School Design Inspired By Nature


When we heard the news of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, the K-12 Education Studio at Cooper Carry, like the rest of the world, took a moment to reflect. We hit pause in the midst of several important projects to convene and discuss the profound impact this had on us as designers of spaces that hold our country’s most precious resources: our children who are the future. As architects and designers, it’s a responsibility we don’t take lightly.

Through an academic lens, more fueled by curiosity and without personal agenda, we turned to Mother Nature’s time-tested lessons for new ways of viewing the challenge.

While the conversation outside our walls was taking more politicized positions, we endeavored to rise above politics and take our conversation to another place. With student safety at the forefront of every one of our designs, we wanted to specifically study how passive design features can make our children safer, even how it might prevent, stop or slow down outside threats. Within our discussions, we acknowledged that many such design features are possible, but at the same time, are often obstacles for regular day-to-day supervision and control. We also considered how these features might affect the welcoming nature of a school to its students, staff and visitors. As architects, we know that it often comes down to cost, and since every school district has different budgets, we wanted to consider a wide range of options beyond the “easy button” of high tech alarm systems and bullet resistant glazing.

Through an academic lens, more fueled by curiosity and without personal agenda, we turned to Mother Nature’s time-tested lessons for new ways of viewing the challenge. We asked, “How can we apply what nature already knows and has proven to our designs and design-thinking?” And while there were no perfect answers, the thought of sparking new conversations and doing something to make a difference inspired our team.

What we know about nature is that it is proven to prevail; it is constantly evolving to not only survive, but thrive in a range of environments, sometimes against the odds. Applying what we see in nature to man-made designs is called biomimetic design, or the study of nature and its process, systems, and elements for the purpose of finding sustainable design solutions to our human needs and challenges.

We explored some basic principles of predator/prey interaction for insight and inspiration.

  1. Camouflage as a security and evasion. Just like octopuses, skates and sting rays use camouflage to escape predators, what might adapt from that model? Could we use electrochromic windows that turn opaque to prevent intruders from seeing in but still allow for ultimate transparency, with a clear line of sight connecting students to the hallways, the outdoors, etc. in a normal, non-threatening situation? It might be as simple as adding interior window blinds or making floor pattern designs that signify which students are out of site from windows in the corridor.
  2. Collective security.
    According to BrightTALK, “Prairie dog calls contain specific information as to what the predator is, how big it is and how fast it is approaching.” How can our response match the detail and speed of Prairie Dogs? How can we design to foster faster response times? Although technology might be the answer here, we need to acknowledge the need to increase lines of sight in order to pass along information between staff. Additionally, how can we revisit the way teaching spaces are arranged and connected?
  3. Hard exterior; interior sanctuary.
    We know that children learn best when they feel safe. Similar to a box turtle, we see an opportunity to design a secure exterior that can close down in an emergency, but still provide a biophilic sanctuary in the center of the school. By providing interior courtyards, schools can have the environmental benefits of daylight and landscape, while providing a secure space for students and staff. Moreover, unique landscaping features can create outdoor spaces that contain and secure.
  4. Controlled access.
    Although sally ports and chain-link fencing have their place in school design, we can look at less obvious options to accentuate the overall design. Sandy Hook Elementary has a beautiful biophilic design solution with retention swales and bridges. This forces everyone through one point of entry that can be controlled and the swale puts the intruder at a disadvantage to the other entry points as they are lower.
  5. Crime Prevention Through Environment and Design
    Can give us some direction, too. Line of sight, clear areas around the immediate structure, and balanced lighting all contribute to security and have been implemented in college campuses, military bases and other secure facilities.

    We strongly believe in two truths: schools should be safe and putting learning on display will inspire students to thrive. These truths should not be mutually exclusive. The latter means learning is best achieved in transparent, collaborative spaces that foster ingenuity. Through thoughtful design, educational spaces can strike a careful balance of being safe and secure, while also fostering creativity and openness among students and staff.

    Not one solution is perfect. Meeting the challenge ahead requires that we collectively dig deeper for answers and get creative with combinations of solutions. We owe it to our children and the generations of children to come to explore the most innovative design solutions, whether it comes from new technology or the time-tested processes of our natural world.

Robert (Bob) Just is Principal atCooper Carry’s K-12 Education Studio.

Contact Us

"*" indicates required fields

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.