BACK TO BASICS: a look into educational design

The development of a K-12 school building has evolved over the years.  The design priorities of the past have changed and advanced.  One thing that is apparent is that there will always be change in Education.  Change has raised concern among educational planners and architects regarding the degree a school’s environment influences student outcomes, behaviors and achievement.  Tremendous effort is placed on creating the ideal learning environment for students so that they will thrive and better interact with their piers.  According to Peter J. Arsenault, FAIA, NCARB, LEED AP, who’s education course, “School Buildings in 2015: Designing for Students,” featured in McGraw-Hill Construction’s Continuing Education Center, “the ability for a space to be flexible may play a direct role in allowing students to be more engaged in learning better.  If a learning environment can be easily and readily adapted to meet the particular needs of a grade level, a specific class, or even a particular student, might it not follow that their engagement with the environment directly facilitates engagement with learning?”  This question posed by Arsenault should be the underlying aim of design.  If a student’s engagement with learning is connected to their engagement with their surroundings then educational design should focus in the direction of asking, “what’s best for the student?”  We need to turn our attention towards the ways students interact with their school in order to answer this question.  Listed below are six elements to be mindful of in educational design.

1. The Way Students Learn

The ways now that students are learning and engaging with each other requires a different approach to design.  Teachers and administrators do not want to suppress their student’s ability to learn but instead, to encourage their curiosity and instinctive need to pursue knowledge.  Flexibility and adaptability are key in creating classrooms and common spaces that support the current learning methods.  One strategy in exploring new design that allows itself to mirror teaching methods, is the use of movable walls and furniture.  Depending on the grade level of the students, classrooms and common rooms should be able to merge with each other so that teachers have the flexibility for individual or small group interactions, or large group activities.  However, not every room enables itself to be combined with another.

photo courtesy of Tubelite, Inc. Sliding partition doors create small study rooms or a larger collaborative space.

Photo courtesy of Nana Wall Systems, Inc.

There will always be a demand for categorically specific classrooms.  A technology lab cannot combine with a shop class in the same way that a gymnasium and an art studio would not be successful.  Some things cannot be integrated so how do you make good use of the space?  Some areas do lend themselves to be combined into a multipurpose space.  Adjoining certain classrooms together with movable walls allows flexibility in how the space is used.  In the same way, movable furnishings offer impactful combinations of seating, work surfaces, and storage solutions that allow the teachers and students to mold their surroundings to reflect the context of the subject matter.

Another teaching tool that is changing the traditional arrangement of classrooms is the use of wireless devices.  Teachers and students are using tablets, laptops, and smartphones for taking notes and learning electronically.  Because of this, students are moving around the school and classroom with wireless connections, which creates freedom and flexibility in the use of wall partitions.  “Movable portions of walls and sliding doors don’t need to provide wired connections, but they do need to allow appropriate separation of space when students need to work in collaborative environments on group assignments on their own devices” (Arsenault 2).  Wireless connections creates great freedom and flexibility since the need for walls to have outlets is less demanding, thus allowing some walls to not be a permanent structure.

2. The Way Students Move
Movement is a key factor in how students interact with their school.  The process of moving, way finding and controlling access into school buildings is an ongoing public concern.  Because of this, attention needs to be placed on the design of doors.  Entrance doors need to be both open and inviting for students, parents and community members while still being secure and restrictive to maintain safety.  Doors also need to be able to endure high traffic abuse while remaining functional.  Specialty exit devices are often required on entrances and corridor doors to meet egress codes.  Differing times and locations require doors to be locked and secured, so doors need to be designed and configured to foster appropriate movement of students while still maintaining control for safety.  “Many schools are incorporating an electrified system that includes a central console for remote control and monitoring of doors around the school building.  A well-organized installation for individual or multi-door systems may include locking devices, access controls, and station controls all coupled with consoles for remote control, annunciation, and interface with fire and life safety systems” (Arsenault 2).

photo courtesy of

photo courtesy of Solera L.L.C.

Once inside the building, students, teachers, staff and visitors all move through a school building by walking.  Schools need resilient flooring that can withstand high foot traffic areas yet able to be cleaned easily.  Flooring should also be non-toxic, non-porous and inhibits microbial growth.  Also consider that different rooms call for different materials.  Choir rooms require flooring with acoustical qualities while a cafeteria needs a flooring surface that can be cleaned easily.  Flooring can also bring another aspect of drama by incorporating design displayed in the floor.  School seals, athletic mascots, and school colors can add interest and foster school spirit.  These are all important factors when considering how students move around their school.

3. The Way Students Hear
After discussing space planning and movement within an educational system we’ll transition towards the specific sensory needs of students.  Our auditory senses can either enhance or distract our experiences. Because of this, acoustical control of school spaces are an important design issue.  Eliminating background noise, that originates from within walls or outside of the building, allows students to hear better and teachers to speak in a normal voice tone.  One method of reducing noise is to separate classrooms acoustically by using noise-reducing gypsum board that is specifically designed to reduce sound transmission between two adjoining spaces.  Also, utilizing quieter HVAC systems is another available strategy.  There are multiple products and systems that deliver acoustical excellence and operate at decibel levels quieter than a whisper.

4. The Way Students See
Light is the most important environmental input, after food and water, in controlling bodily functions.  Lights of different colors affect blood pressure, pulse, respiration rates, and brain activity.  Because of this, natural light provides a necessary relief for students rather than causing distraction or disruption – a common argument of the past.  Although some may still claim the lack of energy efficiency as the deterrent for extra natural light, manufacturers have developed many ways to address energy performance.  In fact, most glass products are produced to bring better learning environments.  “By using glass products with varying degrees of visible light transmission and solar heat gain coefficients, architects can use the sun’s energy to create a passive heat source in cold climates or to limit solar heat penetration in warmer climates” (Arsenault 3).  Further advice is given in a study conducted through University of Salford in Manchester by Professor Peter Barrett, Dr. Yuan Shang, Dr. Fay Davies, and Dr. Lucinda Barrett that addresses the connection of students to their environments.  The study, “Clever Classrooms,” suggests to avoid over-sized windows when facing South in order to reduce glare.  Instead, receiving abundant daylight from the North, East or West drastically reduces glare during hours of occupation.  This solution will balance the quality of light pouring into the school.

Photo courtesy of

Photo courtesy of Collins Elementary

Additional tips for implementing windows in a design is to try and incorporate not only windows, but an enjoyable view.  These views should be functional and allow the student to easily see a long distance outside of the classroom.  This enables students to rest their eyes when they have the ability to fixate on a distant object.  “Doctors have known that eyestrain and visual acuity problems can develop if students have only short distance views available to them.  It is suggested that in order to keep eyes healthy, long distance views are needed” (Arsenault 3).  These views are not limited to the exterior but should also be combined with interior spaces which permits light and views shared between one space to another.  The views should also be enjoyable.  Overlooking a wall or parking lot is not ideal and gardens, wildlife, fountains, sky or mountains is preferred.

5. The Way Students Breathe
Being in any enclosed space for too long can create unwanted things in the air especially if your surroundings already include toxic materials like VOCs, BPA and formaldehyde.  These can have negative health impacts to anyone who encounters them.  A few steps can be taken to mitigate air quality issues such as, providing assorted ventilation options by installing window openings at different levels, increasing the ceiling height where possible, and installing mechanical ventilation if window options are not available in order to circulate the air.  Placing an air quality monitor in the room to indicate poor air quality to the occupants works as well.  Anything to reduce the spread of bacteria are also good considerations for increasing good air quality.

Better material selections that don’t contribute to the problem of indoor air quality is becoming a common practice among architects.  One way to be more conscious in selecting quality materials is through flooring.  “Many school buildings have concrete floors, which require the use of water in their pouring and curing.  If floor coverings are put down too soon then some moisture may get trapped in the concrete and can eventually cause the deterioration and failure of the flooring, not to mention the creation of mold in the flooring material.  In those cases, the floor covering needs to be removed and new flooring installed—a rather expensive and disruptive procedure that could have been avoided” (Arsenault 4).

6. The Way Students Feel
Noted in, “Clever Classrooms,” the temperature in a room influences a student’s ability to stay alert in school.  “As temperature and  humidity increase, students report greater discomfort, and their achievement and task-performance deteriorate as attention spans decrease.  Thus, cooler is best in terms of pupils’ learning efficiency.” (Barrett, et al., 22). The ability to control the temperature in a facility is related to the design and construction of exterior wall assembly.  The combination of thermal insulation and the correct air, water and vapor barriers allows the control of heat, moisture and air through the building.  Looking to the interior, HVAC systems help regulate air flow and can create a comfortable indoor environment.  Currently, certain HVAC systems enable specific zones to be more precisely controlled and have personalized temperature settings.  Window location and shade control also helps regulate temperature.  If possible, orientate windows to the North, East or West to prevent the classroom from overheating.  For South facing windows install appropriate shading devices.

Photo courtesy of

Photo courtesy of  Tubelite, Inc.

 

Finding the right balance between all of the conditions that affect a student’s ability to learn cannot be summarized in a single strategy.  There are dozens of factors to consider in order to improve a learning space.  These factors are apparent in a new construction or existing school building.  Either way, there are numerous resources to help benefit the students, teachers, administrators and community, and hopefully bring a positive experience.  Architects have the responsibility to ensure that the correct materials are being used in every design decision.  At Mountain West Architects we strive for good design in hopes that the result is a functional building ready for any activity.  If you’re looking to improve your educational space give MWA a call.  You can contact us here.

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