Learning from Design
- By Sean O'Donnell
- April 1st, 2017
Sustainable design has had a dramatic impact on
the design of educational environments. Communities,
districts and associations across the country are actively
engaged and committed to enhancing the performance of our
school buildings. Impressive rigor, resources and effort are being
leveraged to achieve ambitious targets like Net Zero Energy (NZE).
We now have the opportunity to leverage enthusiasm, new resources
and tools associated with NZE to achieve an even broader set
of goals that specifically target our clients’ core missions: education.
What if, in conjunction with resource conservation, we focused the
same intensity and rigor on demonstrably enhancing educational
outcomes through environmental design? This more expansive,
ambitious goal could be called Net Positive Education™.
How would we begin? Like NZE you would define desired
outcomes and determine the design strategies that could have the
greatest impact on achieving these outcomes. Once the new facilities
are open and in use, you could then confirm the results.
For outcomes, we could begin by looking at data that schools
already collect, like test scores, enrollment, absenteeism, retention,
graduation rates, and incident reports. We could then look to identify
research that establishes linkages to performance metrics. For
example, the literature on daylight is well established. There are
also new insights from the Harvard School of Public Health into
the relationship between carbon dioxide and cognitive function
and air pollution and chronic absenteeism and the body of directly
relevant research is growing. Building from criteria established
by the Center for the Built Environment, we can define Indoor
Environmental Quality (IEQ).
In addition to IEQ, high-performance school design addresses
other factors including support for teaching and learning, community,
and safety and security. While IEQ factors tend to be universal,
the latter are more significantly influenced by cultural factors.
These are defined best for each project during the programming
phase and information can be gathered through observation, focus
groups and pre-occupancy surveys of the staff and students.
Let’s look at a few examples of how this has worked in practice.
At Dunbar Senior High School, in Washington, D.C., we were
commissioned to replace an existing Brutalist school building with
a new facility that ultimately was certified LEED for Schools Platinum.
From the very beginning, the focus was on leveraging design
to create high-performance learning environments. Orientation,
acoustics, daylight, visual comfort, views, thermal comfort, indoor
air quality, community building adjacencies, place-making and
subtle security measures were all prioritized in design.
Qualitative data on existing performance against the high-performance
criteria was collected through a pre-occupancy evaluation
(PreOE) of the faculty and students. These surveys were complemented
by post-occupancy evaluation (POE) after a year of occupancy.
Finally, we reviewed performance data provided by the school.
The findings reinforced many of the design priorities. Quantitatively,
after moving into the new building, the school returned the
highest test score gains of any high school in the city. Enrollment increased
by 20 percent and graduation rates increased by 10 percent.
As with NZE, NPE results depend on the actual use and activities
occurring within the building. The surveys provide insights into
changes in activity and use influencing these results. For example,
students reported a significantly greater sense of community — 70
percent greater in the new building than the old — and faculty and
staff reported a significantly enhanced sense of safety and security.
The lessons learned at Dunbar were used to refine our NPE
evaluation process and also to inform the design of our next major
school replacement project, the Martin Luther King Jr. School in
Cambridge, Mass. Refined PreOE and POE surveys were complemented
by a new array of tools that would allow us to complement
the qualitative information gathered from the users with hard data
on Indoor Environmental Quality of both the existing and the new
Preliminary data from this process are also showing positive
indicators that the emphasis on the creation of a high-performance
learning environment will lead to enhanced educational outcomes.
For example, 100 percent of survey respondents agree that the
design of a school building creates a pleasant place to work and
learn, and 76 percent of the respondents report that new gathering
spaces successfully support a sense of community in new building.
Within the new classrooms, teachers reported a 66 percent greater
degree of satisfaction with visual comfort. These conclusions were
reinforced by the data collected on glare in the pre- and postoccupancy
The next steps in the process are to dig into the school’s performance
data and evaluate whether these positive indicators are having
a net positive impact on education. As we continue to pursue
Net Zero Energy, let’s broaden the conversation beyond its notable
conservation goals to also realize an even greater potential — to
contribute to Net Positive Education™.
This article originally appeared in the April 2017 issue of School Planning & Management.
Sean O'Donnell AIA, LEED-AP, is a principal and practice area leader of primary and secondary education with Perkins Eastman in New York.