Sustainable Schools

Make Green Your Theme

Sustainable School DesignWe have all heard the expression, “If these walls could talk.” Well, it turns out they can. And it’s not just walls. Floors, ceilings, windows and digital displays all have something to say, thanks to the power of creative interior design themes. With proper planning and application, a green theme can be an effective tool for teaching students about issues related to sustainability and local ecosystems.

Celebrating Sustainability

What do we mean by a theme? A theme is a unifying interior design approach that takes its inspiration from a specific topic, such as nature. The theme is then expressed in multiple ways, including graphic wall coverings, flooring patterns and digital displays.

For example, at the new West Point Elementary School, located on the campus of West Point Military Academy, the interior design theme celebrates the surrounding Hudson River Valley. The five academic neighborhoods have their own branding based on local wildlife: deer, raccoons, bears, owls and snakes. The terrazzo flooring in the main commons mimics the topography of the surrounding area. In academic corridors, a custom-designed, high impact wall wainscot gives students the feeling of walking in a grassy meadow.

West Point doesn’t just celebrate nature. Theming elements also teach students about local history and culture. In the information commons, a floor-to-ceiling digital display features an interactive map of the Hudson River Valley. Teachers are able to highlight points of interest on the map and show how early settlers made their way through the valley. The display also helps to orient students of military parents (many of whom travel frequently) to their new home.

The interior design theme at West Point is part of an overall focus to teach students about their surroundings. Theming supports and enhances other design strategies, including the using of cameras to view on-site wildlife and the orientation of building pathways to lead students to secure outdoor courtyards.

Creating Resilient Themes

The benefit of theming is that it is an effective way to keep sustainability or other topics top of mind for students and staff. But the main challenge is identifying a topic that will stand the test of time. School administrators will change. School curriculum will change. Occasionally, even a school name will change. So it is important to develop themes that last. For this reason, themes about nature or science are ideal. Local history is also a good place to glean inspiration.

After you have identified a theme, make sure your designers focus on flexible solutions. A vinyl wall covering is easily replaced, a flooring system is not. If you are establishing a permanent feature, make it subtle. For example, the terrazzo pattern at West Point is simple and aesthetically-pleasing. You don’t need to understand its origins in local topography to appreciate the beauty of the floor.

The adaptability of digital displays makes them an ideal strategy for unique themes. The same display can teach students about local ecology, allow them to track the building’s energy use or simply showcase colorful patterns found in nature.

Making Economical Decisions

Like any design strategy, interior design themes must be evaluated based on their ROI. The best themes are fully-integrated into the overall mission of the school and the existing and future curriculum. Proactive planning is an important part of anticipating the cost of custom graphics. With modern fabrication methods, manufacturers can create almost any graphic or image. However, there is a cost premium for these materials. When planning for theming, make sure to factor in the extra cost. Also, be selective about where you locate images and materials. Make a statement in high-traffic spaces like extended learning areas or commons areas. Using digital displays will also reduce overall costs, as content is easily modified over time.

Developing an effective interior design theme takes time and effort, but the results can pay big dividends. If you are looking for a better way to teach students about sustainability, look no further than the wall right next to you or the floor underneath your feet.

This article originally appeared in the September 2016 issue of School Planning & Management.

About the Author

Carla Remenschneider, RID, IIDA, is director of interior design for Fanning Howey, a national leader in the planning and design of learning environments.

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