Shaping Education with Flexible, Expansive School Buildings

Schools across the country wait and watch as the pendulum of education continues to swing back and forth. Capturing that perfect balance is critical in making a number of long-term decisions – chief among them crafting a dynamic, comfortable environment for students.

The keys to creating timeless school design, whether it be brand new or a renovation, is to think flexible, expansive and easily modified. Consider, for example, that today’s kindergartners will retire in 2075, introducing their own children and grandchildren into the education system in the decades ahead. Unfortunately, while we know what education looks like today, we don’t know what it will look like tomorrow. Currently, 60 percent of the jobs students will have in the future haven’t even been invented yet. A school isn’t just a building, it’s a place that opens up the world to lifelong learning.

Curriculums are changing, too, challenging educators to re-imagine the space of new and existing buildings. Fifty years ago, the basics were reading, writing and arithmetic. Simple, boxed classrooms suited the educational objectives of the time. Jump ahead to today’s emphasis on STEAM – Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics – and the need to design open spaces for messy, hands-on learning is the new initiative. Learning means encompassing more each generation. I believe today’s learning should look more like living.

While a new building project often affords schools fewer design restrictions, the challenge for most of today’s schools is reconfiguring space in older buildings. In most schools built within the 21st century, education spaces make up approximately 50-60 percent of a building. With the right approach, the right architectural partner can find additional square footage and boost educational space beyond 75 percent in existing buildings.

In Liberty, Missouri, EPiC Elementary successfully worked with Hollis + Miller Architects to do more with less while continuing to support its curriculum goals. Specifically, EPiC was challenged with creating a dynamic learning environment for 300 students with less square footage and less budget than any of the district’s other projects. While undergoing a renovation, EPiC was also rewriting its curriculum that allowed educators to explore a studio-based design. In particular, two sections of each grade level share an oversized classroom with access to a variety of flexible spaces for collaboration and break-away learning. Hollis + Miller Architects re-imagined the traditional media center, gymnasium and cafeteria, reducing square footage in those areas to provide adaptable spaces for daily specials.

Learning happens everywhere and in the right environment, students are immersed to the point that it feels natural and almost unnoticeable. Educators partner with architects to be good stewards of timeless, educational treasures in every community in order to create dynamic spaces that support customized learning for every student – learning that inspires an entire community.

Michelle Chavey, AIA, CEFPI

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