It's All In The Details: Walls, Ceilings and Floors

Walls, ceilings and floors must meet budgetary, acoustic, resilience, sustainability and maintenance requirements, among other factors. Here are some ways that schools are making their interiors stand out.

While COVID-19 has shuttered school buildings coast-to-coast and globally, some things remain. There is the keen anticipation of students, educators and staff members to return to their schools, where there will be a need, at least for some time, for social distancing, stepped-up cleaning and other practices.

word wall

Photo © Scott Berman

Responses to COVID-19 may continue to extend the classroom virtually in the spring. Even with expanded remote teaching and learning, school buildings and campuses remain crucial centers, beacons in a sense, of learning and community. Projects to maintain and construct such beacons, including their interior features and finishes, continue and will go forward.

Without a doubt, districts and their designers will continue to seek spaces of distinction. And in terms of the interiors of K-12 school buildings, including their walls, ceilings and floors, the distinction is in the details.

The devil is in the details, too, as iconic modern architect Ludwig Mies Van Der Rohe said about architecture decades ago. Today, K-12 decision makers must wade through many details, with much at stake, for renovation or new construction projects.

Walls, ceilings and floors, along with all interior and other building elements, must meet budgetary, acoustic, resilience, sustainability and maintenance requirements, with builders weighing such factors and others. Tools such as evidence-based design, life-cycle cost analysis sometimes are marshaled to point ways toward solutions. It is a complex process but well worth the effort. Conceptually speaking, combining design with educational missions is no easy task. But it may be helpful to consider some ways that schools are making their interiors stand out.


One way is to select flooring and walls with patterns, colors and graphics that can serve as aspirational palettes, so to speak. For example, many schools are using bright color schemes for lower grades and more conservative tones for upper levels, laid out in a manner so that youngsters can see where they are headed, and want to be, in the near future. At higher-grade levels, the aspirational dynamic may suggest higher education and corporate settings.

school hallway

Photo © Scott Berman

The color palette of walls and floors make a related point at the Frank J. Gargiulo high school campus in New Jersey. Opened in 2018, the building, a $150-million design-build vocational technical high school in the Hudson County Schools of Technology district, has a warm color assortment of burnt orange and blue. The scheme is part of the sophisticated interior polish of what Wayne Zitt, facilities director for the district, calls the “modern, state-of-the-art” four-wing, 70-classroom school.

As Zitt explains, the school went with vinyl composition tile (VCT) for the floors in three of those wings; concrete floors in metal and wood shop areas; and sprung floor systems in dance studio space. Zitt says that the main building’s front entrance, corridors and cafeteria have large expanses of terrazzo, which are refinished once a year with polish pad systems.

The process of choosing flooring in the first place must weigh the intertwined factors of life-cycle cost and with durability and ease of maintenance; as well as intended and conceivable use of the space, including acoustics and resilience; indoor air quality; recycled content;
slip resistance and aesthetics.

Solutions appear in great diversity within schools, perhaps in a greater range than ever before. Among many other possibilities, there are classroom flooring systems of various types that meet acoustical standards, broadloom carpet in auditoriums, carpet tile in libraries and offices, rubber tile in fitness rooms, epoxy flooring in back-of-the-house cafeteria kitchen spaces, polished concrete in labs, hallways or other areas. Of course, VCT, luxury vinyl tile and carpet tile are prevalent.


Window-bearing interior walls can create efficiency and options by bringing exterior light deep inside, which is particularly helpful with double-loaded corridors. The natural light can work in concert with wall mirrors to bounce and enhance that light. Furthermore, such transparency helps with supervision of youngsters. Creating more natural light into hallways seems more relevant than ever, given among other things the evolving use of widened corridors for transit as well as breakaway study or lounge areas.

Floor-to-ceiling white board surfacing on moveable wall systems provide a flexibility double whammy, so to speak, that potentially removes a staid front of the classroom for instruction while offering the option of combining or dividing classrooms, as at Portage High School in Indiana.

Corridor and other walls are subjected to varying amounts of damage that can differ by material, of course, as well as grade level and the amount of supervision in each space. Officials at the New Jersey vo-tech, for example, kept things simple, specifying drywall for most of the school. Two school years in, some dings and scuffs do appear, but the approach generally has worked.

Yet there’s more to the walls there: At Gargiulo, some walls have openings that reveal building systems, an interesting feature also found at the aforementioned Portage and at Manassas Park Elementary in Virginia. Most of interest here: not wasting a spatial moment, if you will; in other words, utilizing walls as teaching opportunities. At the Virginia school, walls also bear thematic informational signs keyed to the space, such as a brief explanation of the history of basketball in the gymnasium.

Furthermore, walls can take advantage of such spatial moments by serving as a canvas for word cloud art, school logos, creative new art of inspirational figures such as school namesakes, and even graphics showing current and recent student achievers, as inside the main entrance at Ballou High School in Washington, D.C. Further, reserving some wall and floor space for student art creates credentials for young people while expressing their sense of ownership and school pride.

ceiling panels

Photo © Scott Berman


Those steps and others can play out in various spaces. Take multi-purpose rooms, for example. Such large spaces — common necessities for districts and frequently used by the community as well, such as cafetoriums or dining commons — can have acoustical issues. However, wall and ceiling elements, such as clouds, panels, baffles and blades, along with flooring systems, in addition to sound amplification, are responses that help create options for such bustling areas. In so doing, those elements can simultaneously enhance the design of the space while simultaneously suggesting spots for programs, presentations and performances.

school ceiling

Photo © Scott Berman

Wherever they appear, ceiling clouds, working in concert with flooring designs, can help define spaces for a variety of purposes while housing lighting and providing acoustic benefits for student lounges and study areas, among others. Defining areas in such a manner, without walls, also maintains the flexibility of the space.

Marshalling materials, finishes and vision to best serve the mission of a school today and for years to come is not an easy task. It may all boil down to what Zitt adds succinctly about the Gargiulo school: “It’s a good design. They put it all together pretty well.”

This article originally appeared in the Fall 2020 issue of Spaces4Learning.