School Architecture: Numerous Factors at Play

By Lisa Kopochinski

When it comes to school architecture, there is no “one size fits all” approach. A variety of design elements are at play — no matter if the facility is an elementary or middle school, high school or college — largely due to the various socioeconomic backgrounds, physical characteristics, learning styles and emotional intelligences that exist within the educational sphere.

“School architecture is about a holistic approach to designing educational environments,” said Caroline Lobo, Assoc. AIA, an architect with Orcutt | Winslow, based in the firm’s Los Angeles office.

“Schools are not just spaces that house students and staff; they are environments that inspire, invigorate, create memories and shape personalities. Design has to cater to these variables that create rich and diverse experiences for all kinds of students and staff.”

Tom Hille, AIA, concurs and says design elements that work best for school architecture are those that directly support the broadest possible range of learning opportunities.

The author of Modern Schools: A Century of Design for Education, published this year by John Wiley & Sons, Hille’s current research focuses on a broader continuum of themes in school design that shows continuity between great schools of the past and what is occurring today.

“For the modern educational program, these include design themes that encourage community use, school identity, a variety of learning activities, socialization, flexibility and multiuse, the integration of technology, sustainability and learning environments that are comfortable, inviting, healthy and safe,” he says. “These themes are not new to the world of school design. In fact, they are deeply rooted in educational reform that began well over a century ago, parallel and complementary to the development of modern architecture.”

These themes were especially well represented by two schools he designed as former principal-in-charge of design at Integrus Architecture in Seattle.

Terrace Park K-8 School in Mountlake Terrace, Wash. was completed in 2002 and White River High School in Buckley, Wash. was completed in 2004. Both, Hille says, are modified pavilion schools with classroom clusters organized around shared, multi-use flex spaces that support a variety of learning

“North-south orientation provides controlled natural daylighting throughout, as well as protected views and access to the outdoors. Public spaces are zoned to encourage community use, while maintaining privacy and controlled access to academic areas. Natural materials like wood, brick and integral-colored concrete provide durable finishes that are non-institutional in character.”

Terrace Park School features a series of unique “butterfly” roofs that collect and channel rainwater runoff to student gardens. Surface drainage on the site is a learning feature that highlights how the water is collected, treated and subsequently channelized into a nearby salmon-bearing stream.

White River High School takes advantage of a dramatic natural site to establish close relationships between learning activities of the school and outside.

“The feature design element is an open-student commons and community hall at the heart of school — a multi-use activity space that opens dramatically outward toward an adjoining student courtyard and views of Mt. Rainier to the south,” he said.

Interactive Design

Lobo said that the firm is very pleased with how Mariposa Hall at Estrella Mountain Community College in Avondale, Ariz. and Papago Elementary School in Phoenix, Ariz. turned out.

Mariposa Hall’s 25,000-square-foot expansion sits on the foundation of the existing campus while looking forward to future technologies.

“The driving concept behind the project was to transform the campus of buildings that educate and inspire,” says Lobo. “The real excitement lies in the interactive design features that educate an individual on how a building can interact with its regional environment to provide a more comfortable human experience.”

The play of light throughout the campus, exposed roof water collection, seamless indoor-outdoor connection are all key integrated concepts epitomizing the 21st century learning environment, she said.

The project is also a culmination of green building ideas that speak to the notion of environmental stewardship by engaging the local climate and conserving resources.

“The building is actually skewed from the rest of the buildings on campus, calling to the shift in campus planning from this point in time. The siting of Mariposa Hall breaks from the angle of the buildings on campus and is purposefully sited with north and south prominent orientation to better work the sun.”

Papago School, built in 1953, is deeply rooted in the surrounding community. These connections are made through the transformative history of the site and the scale and culture of its setting.

“The generations of neighboring families who attended this school are vital,” says Lobo. For this reason, thematic traces became the inspiration for a new 21st century school campus design.”

She says the idea of transparency mediates between the public and private spaces connecting the school to the community, thus creating an open and pleasing environment with multi-functional indoor and outdoor spaces.

“We are proud of how each of these projects have come together holistically. From educational imperatives, cultural context to environmental stewardness, these projects encompass all of the elements that make them great learning environments.”

Building as a Teaching Tool

Dave Schrader, AIA, managing partner at SchraderGroup Architecture in Philadelphia cites building as a teaching tool, multiple scales and sustainable technologies as the design elements that work best in school architecture.

“A building presents a myriad of opportunities for learning if we take the elements and technologies of the building and allow them to teach the occupants about their benefits and functions,” he explained.
“Sustainable technologies, building system design, and structural design are just a few of the things we can focus on within a building, and by promoting observation and interaction between student and building, use as an educational tool.”

His firm’s projects typically focus on small schools, schools within schools, multi-age learning and multi-sized social spaces. He says that all designs, however, take into account that trends don’t last forever and that flexibility for adaption to future educational concepts is key.

“Our designs develop based on what we hear from the educators and the end users, but we always keep in mind that infusing multi-sized social spaces ranging from small group independent learning to large group social spaces throughout a facility ultimately will provide the most flexibility.”

Two projects his firm has designed that are especially representative of “first class” educational architecture are the Bucks County Community College in Newtown, Pa. and the Yorkshire Elementary in York, Pa.

“The existing building at BCCC suffered from numerous constraints,” said Schrader. “The facility did not include enough usable space for academic programs and administrative functions. It also provided no opportunities for student life or up-to-date technology. As a nondescript office building located behind a shopping center, the facility lacked any kind of campus identity.”

To rectify this, Schrader and this team designed and renovated the 1980s building. The design takes the newly-renovated existing building and links it with the new addition through the creation of a common area on the lower floor and a rooftop plaza with a series of vertical connectors that provide access to the various levels of the building and exterior.

“The rooftop plaza — a kind of ‘green roof’ that utilizes vegetative materials combined pavers — also provides a distinctive entry point required by the college,” said Schrader. Overall, materials used are respective of and complementary to those of the existing building exterior.”

The building orientation also maximized the surrounding views, including that of an historic covered bridge. Transparent railings were used along the student plaza so as not to impede the views of Perkiomen Creek below.

Another “first class” educational facility Schrader is proud of is the nearly 70,000-square- foot, 375-student Yorkshire Elementary School. With the two main design goals to support the “school within a school” concept and to function as a teaching tool, Schrader said to facilitate the former, spaces were designed to allow for interaction and learning opportunities in a cross-grade instruction format.

“And supporting the latter, features such as exposed mechanical systems, sustainable design and detention pond wetland plantings were included,” he added.

Additionally, the facility also features a “Main Street” that runs the length of the school and serves as a divide between public and academic spaces. The building embraces a learning cluster design that focuses on K-2 grouping with teaching takes place through multi-age learning concepts. The media center is also positioned at the core of the learning community.

Cluster Design Encourages Learning

Similar to Schrader’s projects, Jeanne Jackson, a partner at VCBO Architecture in Salt Lake City, Utah, said Endeavour Elementary in Kaysville, Utah, is uniquely innovative in that it architecturally supports a project-based curriculum, utilizing multiple, flexible group activity spaces. The design incorporates color-coded classroom wings that break the student population into smaller groups, provide a sense of identity for students, and act as a navigation tool for visitors.

“Learning must be viewed as an event, a celebration and an active engagement of all of the senses,” said Jackson. “Teaching techniques are evolving, mainly because the student has changed dramatically, and technology is critically important to the new learning environment. “

The school divides students into four smaller groups, each clustered around a central open space that offers a gathering area, daily access to technology, and space for many different learning activities.

Park City High School is another project that VCBO designed around an integrated curriculum concept that reinforces collaborative learning and teaching. The design divides the large LEED Silver certified facility in Park City, Utah into smaller populations utilizing “education communities” more conducive to current models of learning environments. These informal, central gathering spaces form a nucleus for surrounding science labs, lecture rooms, and various classrooms that bring students and teachers together.

“Critically important is the idea of creating a place that is engaging and inspiring to a completely different type of learner,” said Jackson. “As we look at the evolution of our young digital natives and consider the incredible differences in young people today — versus young people of only ten years ago — we find immense change. Young people today have their own mobile phones, communicate in completely different ways. Their attention span is typically shorter, but broader in scope. We feel strongly that creating an exciting building filled with inspiring theming and varied learning opportunities is critical to this mission.”

Added Schrader, “We believe academic design truly is the design of the future as it provides the environment in which today’s students develop into tomorrow’s leaders.”