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18 Reasons Why Design Matters

Why an aesthetic and practical learning space really makes a difference

By Victor Rivero | April/May 2004

Can more daylight in classrooms actually make students brighter? Can a change in paint freshen up test scores? Can the curve of a wall guide students onto a path of higher learning? When it comes to student achievement, does design really matter? Or do pretty schools do little more than hammer at budgets and nail the taxpayer? Read what leading school architects, design experts, organizations, principals, superintendents, researchers, and teachers have to say about the value of an aesthetic and practical learning space. Here's a statistic from the American Association of School Administrators (AASA) to keep in mind as you run down the arguments for smart school design: Nearly 55 million people, or 20 percent of the U.S. population, spend their days inside school buildings.

1. What Children Deserve
"Children are superb observers. They are cognizant, perhaps more so even than we, of the messages that we send through design. If we design something reluctantly, halfway, or after the fact, students may get the impression that that for which we design is unimportant. Even as we attempt to teach them to incorporate, celebrate, or be sensitive to certain ideas and concepts, we may be contradicting ourselves in design. In truth, our schools should set positive examples and lead the way in pursuing new frontiers."
—William Bradley, architect, VMDO Architects, Charlottesville, Virginia

2. Active Learning
"Students need the right kinds of learning environments to do their work. Traditional classrooms force the worst kind of learning, so you have to redesign in order to create environments for active work by students and in groups."
—Bob Pearlman, school design expert, Napa (CA) New Technology High School consultant

3. Community Building
"The strategy of building community through small-school programming and design is minimizing—and in some cases erasing—many problems schools face."
—Craig Mason, architect, DLR Group, Seattle

4. Reengineering Teaching and Learning
"School architecture can encourage—or discourage—powerful teaching and learning. Our nation's new wave of school construction and renovation, estimated to approach $100 billion over the next five years, offers new opportunities to rethink school architecture—from the arrangement of desks and chairs to the design of entirely new schools."
—Milton Chen, Ed.D., executive director, The George Lucas Educational Foundation

5. Melding Design & Learning
The Henry Ford Academy is a 400-student public charter school located at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan. The school was designed to be integrated with the museum and was built for 20 percent of the cost of a comparable stand-alone high school. This collaborative effort has created an ideal connection of school and museum environments for students.

6. Higher Test Scores
According to "The Relationship of School Design to Academic Achievement of Elementary School Children," a 2001 study of 24 elementary schools in west central Georgia by the University of Georgia's School Design and Planning Lab, design variables alone explained nearly 12 percent of the variance related to higher achievement scores.

7. Efficient Energy
School districts can save 30 to 40 percent on utility costs each year for new schools and 20 to 30 percent on renovated schools by applying sustainable, high-performance design and construction concepts, such as windows, the layout of a classroom, and the type of lighting. Savings are generally greater in new schools because it is possible to eliminate inefficiencies right from the start.
—Sustainable Buildings Industry Council and the "Whole Building Design Guide"

8. Lighting Bills
Durant Middle School in Raleigh, North Carolina, uses state-of-the-art lighting controls, daylighting, and an energy- management system that saves the school district $77,000 each year.

9. The Impact of Color
One prescription for success—using the right color paint—includes a list of possible side effects that reads like a miracle drug. Certain colors, such as pinks and various shades of red, can positively influence attitudes, behaviors and learning, attention spans, academic achievement, and excitement. Some colors may reduce absenteeism and promote positive feelings about schools.
—University of Georgia School Design and Planning Laboratory

10. Hyperactivity
"Fluorescent lighting may increase stress and hyperactivity in learners."
—Jeff Lackney, Thirty-Three Principles of Educational Design

11. Physical Impact
The physical environment can be considered as the second teacher since space has the power to organize and promote pleasant relationships between people of different ages, to provide changes, to promote choices and activities, to spark different types of social, cognitive, and affective learning. The space within the school mirrors the ideas, values, attitudes, and cultures of the people within it.
—Henry Sanoff, "School Building Assessment Methods," North Carolina State University School of Architecture, College of Design

12. Student Achievement
In a 1996 study of Virginia's large, urban high schools, student achievement in above-standard buildings was 11 percentage points higher than student scores in sub-standard buildings.
—Eric Hines, "Building Condition and Student Achievement and Behavior," Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University

13. Future Civic Participation
"The schools we build now will be with us for the next 50 years. Facilities that act as true community centers serve the broader societal goals of providing the setting for meaningful civic participation and engagement at the local level."
—Jeff Lackney, Thirty-Three Principles of Educational Design

14. Mind-Body Connection
"There is no mind-body split—we are integrated beings. We are intimately connected with our environment: the air that we breath, the vistas before us, the light we absorb, and the pathways that we take as we move through space. Design impacts all of these things. Design and schools are connected just as our minds and bodies are connected."
—Randall Fielding, school architect, Fielding/Nair International

15. A School is a Ship
Peggy Bryan's Sherman Oaks Community Charter School in northern California is cozy, spacious, airy, flexible—and, structurally, it creates a sense of community. The strong design of Bryan's schools has helped her bring a community together. Bryan says, "School design is to educators as ship design is to sailors—sink or swim is why it matters."

16. Function Can Follow Form
"Our experience in designing the new Met School in South Providence convinces us that place matters as much as the learning opportunities provided. Indeed, the spaces available for learning often determine what learning opportunities can be provided and how students can engage them. Spaces for working in small groups, for individual work, and for presenting student work would support the true goals of personalization."
—Elliot Washor, co-director, The Big Picture Company (Providence, Rhode Island), andschool reform leader

17. Of Course, Design Matters
"Does the design of the place where we live impact our quality of life? Does the design of the place where we eat impact our dining experience? The quality of the environment that we're in goes all the way from 'Do I like this person I'm in this room with' to 'Is there enough lighting and room here?' All of this goes through the same perceptor for all of us, no matter where it is."
—Steven Bingler, renowned school architect, Concordia Architects, New Orleans

18. Including Community
"The best schools are designed when architects, planners, and engineers spend a lot of time talking to people in the community about how they view their school and what they think about the school as an institution in the community—not just as a place where children go, but where adults are involved."
—Rachel Tompkins, executive director, Rural School and Community Trust

About the Author

Victor Rivero is a contributing writer to Scholastic Administr@tor and former editor of Converge magazine. He lives in Los Angeles.

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