With teacher burnout, record-high staff turnover rates and pandemic-related learning loss, K-12 schools across the country have been undeniably tested in recent years.
Today, designers have a unique opportunity to help schools reimagine their traditional approach to education and retention. We share a common goal to provide high-performing learning environments that stimulate long-term academic success, and together, we can chart an action plan to achieve that.
Our approach should leverage a new level of standards in educational visioning and facilities planning and widespread community engagement to advance K-12 program development.
Planning Ahead to Achieve the Best Value Out of the Capital Investment
An intelligent, well-executed vision starts with thorough preliminary conversations with district stakeholders. By asking the right fundamental questions, we can envision an efficient project strategy that optimizes how funding is used for the construction and future operation of school facilities.
Should we spend precious capital to flatten a site to build a prototype school model, or can we create a building design and site plan that works with the existing topography?
Instead of performing a demo and replacement, can we renovate the existing building using adaptive reuse so it can better serve modern educational needs?
Rather than large classrooms, would it be more cost-effective to design classroom-adjacent breakout zones or small, multi-functional spaces to address the school’s programming needs?
These foundational questions allow us to make the most use of each project’s available capital and design accordingly to the school’s specific needs and values.
Actively Listening to Stakeholders Will Produce High-Quality Design Solutions
The most enriching learning environments are born when we dynamically engage user groups. In addition to hearing from district leaders, comprehensive school facilities planning should also consider the voices of the actual students, teachers and community members that are going to be using the spaces.
Incorporating these varying perspectives into design plans can ultimately help create the most functional facilities possible for end users.
Creating Healthier Interior Environments Impacts Students and Staff
Studies show that when schools experience substandard indoor air quality, problems arise with academic retention, student performance and overall occupant health. To combat this issue, we must re-consider critical elements such as fresh air distribution; the condition of existing air supply and return pathways; air filter quality; and the air system maintenance plan. Schools should also install carbon dioxide (CO2) monitors in classrooms or a new heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) system with integrated CO2 monitors that automatically control indoor air quality.
Furthermore, our planning efforts also seek to prioritize the seamless incorporation of quality daylighting in schools to increase cognitive performance. This causes us to take a keen look into each building’s solar orientation, window placements and use of sun-shading devices.
Supporting New Opportunities with Modern Learning Environments
The pandemic taught us that remote and hybrid learning technology can be useful when applied appropriately. Capitalizing on this knowledge, we emphasize the thoughtful integration of lesson-capture devices within classroom design plans so that lessons can be recorded, managed and streamed to a broader audience.
Flexible learning environments are important for student engagement. Therefore, we recommend that classrooms be supplied with height-adjustable mobile furniture and visually monitored breakout spaces that support a variety of interactive learning.
Additionally, designing learning environments with state-of-the-art digital tools helps equip students with the necessary skills to succeed in emerging workforces. One way to achieve this includes integrating manufacturing tools like computer-controlled metal-cutting water jets and advanced commercial 3D printing machines into traditional shop classrooms to teach Additive Manufacturing. Another way is to expand computer and technology curricula with game design and programming courses that engage students and leverage in-demand eSports initiatives.
Elevating Design with an Accredited Learning Environment Planner (ALEP)
An ALEP professional designation looks to illuminate evidence-based design practices that push the boundaries of contemporary educational spaces. Applying this credential to projects helps underscore a deep understanding of academic pedagogies that ultimately inspire us to create better schools and meet the needs of diverse communities.
Our reimagined K-12 planning approach starts with asking questions, listening to stakeholder input and sometimes, challenging preconceived ideas. Above all, this revitalized planning process empowers us to deliver the best possible outcomes for all students, faculty and community members, together.