Evidence-Based Design of Elementary & Secondary Schools

Article by: Peter C. Lippman | Associate Director | EIW Architects

The frequent comparisons people make between the design of some schools and the environments of prisons or factories are just one indication that architecture can affect the learning experience. Thanks to the health care industry’s demand for research on how building design affects the delivery of care and patient well-being, there is now a movement in education calling for evidence-based design of school structures. Architects in the education field should keep in mind several important factors when taking an evidence-based approach.

Stressing Evidence over Opinion

One of the greatest challenges an architect has in taking the evidence-based design approach is being certain that the theories informing his or her work are truly evidence-based, according to architectural expert Peter C. Lippman. Many so-called theories that guide the basic principals of architecture are actually “normative.” That is, they are based on the opinions of many respected architects over time, rather than being derived from experiments and survey data. For example, a number of architects have popularized windowless classrooms because they believe that the distraction of the window kept students from focusing on lessons; but experimental evidence collected since has proven the opposite is true. Students work much better in the presence of natural light.

Social Dynamics Change Design

Once an architect is certain of how to gather research data for an evidence-based approach to school design, he or she has to consider the different dynamics that are at work in a school environment as opposed to other environments. The majority of research that has been done on the effectiveness of architectural design with regards to human processes is in the health care arena; however, the goals of social interactions of a school are significantly different from those in health care. According to Lippman, the differing social dynamics between student peers and between students and facilitating faculty and staff have an impact on the achievement of school goals. An architect wishing to take an evidence-based approach to the design of a school should consult not only research on the impact of structures on workflow and team processes, but on community building and relationships on the peer and mentor levels.

Other Modern Considerations

Two important considerations that factor in any evidence-based design approach for schools are technology and sustainability. Technology has become a critical component in education across all subject areas and is rapidly advancing; architects must seek out evidence on the most effective way to integrate technology into the learning environment while designing flexibility for technology advancements into their work. Sustainability is also a key component in an evidence-based approach: architects should not be satisfied with a design that has been proven to maximize learning if the environmental costs of such a design are not sustainable or cause actual harm.

Limiting the Evidence-Based Approach

Two key limiting factors an architect will face in designing an elementary or secondary school with an evidence-based approach are budget and situation. Education officials, no matter how passionate they may be about an innovative learning structure, are often constrained by budget, and the budget will limit the nature of a learning-centered design. Even if budget is not a concern, many school sites are located in populated areas with limited available space, so an evidence-based design must work effectively in the limits of the space. Fortunately, some of the greatest architectural masterpieces have been born from such limitations, and architects should relish meeting these challenges.

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To read the article as it appears in Seattle pi, click here.