Building the Perfect School Campus

Start with the END in mind

08/23/2010  |  STEVEN TURCKES
The Perfect School Campus

Perspectives Charter School at Chicago, Illinois. The multiuse central space, the “Family Room”, graphically communicates the tenets of “A Disciplined Life” which is central to the culture and philosophy of Perspectives Charter School.

“I skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been.”

-— Wayne Gretzky
While going through some old boxes stored in our basement recently I came across one that included numerous yellowed high school report cards. Having graduated from high school over 30 years ago (yes, before the IBM PC), it was fun to reminisce. I took a very traditional line-up of classes in a very traditional sequence: Algebra, Geometry, Trigonometry; Biology, Chemistry, Physics; World history, U.S. History; American Literature, World Literature; Spanish 1, Spanish 2, etc., earning “credits” toward graduation. I sat in desks aligned in neat rows and moved from class to class by the timed clang of a bell. 

Lessons were most often mono-directional - from teacher to pupil. Except for the occasional science lab experiment, I rarely (if ever) was required to collaborate with my peers on a project. Content from class period one never spilled over into or referenced class period two, three or seven for that matter. The school year, still aligning with an antiquated agrarian calendar, started in September and ended 180 school days later in time for the summer break. Sound familiar?

I wondered about the current curriculum at my high school and quickly found via the school Web site all of the same courses that I took, in precisely the same order that I remember taking them. I thought, ‘How can that be; it hasn’t changed in 30+ years?’ ‘Is it possible that a 30-year-old curriculum still works?’ Perhaps, but the reality of our world today, and the signposts we have that provide hints about the future, suggests otherwise. In a world where the exponential rate of change is the norm, where technology dissolves boundaries, where collaboration across continents is commonplace, where workplace interdisciplinary project teams abound, where competition comes from far flung places, where the ability to create and innovate are highly rewarded - we can no longer rely on educational systems and facilities that were designed for a different time and an economy that no longer exists. We need to reboot and retool both if today’s students are to be successful in the future.

Why do our school buildings matter? Consider the facts: 20 percent of Americans spend eight hours a day or more in educational facilities; today 90 percent of our time is typically spent indoors; and perhaps most importantly, consider the reality that all learning is physical. All external information that finds its way into your brain, where it is processed, synthesized, stored, recalled, etc., gets there through your senses. The spaces we find ourselves in, especially for the important tasks of learning and developing, have a huge impact on our senses — from the colors on the walls, to the quality and quantity of light, to the quality and temperature of the air, etc. These effects are especially apparent, in both the health and mental development, of young people.

The “Perfect” School Campus

I was asked to write this article about the “perfect” school campus, from the perspective of an educational architect with broad experience across the US and abroad. This is a daunting task; for what might that look like? One definition ( “Per-fect, adjective: Exactly fitting the need in a certain situation or for a certain purpose” is perhaps a reasonable place to start as it provides several important clues. For instance, the design needs to be “fitting” and it needs to fulfill a “certain situation.” Ideally, all schools should be “fitted” to the particular needs of the programs and community it is intended to serve while also providing flexibility for future, yet unknown, programs (more on that later). A school design that is perfect for one community might be a complete failure in another that has different values, aspirations, and programs. If Nike can personalize your running shoes and Apple your IPod, we should be able to make sure that our schools are suited to their purpose and locale.

Common Ground – Design Principles

While we should celebrate our differences, perhaps we can agree on a number of principles that might guide the creation of a new school campus or the renovation of an existing campus. In that regard, I offer the following thoughts and ideas that highlight the principles of responsiveness, connectivity, agility, safety, sustainability, and engagement. However, it is impossible for a list like this in a brief article to be complete - so I encourage you to visit to post your own additional comments and ideas.


Center for Advanced Professional Studies (CAPS) – Innovation Area at Blue Valley School District, Overland Park, Kansas. CAPS provides a professional learning environment for bioscience, engineering, human services, and business to district-wide juniors and seniors. Students and business mentors collaborate at both school and workplace. Learning is relevant to student interests and work focused on real projects.

The Responsive School

The factory-model school of 60 years ago with double loaded corridors of neatly aligned and identically sized classrooms is a product of the assembly line economy that produced it. The message? Insert kindergarten student Johnny at one end, and out comes 12th grade graduate John at the other.

Just as educators must differentiate and personalize learning to suit the needs of the individual learner, the ‘perfect’ school will have the flexibility to accommodate various teaching modes, learning styles, and the group sizes that go with. Unfortunately, most schools being designed today are still of factory-model vintage with one particular student group size in mind: 25, or the size of a traditional classroom. What happens when a teacher needs to separate a group of six learners for focused work on a project? Or, when a particularly ambitious student wants to work with an industry scientist on a long-term independent project? Or, when a group of teachers want to create an interdisciplinary learning environment for 100 students? Can the school facility respond to those demands? Yes, this is about flexibility but it’s also about truly embracing and smartly designing for difference.

The school as a whole, should be designed so that a multitude of curricular or organizational models (e.g., small learning communities, grade level or thematic teams, departmental, etc.) could be implemented without changing the building. This requires spending the time to ask the right questions before the actual design process starts.

Importantly, the ‘work’ being done by the students in these communities of learners will be relevant to their interests and futures, regardless of their age. If these future workers will be expected to collaborate with peers near and far on interdisciplinary projects (yes, expect it), is the school arranged to facilitate that interaction and collaboration? The learning environment and programs it accommodates need to be forward thinking and consciously develop those relevant 21st century skills our students will need to be successful.

The Connected School

The connected school is one that connects with the world, within itself, and to the larger community. Today’s learners are connected in ways unimaginable just a few short years ago. Since its founding in 2004, Facebook has added a mind boggling 400+ million users. If it were a country, Facebook would be the world’s third largest; ahead of the United States.


Springdale Park Elementary School at Atlanta Public Schools, Atlanta, Georgia. Anticipating LEED Silver certification, Springdale Park Elementary School is expected to save 24 percent on annual energy costs while reducing water consumption by 20 percent. The school building also teaches important lessons about conserving natural resources.

The knowledgeable and appropriate use of technology is a core skill for today’s learners. It allows your students and schools to redefine the traditional physical boundaries of the school to anywhere an internet connection is available. For example, your physics class connects to and interacts in real time with NASA, your science class with the San Diego Zoo, your sports medicine class with the U.S. Olympic Training Center. Are your learning spaces equipped for this? Of course, technology is not an end, but a means to an end. It’s not about the technology, but what the technology provides — access to the world and connectivity. Our learning communities need to provide wired access for the special applications that require it, and also have ubiquitous wireless access. The network backbone should be able to support today’s technology and be robust enough to connect future technologies.

Transparency within the learning environment provides a different sort of connectedness. The ability to literally see learning happening (traditionally behind solid walls and closed doors) can be a transformative and freeing experience for learners. It can excite the mind to explore areas of interest and invite connections that might otherwise go unnoticed. This can happen through strategically placed interior windows that allow one to view into or through spaces or by allowing spaces to open into each other.

On a much more personal level it is critical that all students have a meaningful relationship/connection with an adult in their school. A responsive school environment will help promote these relationships by visibly locating assistant principal, faculty planning areas, or guidance counselor offices where the students have easy access; perhaps associated with a small learning community for which those faculty members are responsible. This also allows these communities of faculty to be organized as Professional Learning Communities focused on the success of the learners in that community.

How the school connects and presents itself to the broader community is another important consideration. Does the building present a fortress wall or a warm and welcoming gesture that invites entry and interaction? It can offer space that is used after hours for community meetings, provide adult education, community health services, etc. Some schools have even provided leasable space for compatible partners. Schools can link educational programs, especially at the high school level, with local universities and businesses. These connections often require access to the school building so security is an important, but manageable, issue. Reverse the flow, and students can access the larger community for a reciprocal benefit. The ideal school does not stop at the property line.

The Agile School


GlenOak High School — Community Library at Plain Local School District, Canton, Ohio. Via an intergovernmental agreement, Stark County District Library operates a branch library in GlenOak High School. Community members enter on the first floor, high school students on the second. A café at the community entry sells coffee, croissants and other goodies – think Borders. The public library provided additional funding to the project.

Agility, a cousin of flexibility, differs in a number of ways but most importantly in terms of speed. Think Michael Jordan and the numerous ways he had to get the ball to the basket — jump shot, drive the lane, pick and go, etc. He could make that decision in a split second after quickly assessing the defensive court before him. Access and react — access and react. Facilities should be designed with that same quick response ability: to flex and morph nearly instantaneously as the learning needs dictate.

An important consideration in the agility of any learning environment is furniture. In support of agility furniture must be easily reconfigurable in a matter of seconds. The traditional connected desk/chair is both heavy and cumbersome and should be avoided. Where desks and chairs are needed, consider separate and easily movable desks that can be arranged for lecture mode, small group work, ganged together to create a large project table in the center of the room, etc., all with the snap of a finger. Student chairs ideally offer mobility (consider castors) and flexibility and allow numerous comfortable seated positions (e.g., sitting facing both the front and back of the chair). Both desk and chair should be ergonomically designed and height adjustable to accommodate the large range of student sizes as they naturally develop. Additionally, consider non-traditional furniture options such as tables that adjust up to standing height, a bean bag chair, and other more informal options. Students, if asked (and they are rarely asked) will tell you they want variety.

Extended to the entire school, agility requires easy access to areas that see heavy use during after-school and weekend hours. These areas (e.g., gyms and athletic venues, theaters, cafeterias, etc.) should be thoughtfully zoned and have clearly signed and secure entry points so community members can enter without meandering throughout the entire school. At this larger scale, the agile school can simultaneously support a variety of needs and functions.

The Safe School

Schools, as entrusted guardians, share the concern of all parents, for the safety of our children. There are many important safety and security considerations when designing or renovating schools. Safe schools include safe school sites. From the standpoint of the Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED) principle of territoriality, the boundaries of the site should be easily discernable. Other factors include the separation of vehicular, bus and pedestrian traffic is important as is clear and visible signage. Site parking lots should be easily monitored by direct visual surveillance or strategically placed cameras. Ideally, more than one way on and off a school campus is provided to ease movement and give options for emergency vehicles.

Perhaps the most important consideration for the building is to control access through a clear and single public entry point. This should be closely monitored and designed so that visitors can not access the school without first going through a reception/check-in area. Similar to site circulation, building circulation signage should be clear and intuitive. CPTED provides many other important considerations and should be used as a guideline and checklist.

The Sustainable School

At roughly 4.7 percent of the world’s population, the United States produces about 20.6 percent of the worlds green house gas emissions, second only to China (World Resource Institute). As the economies in developing countries such as India and China continue to mature, resources will grow increasingly scarce and their allocation will become increasingly important. Collectively, we simply cannot sustain current rates of consumption. Buildings are large consumers of resources and energy; therefore, we must focus more attention toward sustainable design. Fortunately, schools across the U.S. are jumping on board as many aspects of sustainable design are hand to glove fits for schools and learning. The most popular third-party certification system that measures the level of sustainability is LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design).

Research points to the increased benefits for schools — both environmentally and educationally — to the incorporation of green strategies. Effective daylighting, for instance, has been shown to increase standardized math and reading test scores while at the same time saving energy. In a typical school, artificial lighting amounts to approximately one-third of overall energy use. If you are able, through effective daylight design, to leave those lights off, it’s a win-win; good for both students and the bottom line. Similarly, other sustainable strategies improve indoor air quality, thermal comfort and acoustics, all of which are also beneficial to students and teachers. Poor indoor air quality, for instance, is a known trigger for asthma sufferers - an increasing population among school-age children.

Other sustainable strategies include reducing water consumption (especially important in drier climates) and promoting the use of renewable resources and health building materials. The ‘perfect’ school would also enhance these strategies through the maintenance and cleaning with green products and the elimination of potentially harmful products such as pesticides.

Connecting the indoor learning spaces with the outdoors is also a soundly sustainable idea. Providing life views from inside to outside helps connect learners to the natural world, and providing physical connections to intentional outdoor learning environments will reinforce those connections. Structured learning during the school day should not be limited to the indoors.

While LEED certification is a positive step in building green schools, we can go further to buildings that are carbon neutral or even living buildings that are regenerative in nature. Moving beyond sustainability inspires us to create spaces that promote health, teach students, and add to the environment around them.

The Engaged School


Fearn Elementary School at West Aurora School District, Aurora, Illinois. These 1,000 square feet classrooms support a wide range of teaching and learning styles. Flexible furniture can be easily rearranged to create various groupings of students. Natural daylight and life views are carefully integrated.

Successful schools make school culture a high priority and school buildings and campus’ can support the culture of the school in thoughtful and meaningful ways. If your culture is steeped in the arts, does your school have the appropriate venues — both formal and informal — to celebrate that commitment? If your culture is one of active hands-on interdisciplinary project work where students collaborate, becoming teachers to their peers, work with industry professional, etc. — can you do that gracefully?

If we expect our students to be creators and innovators, where do we display the evidence and artifacts of that learning? This is critical in building self-esteem and a school ethos. Don’t think, ‘Oh, but we have tack boards in our schools!’ You do need those tack boards and trophy cases but can you display the YouTube segment produced by the video communications class for the Science Olympiad held last weekend? Your students are interested and capable of creating work in a multitude of communication forms. We need to be intentional about these capabilities in our schools. These display areas support and build a school culture.

Lastly, don’t forget about the ‘in-between’ spaces — those adjacent to and in-between more traditional academic areas. These spaces provide fabulous opportunities for students to engage in informal ways and can help build a culture of collaboration and support.  They also offer more structured opportunities such as: working on and displaying longer-term projects, small group activities, or student presentations. These spaces should be generous in quantity and offer variety in size and feel. If provided, these spaces will inspire creativity and your students and faculty will invent a multitude of uses. Make them meaningful events in the daily life of the school and places where your students can work, create, ‘hang’, and have fun as they learn a most important skill - to love learning.

Final Thoughts

Einstein once said, “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” If we are to create forward facing schools that will be relevant in the future we need to go about the planning and design process differently. This applies to both the creation of new schools as well as the renovation of existing schools. Schools of the future cannot risk being developed in isolation from their community. Bringing community members to the planning table from the project’s inception can lead to social and economic benefits not only for the school district but also for the larger public. This proactive incorporation of community in the planning and personalization of learning spaces is the first step to creating a perfect school campus – aligning the values of responsiveness, sustainability, agility, and engagement is the second. As the world continues to globalize, we must also localize to find sustainable educational solutions. The perfect school campus starts by asking ourselves and communities – “Where are we skating to next?”

Steven Turckes, AIA, REFP, LEED®AP is the national director of the K-12 Educational Facilities Group for Perkins+Will, an international award-winning architectural firm specializing in the research-based planning and design of innovative and sustainable educational facilities. In Mr. Turckes’ 24-year career his work has focused on the programming, master planning and implementation of numerous K-12 projects across the nation and abroad.

Mr. Turckes firmly believes in a strong collaborative process and his work exhibits an ability to successfully translate client goals into innovative and thoughtful school environments that are uniquely suited to each school’s specific needs. His projects have been recognized with numerous awards and honors from both the architectural and educational communities. For more information, visit
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