school buildings as “the school-plant,” as if schools were factories where educated citizens were manufactured. Luckily, educators and designers are increasingly moving away from the factory model that defined K-12 facilities for most of the 20th century, toward buildings with highly flexible spaces intended to encourage collaboration and project-based learning.

In October, the American Architectural Foundation brought together more than 40 architects, educators, design experts, and students for a three-day “Design for Learning Forum” event in Minneapolis. They looked ahead to the future of school design with an emphasis on improving the link between design and student achievement. Attendees produced 10 key recommendations worth the notice of anyone planning a school construction project. They noted that the very definition of “school” is being called into question as the scope of the learning environment continues to expand. Participants recognized that in new, media-rich learning environments the school may become just one of many educational hubs as, students move in and out of the building with hand-held devices to learn anytime and anywhere.

But, as participants in this forum pointed out, there are still significant challenges to improving the design process. In many states opportunity to design great schools is currently thwarted by regulatory policies that can encourage the design of mediocre schools. Implementing reform is often difficult in a context of inappropriate standards, security consciousness, and stakeholders with conflicting agendas.

Nevertheless, there is much reason to be optimistic about the abilities of students, parents, teachers, architects, and school officials to take advantage of research—and personal experience—that shows just how strong the link between school design and student achievement really is. They also recognize that our nation’s schools must serve multiple civic purposes, and act as centers of community. This is one place where the AASA’s 1960 publication did get it right: “Schools of today must keep in tune with needs of our times and preserve the underlying values of American democracy.” That is, educational facilities should demonstrate a commitment to active citizenship, diversity, equity, and access to new learning opportunities.

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