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Curb Appeal

Great looks and innovative school designs aren't just about aesthetics--they can help improve learni

Pity superintendent Gary Prest. Every school building in his district, Bloomington (Minn.) Public Schools, needed renovations.

Just one of the 15 projects involved converting Oak Grove Junior High into a middle school with four distinct clusters of neighborhoods under the same roof. The problem, as Prest saw it, was that the existing building was a large, two-story box. Nothing special, nothing unifying, nothing to write home about. In fact, all 10 elementaries shared two prototype layouts from the 1960s, creating a dull, cookie-cutter theme. The sheer volume of work seemed daunting enough, without deciding to buck the status quo. But that's just what Prest did.

The copycat approach appeals to many administrators from a cost-saving standpoint--so no one would have thought ill of Prest had he merely overseen more of the same, only newer.

Instead, he put his 30-year history with the district behind changing the way buildings looked and functioned. "We never had the intention of renovating just to do it," he explains. "Once we figured out the best ways to teach, we wanted to renovate around that."

To architects, this kind of thinking defines the term "great design." The team at architectural firm Cuningham Group in nearby Minneapolis solved the Oak Grove Middle School problem by creating a day-lit atrium in the heart of the building and having each of the four clusters face it. Large enough to hold student performances, the atrium forms a center anchor--an effective contrast to the original plain, windowless space.

Throughout the district, Cuningham's architects continued to think bigger than their predecessors, finding ways for buildings to house community centers, public swimming pools and parks. "We're the only district in Minnesota where every school building is unique," Prest points out.

He can also be proud that the entire project, which began in 2000 with $107 million from a bond referendum, is scheduled to wrap up by this fall--under budget and on time. And it was done with no role models, no blueprint to follow.

Pioneer Philosophy

But the next superintendent to step out into this new world needn't be such a pioneer. The American Architectural Foundation's Great Schools by Design, launched in March 2004, aims to communicate to school districts what exactly goes into good design, and how they can best implement the philosophy.

"School districts are somewhat risk averse. I know. I served on a school board for 10 years," says Ronald E. Bogle, president and CEO of the organization. "You're making a major investment that the public is very aware of, so you get very conservative in decision making. Maybe that environment suppresses some of the creative and innovative thinking that might go on otherwise." Not to mention a lot of districts simply haven't had much experience building construction projects.

That, too, is about to change for many. According to Bogle, schools across the United States have $130 billion worth of school construction and renovation on the drawing boards over the next five years. "What's wrong with a school having curb appeal? It's a good marketing tool for that community to attract people," he says in defense of great design.

Randall Fielding, the architect who founded out of Minneapolis, sees an even longer term ROI for great design. With American job outsourcing now reaching its tentacles into areas like accounting, law and engineering, "when we look at what makes a good school, we're thinking, 'What do learners need to know to be competitive, to be successful? What characteristics of that building will make kids stand out tomorrow?' " he asks. But he knows his answer: creativity.

Ground Rules?

You won't find your path to great design outlined in state school design manuals. That's why architects like John Pfluger, a principal with Cuningham Group, sometimes clash with the suits who demand to see a science lab, never recognizing that the more flexible "project lab" area combines this need with other uses. "But there needs to be some sort of accountability as to how districts spend state money, so it's totally understandable," he says. "Besides, creativity isn't something you can prescribe in a state manual."

Amen, chimes in Adolfo J. Cotilla Jr. from his office in Fort Lauderdale, where he oversees the architectural firm ACAI Associates. "The fun part of creativity is when you're given a menu to follow: we have 10 of these, 20 of that, two of this type, 13 of the other, and this is our budget." Defined limits and boundaries equate to less guesswork when designing out of the box.

Community residents and staff rarely offer clarity on the subject of great design. In Cotilla's experience, parents define good design in humble terms. As in: "It can be whimsical, it can be a fun place, but we don't need to go overboard." He's seen parents ax professional-grade school theaters as a knee-jerk reaction, even though the overall cost remained in the average price range.

This group tends to not express physical design ideas at all to Pfluger. But parents are quick to spot design that wastes space and money just for the sake of being pretty. Their focus is on what's best educationally.

The internal reaction to Pfluger's atrium skylight at Oak Grove was from some members of the maintenance staff, who made remarks like "I'll just have to clean it," The architect says he felt challenged "by that sort of practical element in the matrix, but by that point the planning team's sense of ownership kicked in. It had become who they were." Because the janitors' peers were part of that team, a maintenance mutiny was averted. "When design relates that strongly to the mission or signature of a school, it's so powerful we don't have to defend it," notes Pfluger.

Ah, then great school design involves artwork. Well, not quite. Pfluger stamps "good design" on buildings that support vision and educational programs, blend in with the neighborhood and express that function in a poetic way. "I can't say that there are certain shapes, scales or rules we use. Good design celebrates its location, consciously trying to create a dialogue with what's there--not repeating but complementing."

Provocative, sure. But how does that concept translate into good practice?

Form Meets Function

The face of the idea becomes clearer after eyeballing the Inter-District Downtown School in Minneapolis. That dry, formal name belongs to a small school located on top of a four-story parking ramp. Yet the handprints embedded in the concrete foundation of the building are indicative of the hands-on learning that takes place behind those walls.

Then there's the prototype Cotilla recently proposed for an alternative education center in Plantation, Fla. Function required a vertical staircase. Why not bring it to the front of the building, top it a bit higher than the building with a semi-curved roof and draw in light through windows placed around that circle, like a cathedral clerestory. Sprinkle in colored windows in a random fashion and presto--beauty that promotes a positive self-image. As for those obligatory columns at the entrance, who says they have to be vertical if an angular placement bears the loads more efficiently?

Bogle breaks his definition of great design into space that is adequately maintained with tools and technology, created to inspire learning, and unique. "When you design a school, could it be in any place or does that design somehow express the character, nature and needs of the community?" he explains. "We advocate that design is really the end of the process of engaging the users, citizens, community leaders, parents--it's not a product."

The form-follows-function method birthed Hillside Elementary School in West Des Moines (Iowa) Community Schools, due to open this fall. It may be the only school in the country with a fireplace just off the media center. While that homey ingredient captures instant attention, Associate Superintendent Galen Howsare is more impressed by the lack of double-loaded corridors.

Instead, classrooms are bundled by grade, with each door opening into a shared community space. In-floor heating encourages children to sit down, literally. The front lobby features a 500-gallon aquarium and architects penciled in an aviary that now lies off the cafeteria. And each element feeds into the district's adoption of the interdisciplinary Artful Learning model.

"Believe me, I spent over a year touring other elementary schools for best practices," Howsare says. "We fully expect Hillside will have a look and feel unlike the norm."

Lookin' Good

If there are no rules, architects do at least reach for a list of standard essentials when designing schools. Here's a sampling of what architects like Fielding look for when awarding accolades:

Daylighting: And not just the occasional skylight. Light penetrates at an angle, so if the top of a window is seven feet high, a 45-degree sunbeam reaches approximately 10.5 feet into the room. Push that ceiling to 10 feet, and you now have daylight streaming 15 feet into the classroom.

The payback: Studies sponsored by Pacific Gas and Electric found that children receiving trace amounts of UV in their classrooms chalk up less absences, score better on tests (20 percent better in math; 26 percent better in reading) and even have fewer cavities.

Outside connection: Healthy eyes need to change their focal point as a refreshment reflex, so creating something to see at least 50 feet away falls under today's good design standards. It needn't be fancy; nearly any outdoor setting will do. The brain benefits, too, Fielding points out.

Windows naturally serve this purpose, but by themselves they quickly lose aesthetic punch. Cotilla looks for ways to incorporate different shapes, frosted treatments or colored panes. Pfluger used courtyards in Bloomington, taking care not to merely stuff them willy-nilly into the first convenient spot on the drawings.

For an elementary school whose neighborhood personality ran toward reserved, he developed a "secret garden" theme, plugging an internal courtyard off the media center. "It was a space you could experience only after walking through the old entry, so you 'discovered' it," Pfluger explains. "I got a comment from one of the district people asking why we didn't make that building look better from the street. You have to remember the signature," or personality and message being portrayed.

When the surroundings are less than uplifting, like an urban street or a shopping center? Fielding proposed suspending a whale from the center of the common area at one Salt Lake City middle school to relay the idea that students can still connect to nature from inside.

Variety: Sorry, no research supports the notion that good classroom design involves rectangles. In fact, Cotilla adds, a circle is the most efficient geometric shape--but it's tough to place doors, hang pictures or work on a blackboard with that one. Schools that want to promote collaborative thinking and creative sparks of genius use design to support Harvard University psychologist Howard Gardner's multiple intelligences. As technology consultant David Thornburg puts it, learning communities need a campfire gathering area (soft seating in multi-use spaces), a watering hole mentality (bays and niches along the interior of the classroom) and cave space (study carrels, benches).

On an even more practical plain, rooms that shun square in favor of other angles work better acoustically.

Food: Fielding likes to see libraries offer a variety of seating, a plethora of breakout cubbies and even the ability to bring in munchies and drinks. Speaking of food, cafeterias with round tables as opposed to the long fold-up versions of nearly every administrator's childhood promote democratic conversation and intimacy. His favorite cafeteria treatment is still on the drawing board: a K-12 building that offers one large service area feeding into three separate cafes, each with its own name, separate roofline and potted shrubbery growing in between as the boundaries.

Design To Go

Pfluger takes pride in his Bloomington Public Schools portfolio, but he says he wouldn't want administrators to copy anything directly. "Design is not something to take, because it belongs where you see it." he explains. But please help yourself, architects say, to the thoroughness and thoughtfulness you see in great design projects blossoming around the country.

AAF rolled out Great Schools by Design expressly for that purpose. The initiative's first school design institute takes place in October, with invited cities sending up to four participants. Superintendents and other administrators, school board members, mayors and PTA presidents will spend three days with the resource folks brought in to talk through each of the district's design challenges. A series of workshops on contemporary issues in school design is planned for the next National School Board Association annual meeting, and there's a national summit in the wings, as well.

"We need to educate each other. Architects know a lot, but architecture is not an isolated expression," Bogle says. That's precisely why Fielding presents blow-by-blow reports from myriad voices as part of his Web site devoted to showcasing great design.

"If you want to have a good idea, have a lot of them," Fielding says, quoting Thomas Edison. The architect's custom floorprint technique, for example, helps laypersons compare apples to apples.

But nothing takes the place of empowering local planning committees, in Prest's opinion. The Bloomington school board established a central planning team to inspect plans against across-the-board quality standards, but it was the parents, principals, teachers and community leaders who ultimately dictated what they wanted their neighborhood school to represent. Pfluger's team transformed those conversations into design.

Prest couldn't pass up the value gained by having a single design partner. "Line up an architectural firm large enough to handle all the projects," he advises. "You get to know each other's strengths and weaknesses." Greater efficiencies are the result.

Finally, one person's award leaves another scratching his head in puzzlement. As with anything subjective, the plaque isn't an end-all and be-all in this new design concentration. "One of the best compliments I've ever received came from a director of a middle school who told a jury of peers judging her building, 'I feel like this building is my ally. It reminds me of what I'm here to do,' " says Pfluger. "That's better than any design award."

Julie Sturgeon, a freelance writer based in Greenwood, Ind., regularly covers K-12 facilities and construction.

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