Alan Ford is a practicing architect and author of the recent books, Designing the Sustainable School and A Sense of Entry – Designing the Welcoming School.
There was a period in architecture some 80 years ago when the K-12 school had an architectural richness that commanded a presence within its community. The architecture was consistent with the importance of the activity it housed. Today countless K-12 school facilities are built merely for basic functional accommodation with little in the way of architectural merit, enhanced learning capability or environmental responsibility.
There are many inherent challenges in designing a K-12 school today that may contribute to this underperformance. The life expectancy of a new school facility is anywhere from 50 to 100 years while educational teaching strategies are changing with much more regularity. Architects are often faced with trying to satisfy the immediate programmatic requirements while still attempting to design a facility that will stand the test of time. Compounding this process is what are often very limited budgets. In the United States most K-12 public school projects are funded through the sell of bonds voted on by the general public. In order to insure voter approval, the required bond amounts are often reduced before going to the voters, leaving a significant amount of unmet need. The consequence is construction budgets are stretched thin in order to spread the so-called “improvements” around as much as possible. This in turn leads to a significant amount of focus on first costs. Furthermore, many of the larger school districts prescribe numerous guidelines and processes to foster standardization within the district, while well intentioned, do not lead to innovation or creative thinking.
However, we may be at a crossroads. Current interest in sustainability and “evidence-based design” is promising and may result in a more empirical and global perspective for design decisions. Recent research has led to a better understanding of the connection of architecture to the environment and of the mind to architecture. Sustainability and Neuroscience are at the forefront of this movement.
The most visible of these is sustainability, which is beginning to redirect the way we think about the act of building and living. A more holistic and longer view is emerging as a core value when setting parameters for design and budgeting K-12 school projects. Sustainability has provided us with the client interest and research necessary to begin to better integrate buildings within the natural systems of light, energy, water and climate. Using the sun as an example. By harvesting the suns light thoughtfully we are able to not only offset energy loads by turning off electric lights, but according to a study conducted by the Heschong Mahone Group, actually improve test scores. The use of Photovoltaic technology (often one of the first items value engineered out of projects) continues utilization of this sustainable resource.
Projects such as The Willow School by Farewell Mills Gatsch Architects and The Aspen Middle School by Studio b Architects and Hutton Ford Architects are recent examples of this holistic longer view approach.
Evidence-based design, as described here, is where design decisions are informed and supported by scientific study such as the previously referenced daylighting research by the Heschong Mahone Group. Another example may be found in the pioneering research being done by the Academy of Neuroscience for Architecture (http://www.anfarch.org/). The Academy’s mission is “to promote and advance knowledge that links neuroscience research to a growing understanding of human responses to the built environment”. The architect, John P. Eberhard, FAIA - founding president of the Academy of Neuroscience for Architecture has recently written a book on this subject called “Architecture and the Brain” (http://www.architecture-mind.com/). This growing body of research should provide architects, facility planners and key decision makers with defensible verifiable information to design environments that enhance the learning experience and improve the health and wellbeing of its users.
In summary, worldwide K-12 represents one of the largest sectors of construction activity. The decisions we make today will have significant consequences for the environment, the students, teachers and the community at large for years to come. With advances in technology, ongoing research, and environmental awareness, we as architects, have at our disposal the tools to affect positive change; to create high performance schools that teach and integrate in with their natural and manmade environments. Maybe, just maybe….leaving a rich architectural legacy for others to enjoy 80 years from now.
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