Building the adapting school

08/21/2013  |  By KERRY LEONARD
School Environments

School districts can create high performing, dynamic school buildings able to change moment to moment and over time that will enhance learning and elevate the human experience. There is however a lack of understanding of how to plan facilities to embrace a continual improvement process to reach long-term aspirations. 

The current process for renovating and building schools also contributes to a reluctance to encourage regular adaptations and modifications to learning environments. Unfortunately, some districts are still building schools exactly as they were 50 years ago without rigorous thought as to how facilities support learning and teaching. Some existing facilities are “tweaked,” creating innovative spaces for new programs within a traditional school building.

Some new well-designed facilities create dynamic spaces that support new programs but the question is how well these buildings will adapt to changes in the future. The sense of accomplishment that a successful completion of school construction and renovation project brings masks the need for dynamic learning spaces and continual improvement of educational facilities.

A great opportunity for kick starting the transformation to dynamic school buildings happens when a school needs to be modernized or rebuilt due to changing demographics, aging infrastructure or programmatic change. Any need can and should be an opportunity to rethink the entire facility, to declare what the vision for the future is and how to achieve that vision over time. This initial event should be the beginning of a process of continual improvement, the school facility is no longer a rigid collection of walls, corridors and fixed elements but a resource molded and reshaped as necessary for a dynamic learning environment. Continual study and improvement are required of educational spaces, learning activities and educating.

Facilities do affect teaching and learning: space matters, we know this. We know it on a physiological level where well-designed spaces control temperature, glare and acoustics and create a positive impact on learning. We are starting to study and understand how the spaces we design affect learning activities, although this is hard to measure and quantify. Educational environments need to build on the research approach used for other building types. A more rigorous research process will allow data to be used to make better educational facility decisions.

In health care environments, evidence-based design employs research to make design decisions that improve health outcomes. In business workplace strategies for office layouts affects the top line and the bottom line. In grocery stores, fresh baked bread is located at the front of the store to stimulate the senses; the milk is at the back of the store extending your time in the store. Sugary cereals are intentionally put on shelves at the eye height of young children. It is too much to advocate for learning spaces designed with at least the same level of attention to the correlation of environment and human experiences as our grocery stores?

The Design Process

The process by which change is introduced and delivered affects the outcome. The design process is a tool and design thinking is a strategy that educators need to understand to better use facilities as an additional resource in the learning and teaching process.

During the process, the design team: school and school district leadership, educators, community members and architects together become educated about challenges, they explore options and co-create a facility that is driven by vision, based on data and responsive to current needs and future possibilities.

At the beginning, the team needs to articulate guiding principles that are non-negotiable. The design process takes time; it is an iterative process involving leaps forward, critical examination and steps back. Visits are necessary to completed schools, offices, museums or coffee shops to explore, observe and understand what others are doing. Multiple options, what-if ideas and scenarios are part of the process, study and critique of prototypes uncovers new possibilities and builds design experience and skills. The options start to narrow themselves when evaluated using the guiding principles and a rigorous review process. The team needs to trust itself to know when to make a decision and move forward from the concept phase through preliminary and then final design phases.

The design of learning spaces has become more granular with detailed attention required to the furniture and technology; these components cannot be an afterthought but considered early on in the design process.

Critical Roles

The change process requires a team effort with multiple roles, three critical roles that increase the likelihood of success focus on the vision, leadership and implementation. There are individuals who may be able to fill all three roles but in most cases, multiple individuals fulfill these roles at various times throughout the design and implementation process.

Visionary Catalyst

The vision for change ideally comes from within the school or school district however, many times an outside visionary is required. It is important to the change process that the school embraces, mold and internalize the vision so that it becomes their own. The visionary has a clear idea of the right path to follow and is able to articulate a message that resonates and inspires a desire to change.

A visionary acts as a catalyst, and like a catalyst does not transform in causing a reaction in others. The ability to articulate a vision without getting caught up in the details brings clarity to the vision and a steadfastness to the process; the unwillingness to accept compromise drives others to work harder to solve problems and to not accept easy solutions that do not address all of the difficult challenges.


Recognizing the need to change and uncovering a viable path to change for their school should be everybody’s goal but it needs to be someone’s job. Leaders are able to rally the team around the vision and build consensus within the multiple shareholder groups. Educators, parents and communities all have a stake in the process and each group requires an amount of rational discussion, preaching, cajoling, begging and demanding. Leaders can take the vision and guide the team to articulate principles that express goals used to evaluate multiple options and solutions.


As ideas are evolving the task of instituting change requires hard work; uncompromising attention to detail and a willingness to seek better answers to the problems created by conflicting desires and needs. Implementers find ways to finance the work, meet statutory and contractual requirements, and meet schedules with committed adherence to the vision.

Leaders need to be internal to the school district, visionaries can be internal or external and implementers need to be both internal and external.

The Role of the Architect

Architects provide leadership of the design process, support the school’s leadership and are necessary for a successful implementation phase. Good architects have extensive experience in designing and maintaining facilities as a pre-requisite, they have listening and leadership skills and most importantly they have the skills to collaborate with community members, owners and users to facilitate an inclusive design process. Good educational architects also have an understanding of learning and teaching and the impact of the physical environment on learning activities.

In designing schools, architects work with educators to understand their educational vision and make the best possible decisions for today’s needs and the best possible decisions that will allow others to change spaces in the future, learning spaces can and should be designed to change both hour-to-hour and year-to-year.

Intentional Design

Space and place are resources created and molded with intentionality and purpose. Great learning spaces are complex environments, interconnected to the learning activities they support. In the past, architects and educators have gathered their experiences to help make design decisions, this process of rigorous antidotal research is no longer sufficient. Today’s architects and educators need to use research techniques and environmental psychology; research can include observation, post occupancy evaluations, and satisfaction surveys of teachers and students.

We are in the infancy of studying the relationship between learning and environment, as we build new buildings and renovate old, we need to go back and look at what we have done. The affect of space and place on learning needs to be studied documented and reported on to build a base of knowledge. Gathering and analyzing extensive data across multiple buildings can help educators understand how space is a resource, a tool to assist them in achieving their goals.

Continual Improvement

With key players and a well planned and executed design process projects move from a vision to reality but that cannot be the end of the process. The evolutionary process of continual improvement to the design of learning spaces is based on success and failures, trial and error, data gathering and research.

Our school construction funding systems and our very nature of thinking lead us to believe we can solve big problems with grand gestures. We need big ideas and a big vision but we need to challenge big solutions, meaningful change happens over time and is the culmination of a series of well thought out solutions guided by a vision. Time is a resource, use time to test ideas, first on paper and then in the physical environment and then regularly make refinements based on better data. We need to think about continual improvement of our educational facilities to adapt, change and evolve along with our changing ideas of pedagogy.

The keys to continual improvement are research, rigor and intentionality of design. Buildings do not directly increase test scores but buildings intended to do what educators need done enhance better teaching and effective learning.

Kerry Leonard, AIA believes that we have the responsibility to make better places of learning through design. Kerry advocates for creating excellence in school facility design through research on the impact of the physical environment on learning and teaching. He promotes the use of a continual improvement strategy to adapt, change and evolve learning environments to maintain quality facilities and align those facilities with changing pedagogy. Kerry can be contacted at [email protected].
Comments & Ratings

  9/16/2013 9:32:41 AM
Richard Young 

CEO Young Equipment Sales 
Ok, so where does all this information go now....who is collecting