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Trends in 21st-Century School Design

July 25th, 2014 by

As traditional boundaries between community and school continue to blur, an evolving set of principles is transforming our thinking about what a school should look like and where teaching and learning should take place. New approaches to education and technology are also altering the nature of learning, and the classrooms that many of us grew up in — the ones with four walls, lined desks, and a teacher podium up front — no longer provide the variety of learning settings necessary to facilitate 21st-century learning.

While one-size-fits-all schools are, in many parts of the United States, still part of the educational infrastructure, a new model of smaller, more diverse learning environments is taking hold and giving parents, teachers, and students more choices about what, where, and how learning takes place.

What’s fueling the shift? In part, it’s the recognition that students learn differently and need skills like critical thinking and creativity to succeed in the 21st century. Yet it also stems from the move to teach more collaboratively across disciplines, and make learning in school more like learning in real life.

Where, exactly, is school design headed in the 21st century? What spaces do today’s (and tomorrow’s) students need to thrive? Here, a look at some of the shifts underway in school architecture — and the role these changes play in how we educate the next generations.


School as a center of community
When schools serve as the hub of the community, they become not just a place for young people to learn but also for local residents and professionals to share their interests and expertise and take part in learning opportunities throughout life. This model of school planning, known as “schools as centers of community,” positions schools as a resource for the entire community — and helps bridge the gap between students, residents, and local businesses.


Transparency as a means of security
In the aftermath of tragic events like the elementary school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, security is critical. Yet no one wants kids to go to school in prison-like fortresses. What are the alternatives?

Open, transparent floor plans that allow us to “see and be seen” are taking root. Natural surveillance is the first defense, and obstructive elements like solid walls and tall and dense landscaping can get in the way. Building orientation can also serve as a passive by encouraging focused observation, and entries and exits with interlocking vestibules connecting directly to the main office can be designed with specialized glazing to provide controlled access, while maintaining an open and transparent experience for visitors.


Planned learning communities
The concept of “school” can connote images of institutionalized, rule-driven places that don’t exactly inspire curiosity or learning. As research reveals that cultivating comfort and community at school can lead to higher engagement levels, better attendance, and even better grades and graduation rates, the concept of “learning communities” has emerged as a solution. Here, the focus is less on things like behavior and learning for the sake of a good grade, and more on learning for the sake of learning. Classrooms tend to be clustered around learning or collaboration centers, and schools might be organized by team houses (such as grades 1 through 6) centered around a common area.

Essentially, the goal of a learning community is to foster an overall culture of learning, and architects, not just teachers, are keeping this in mind. Take, for example, the idea of a “building as a learning tool.” Here, the physical school building serves as an instructional tool, with features like exposed heating and cooling systems providing fodder for lessons in electrical engineering, and beams and columns inviting students to learn about construction and physics.

The concept of kit-of-parts school architecture is another emerging trend. A departure from traditional prototype templates, a kit-of-parts is likened to that of a Lego set, providing a kit of highly flexible components that can reduce construction costs, while maintaining the ability to adapt features to different sites, conditions, and constraints.

Schools within schools
Similar to learning communities, schools within schools are a series of smaller, theme-based schools housed in a larger school. Typically, these schools combine core academic learning with hands-on experience in an occupation or industry, such as environmental science, communications and media, agriculture, or health and science.

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The key, with this model, is to connect learning with life after school (i.e., careers and community involvement). Think of the California-based Da Vinci Schools, which partner with local colleges and companies to prepare students for 21st-century careers. Here, students mix project-based learning and the standard college preparatory curriculum. They solve real-world problems and learn not just from teachers but also from community members, scholars, and industry professionals.

Toward sustainability
The numbers are staggering: 50 million students and five million faculty and staff members enter a public school every day. School enrollment is expected to increase by five percent through 2023, and more than $30 billion is projected to be spent annually on design, construction, and maintenance.

It may come as no surprise, then, that schools represent 12 percent of the country’s water use, 39 percent of carbon dioxide emissions, 65 percent of waste output, and 71 percent of electricity consumption. All of this puts pressure on operational budgets to design with long-term sustainability in mind.

In many ways, sustainable school design is the more fiscally responsible option, as the net financial benefits in lower energy and water costs, improved teacher retention, and lowered health costs save schools directly about $12 per square foot, which amounts to roughly four times the cost of incorporating sustainable features.

Green buildings save at least 30 percent in terms of energy costs, reduce carbon emission by 35 percent, reduce water use by 30 to 50 percent, and save cost on waste by 50 to 90 percent. It’s the vision of Marks Thomas and many others worldwide that within a generation, we can have green schools for every child.

The need to understand the transformation taking place in our schools has never been more urgent.  Schools are a valuable community resource. As such, well designed schools need to be a top priority.

Are you considering a school design project? Marks Thomas can help. Contact us today to start the conversation.