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Architect of Environment

Overlooked in Conversations About School Design: How They Should Make Students Feel
By Nicholas Garrison
10-Nov-21
Architect of Environment


Bilkent Erzurum Lower School Kindergarten Studio, Erzurum, Turkey.  Kindergarten classrooms are conceived as simple, robust, multi-level creative studio spaces that are awash in natural daylight and feature local natural materials. (Photo credit: Thomas Mayer)
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Architects like me, who specialize in the design of schools, are often rewarded with the next school when we solve a familiar puzzle: meet budget and schedule, update and improve standards for comfort, technology, and aesthetics—and make everything robust and durable. We succeed when we are able to insert some of the latest trends in school design and put everything together without adding size or cost “per seat.”

Lost in these discussions is a question I have been asking myself my entire career: what is the impact of architectural design on the way students feel about the schools they attend?  Welcome? Important? Loved and respected—or “just a brick in the wall?” Discussions around how our physical designs can reinforce positive feelings for students seem elementary and yet seldom happen during the planning and design process.

These conversations need to expand and change, but where to start?

Backing up a bit, we’ve known what doesn’t work for a long time now. We feel lousy in direct proportion to how closely a school’s design resembles the typical industrial model that encompasses most of the schools built over the last 100 years. Made up of mostly identical classrooms lining two sides of a hallway, its layout and construction invite comparison to prisons, made more so by lock-down drills, layers of surveillance, and even guns on display.

Suggestions for Change

While there isn’t a specific set of alternative design strategies that will make students feel more supported, engaged, and joyful (a new model replacing the old), as a life-long student and architect of schools, I can share some insights that I know will help steer the decision-making process in the right direction.

Start with Values, Not Data

Architectural design conversations almost always start with a list of requirements: spaces, budget, schedule, and a proposed site; data for the architect as puzzle-solver to dive into. Since this data comes from previous experience, it’s no wonder solutions resemble past models: they’re baked in. To get to better outcomes, we need to start with the values we want our schools to embody and have them inspire new data.

Due in part to wider conversations we are now having around subjects like social and climate justice, racism, equity, inclusion, and forms of oppression, we’re asking new questions that are starting to result in new ideas.

Something as simple as valuing kindness can drive design choices for lighting, materials, colors, textures, graphics—even school mascots. Universal access and respect for each student’s unique learning needs translates directly into democratically designed spaces used by everyone all the time, and spatial variety: reflecting and honoring that we all learn differently. Equity and inclusion manifest themselves in design solutions that deliberately eschew symbols of oppression (a fast-growing field of study), and in things like non-gendered bathroom design.  

Putting values first actually takes a lot of the burden off of design to solve everything, which is why a values-first school can be wonderful even if the architecture isn’t.

Design for Students First, and Don’t Pander

Most of our schools are designed around adult control. Adults control drop-off, security, classrooms, hallways, libraries, lunch, and recess. Some of this surveillance is needed, but its ubiquity is demeaning and disenfranchising for students. Remember when libraries were designed to control behavior and protect books? That’s all changed, but schools haven’t much. Designing schools as places of support rather than control gives more agency to students and makes them a more fun place to go.

The act of entering a school is a great place to start. My colleague describes one school whose armed guards know every child’s name and background: greeters and friends replacing police. Once through the door students typically pass by the administrative office suite—more adult eyes and control. We need to prioritize students instead. Schools that feature arrival spaces or landscapes that are inspiring and welcoming to students and their friends is essential to making them feel valued and that they belong.

When we do design with students in mind, too often we pander with an adult’s vision of what a school should be: giant crayons, buildings in the form of toy blocks, lots of primary colors, and student artwork everywhere (for the parents, mostly). We know that students respond with better imagination and curiosity in spaces that inspire everyone like science museums, libraries, and even today’s malls and spas. They engage and ooze cool--and exploring them is fun. A simple loft space is sometimes all that’s needed.

Designing for students means providing surroundings and furnishings that outwardly respects and stimulates them: the more “living room” and “café-like” the better. We need to reject the ecosystem of utility, replace adult supervision with adult attention and stop doing all our shopping at “school furniture” stores, where inspired design seems to go to die.

Blur and Make Everything a Studio

One approach for “doing more with the same number of square feet” has been to replace single-purpose spaces with active ones that multitask and are used throughout the day, “blurring” boundaries and functions and breaking institutional stereotypes.

An example of this kind of space is a “commons,” which can simultaneously serve as the school’s lobby, “piazza,” event space, dining space/café/study space, and as a community hub in the evening hours. Other examples include combining the library and cafeteria (books and food), music with dance and movement spaces, and especially replacing hallways and their lockers with learning hubs filled with a wide variety of technology and furnishings. We should imagine every space a learning space at multiple levels.

Applying lessons into how we learn: through curiosity, social interaction, authenticity, and failure; we know that at every level a creative, studio-like space promotes deeper learning. Toddlers and PhD’s alike explore and learn with all their senses through making and doing in spaces that promote conversation, immersion, and play. A creative studio environment also tends to be more physically robust and flexible than a typical classroom and can easily adapt to changes in pedagogical content and technique: a win for both learning and future-proofing schools.

Embrace Contextual Differences

Every school’s surroundings are different—climatically, physically, culturally, and historically. Design solutions should draw from these differences to be beautiful, purposeful responses to a place or community.

This approach means no two schools will be alike, and it is a perfect fit for designing in harmony with a specific location. A school’s architecture should embrace its site’s most vexing challenges, such as a steep topography or a vulnerability to flooding or earthquakes—resulting in design that solves and teaches, building with ramps, integrating wetlands and ponds, and putting engineering on display.

Embracing a school’s special cultures and rituals unlocks additional opportunities for unique design. Meeting the wider needs of the community for gathering and socializing, celebrating food, music and other forms of cultural expression are too often relegated to a display case or bulletin board. We should accommodate and honor these rituals and design around them.

Let Nature Take its Course

A final obvious suggestion is to incorporate nature and the natural world into our earliest design conversations and consider the space outside the building as an important and integral learning opportunity.

Schools that integrate nature reduce stress, improve health, and inspire curiosity. Gardening and food growing teach biology and nutrition and can be done anywhere—including rooftops and windowsills in urban settings. Water management, migration patterns, pollination, and larger things such as habitat decline and changing climate health are experiential lesson opportunities. And there is added value for involving the entire school community in a dialogue about environmental design strategies.

Related, the use of local, natural materials in our designs impart depth, soul, and history and supports an ethos of holistic well-being while undermining institutional banality. Humans have an intrinsic attraction to natural materials such as wood and stone, and these materials tend to age gracefully which is a perfect fit for any school.

Conclusion: Seek the “Anti-School” School 

If there’s a general rule from all I’ve learned through 40+ years of trying to make great schools, it’s the very simple big idea that our design conversations should focus on things that make students loved, supported and welcomed. An essential truth is that “one size fits none,” and it follows that a guiding principle for successful school design is to strive to create the opposite of the industrial school model we’ve inherited: the “anti-school,” school. If your school design starts to look like a one you’ve seen before, you’re probably on the wrong track.

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Nicholas is a Partner and the Design Director at FXCollaborative Architects in NYC: a 140-person firm that enjoys a stellar reputation for making buildings of exceptional value and design. Over his 40+ year career he has designed museums, libraries, signature campus buildings and more than 25 K-12 schools, mostly international schools. Throughout his career he has fought the notion of schools as “facilities”—seeking to put students first and make them beautiful, inspiring places that are connected to their communities and cultures.




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