A Place to Learn

The need to create high-performance learning environments that enhance both the student and teacher experience is shaping the future of educational design.

By Robert Bendixen, Project Manager for RLF 

In the United States, thousands of students have to attend schools with overcrowded and antiquated classrooms. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, school districts will spend tens of millions of dollars in the next few years constructing new facilities and renovating existing ones. With budgetary constraints to consider, however, many educators and administrators are looking to incorporate design and construction strategies into the physical environment that can enhance the educational experience and lower operational costs at the same time.

According to recent studies, the controlled and detailed manipulation of a classroom setting — lighting, acoustics, technology, ventilation, and furniture — has a definite influence on student performance and on overall teacher satisfaction and performance within that environment as well. Research conducted by the Heschong Mahone Group, a Gold River, Calif.-based professional consulting service, shows that students with the best classroom lighting progressed 20 percent faster on math tests and 26 percent on reading tests in one year than those who had the worst lighting. Recent studies from the agency have also found that students who attend schools that are functionally outdated score 11 percent lower on standardized tests than those whose schools meet current sustainability and technology integration standards.


Building professionals take notice: The creation of high-performance learning environments not only represents a growing trend but also defines the next frontier in the evolution of school design.

Indoor Environmental Quality

Factoring in all the requirements necessary to develop a high-performance school can be demanding. As a team, planners, architects, engineers, and construction contractors first need to assess the key elements of school indoor environmental quality, which includes how a building’s interior environment affects occupant comfort and health.

Siting. Issues that need to be considered when siting (determining the location and orientation of the building) include transportation, environmental impact, existing pollution on the site, stormwater management, and orientation of the building for passive heating, natural ventilation, and daylighting.

Thermal Comfort. According to the EPA, students have indicated that school environments can be too cold or too hot, which affects student performance related to error rates and speed of work. Heating and cooling elements, therefore, should work effectively and be set at comfortable levels, typically about 68 degrees Fahrenheit.

Lighting. The Heschong Mahone Group study found that students who studied in classrooms with more natural light scored up to 25 percent higher on standardized tests than other students. To maximize daylighting without increasing glare or heat gain, such design elements as light shelves should be incorporated. Using indirect lighting will also greatly reduce glare. Additionally, adjustable lighting should be adopted to different activities and teaching methods.

Acoustics. Classroom acoustics are an important but often neglected aspect of the learning environment. A recent Accredited Standards Committee study found that inappropriate levels of background noise, reverberation, and signal-to-noise ratios inhibit reading and spelling ability, behavior, attention, concentration, and overall academic performance. Using acoustically appropriate wall assemblies and interior surface materials can minimize sound propagation by reducing reverberation and decibel levels. The use of sound barriers around the school — such as vegetation plantings and earth berms — can also minimize exterior noise levels.

Ventilation. According to the National Clearinghouse for Educational Facilities, classrooms should be provided with a minimum of 13 to15 cubic feet per minute of outside air per person. Unfortunately, many schools do not consistently meet this standard. School tasks — from reading to mathematics — improved measurably when the amount of fresh air in classrooms increased and temperatures decreased slightly.

Security. Several factors need to be considered regarding school security: proper signage, controlled access with designated points of entry, uniform lighting both indoors and outdoors, fire codes for doors and windows, alarm systems, security cameras, and overall supervision of school safety. Due to rapid changes in technology, designers and builders should be familiar with basic high-tech security solutions, such as electronic access control systems, surveillance and communications equipment, and emergency notification systems. It’s also important to keep in mind that students need to feel safe without feeling they’re in a high-security environment.

Functionality and Comfort. Lighting, equipment, and furniture should be ergonomically designed and easily adjustable. Designs should provide visual comfort by providing proper illumination levels and control, acoustic comfort by addressing reverberation times, and year-round thermal comfort by providing well-monitored and controlled HVAC systems.

Successful integration of indoor environmental quality design strategies can result in long- and short-term savings for the school, which is critical, considering the budget constraints facing many school districts today. For example, reduced heat from an energy-efficient lighting system and good natural ventilation designs can reduce the cooling demand and thus the size and cost of air-conditioning units. All members of the design team should meet early on in the planning process and continue to coordinate indoor environmental quality design concepts throughout the project to reduce energy costs.

Advanced Technology Integration

Also important for creating high-performance learning environments is the successful integration of advanced systems and tools into the classroom setting. Technology is always evolving and impacting the way we live, work, and learn. As a knowledge-based economy emerges, the power of information technology leads to even newer efficiencies that accentuate the value of space and time. As a result, it is especially important for architects, planners, and designers to integrate high-tech solutions into spaces they create.

Incorporating these systems into learning environments is continuously evolving as they become more streamlined and user friendly. Today, spaces are being designed to harness the potential of the implemented technology, which has led to collaborative classrooms, the use of new and innovative materials, the incorporation of digital media, and an overall increase in the way these high-tech tools support learning.

To successfully integrate the newest technologies into learning environments, architects and designers should work with school administrators and building contractors to ensure the following:

Every classroom is provided with as extensive an interactive whiteboard surface on the main instructional wall as the room layout will allow. Interactive whiteboards provide ways to show students anything that can be presented on a computer’s desktop, such as educational software and websites.

Screens or an alternative projection surface, such as a painted wall or special whiteboard designed for projection, should be present in every classroom.

Document cameras — high-resolution web cams that allow teachers, lecturers, or presenters to write on a sheet of paper or to display a two- or three-dimensional object while students watch — need to be positioned on a cart or podium in such a way that the surface can easily be written on.

As applicable for instructional computers, classrooms should have a wireless mouse and remote control to allow the greatest mobility for the instructor.

Each instructional area and projector should have a port for hardwire connection to the Internet. Wall data ports should require authentication and make it easy to configure Ethernet connections.

A room, a building, or an integrated campus must allow for the acoustic, visual, and communications needs of every user or occupant. For architects and designers, this means choosing or changing room dimensions, ceiling heights, and lighting levels to provide good sight lines and acoustics for every seat in the room.

With all that in mind, the project team needs to pay attention to many important details, such as:

Ensuring walls are adequately insulated to seal the room from outside noise.

Choosing appropriate drapes and shades to achieve the necessary level of darkness for presentation viewing.

Adapting controls to ensure lighting levels have built-in flexibility for different styles of presentation.

Designing ceilings that are high enough to achieve desired screen heights while leaving enough room for heating and ventilation systems.

Modifying standard furniture or designing custom furniture to accommodate AV and IT connectivity and equipment integration.

Making design choices that support the client’s image while meeting a room’s acoustical and lighting needs.

The tremendous capital expenditure for new construction and renovation of schools, coupled with the desire to raise educational standards, means many K-12 decision makers will be considering the cost and value of high-performance facilities. By using the best design strategies and successfully incorporating advanced technology into learning environments, architects, designers, and builders can help schools realize cost savings and better educate their students.

Creating Education Solutions

Creating high-performance learning environments requires vision, focus, and dedication. At RLF, we’ve contracted with many clients – both locally and globally – with ambitious visions. A few years ago, we were tasked with creating an entirely new K-12 campus within an existing 50-year-old complex in Sigonella, Italy.

The goal was to embody the client’s educational mission and vision while embracing the surrounding culture and heritage. As if this weren’t challenging enough, the school needed to be constructed in three-quarters of the normal time, be built with limited funds, keep all existing and new school operations constantly functioning with no downtime, meet both foreign and U.S. codes, and maintain the security demands required in today’s world.

By designing from the perspective of the end user — as well as for flexibility, adaptability, and navigation — we were able to create a healthy and stimulating environment with sustainable design features that also enhanced the learning process. We were able to provide a distinct design that reflected the character of the surrounding environment while instilling a sense of identity and pride for the new campus.

The new facilities feature open atriums and breezeways, smartboards with wireless Internet, a state-of-the-art library/media center, two recycling centers, portable generators, and a layout that is advantageous for both students and faculty and conducive to productive learning. They were also designed to meet LEED Silver Certification.

In the end, we satisfied and even surpassed our client’s expectations by engaging educators, parents, administrators, and students in the planning process to create a sustainable learning space that balances innovation, budget, and the program’s educational mission.

Robert Bendixen, RA, LEED AP, is a project manager for RLF, an architectural design firm located in Winter Park, Fla. He has performed project architect, manager, designer, and construction administration responsibilities on a variety of educational design projects for more than 20 years. Bendixen can be contacted at Robert_Bendixen@rlfae.com.

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