Following the Tone of an Era

Green building consultant, Lindsay Baker, traces the history of school design in a recent study titled, “A History of School Design and its Indoor Environmental Standards, 1900 to Today.” The study focuses on school design and how it relates to energy consumption, ventilation, heating, air quality, lighting and acoustics. Here are excerpts from an interview with Baker on what the next 150 years could look like.

School designers in the United States always had the urge to experiment with new designs but this has come in increments, says Baker in her analysis of the history of school design in this country. “Technology is starting to allow us to break out of the box, and hopefully this is leading to big improvements in school design.”

This conversation is happening at a time when digital learning and new learning modalities are making skeptics think that school buildings may become non-existent. However, Baker says an educator talking to a group of students in physical space is here to stay. So will standards like LEED and CHPS that serve as educational tools for designers and building professionals. Standards will provide targets and benchmarks but will not take over the ingenuity of the designer.

Baker’s study reveals that the 1995 Government Accountability (GAO) report had far-reaching impact on the way schools were being built in the United States stating, “This study has helped advocates immensely in convincing people that we have a problem with the quality of our nation’s schools. There has been a mentality, which seems to come from a belief in American resourcefulness, that we don’t need clean, safe, healthy school buildings because we can manage just fine with subpar ones.

The GAO report helps us clearly tell the story, that these are not minor scrapes and scratches, these are deep wounds that will get worse the longer we ignore them. It also helped put a price tag to the deferred maintenance needed. Any time we can help people understand the scale of the problem, it makes a big difference.”

The study takes a systematic look at different stages of school design and the 1980s seem to be a real downer. “I believe that the issue of the 1980s being a downer was a bigger issue than just school buildings — the aftereffects of the baby boom were still being felt across the economy,” she says.

“So I think you would find that young people growing up during that time did show, generally, signs of being somewhat deprived. I think of movies like The Breakfast Club, where the antagonist is this school principal, and the school library is essentially their prison. The personalities in that movie were archetypes of the generation,” she continues.

So, were students in the ‘80s more successful or intelligent than previous generations? Baker says that’s very difficult to say objectively, and obviously too difficult to say whether deteriorating school buildings had a noticeable impact on anything. “In general, school buildings tend to follow the tone of their era, so at that scale, it’s impossible to say what impact they had.”

On the contrary, there was a great deal of emphasis on student learning during the ‘60s and ‘70s. Baker says, “It was just that they were more interested in experimentation, creativity, trial-and-error, as means of getting better educational systems. Other eras have tended to be more calculated, iterative and incremental. The ‘60s and ‘70s were a time when the nation was testing out a theory, that all of our past knowledge was irrelevant, and that we should be free of the past.”

Baker predicts that the next frontiers in the green building movement will be more usable controls, better envelopes, better daylighting design and healthy building materials. The focus will shift from equipment efficiency to ease of use in managing buildings in a sustainable way.

The study tracks school design and the green building movement. There is no evidence to show that the design of a school building has an impact on student learning. “I don’t think we can say that in general, children have become better learners than they used to be because of design,” she says. “There’s no evidence to support that, and certainly no way to prove that it was the design of the classroom, rather than the teacher, or the parents, or the communities that children learn in.”

Baker also discounts the thought process from some quarters that future school buildings will look like Panera-style restaurants stating, “Why would people enjoy spending time in a Panera restaurant if they weren’t about to eat a delicious sandwich, or if it didn’t smell like freshly baked bagels? Is it really that nice in there? I honestly couldn’t think of a single design element that would be worth poaching, that wasn’t already something we did in new schools.”

Among recent design trends, Baker says the concept of malls with multifunctional areas is something that school designers could look for inspiration. However, they are still not next generation classrooms. “We are still figuring out what works in flexible classroom design, over the 30-plus year life of a classroom. Part of this issue is whether we even need a single room for a single teacher who brings together groups of assigned students to learn for a specific set of time. But these new ways of learning should be (and have been) championed by the education community, with the design community as an important collaborator,” she says.

So, what’s a big lesson learned from the past? “Environmental determinism isn’t a great attitude; architects can’t be the only ones deciding how learning should happen in a school. If you build it, they may not come. But we should all be ready to think creatively, as the education community comes up with new, innovative models for learning, so that we can respond elegantly and design school buildings that fit changing learning modes and practices.”

In conclusion, we can be assured that school buildings are here to stay despite the digital revolution. “Humans love coming together to learn. We love being in the same room so that we can engage in tactile learning, rich discussion, physical education, social learning and many more activities. We may have ever-increasing sources of information, and an incredible ability to communicate globally, but I think there will a place for school buildings for many years to come,” says Baker. 

Sarat Pratapchandran is a writer specializing in education, environment and healthcare. His website is www.lettersnatcher.com.

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