Today’s newest school designs challenge the assumption that a school must look bland and institutional. Where did that idea come from anyway? Certainly not from Sandstone, Minn., which recently opened a new K-12 school that brings the great outdoors indoors. Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood has no time for boring school interiors, either. Witness the new Whittier Elementary School and its maritime interior design themes. In Dearborn, Mich., the new Michael Berry Career Center has adopted an exciting industrial design look. Milford High School in Highland, Mich., recently turned its new recreation center into a zoo. And if you don’t care for design themes, you can follow the lead of St. Benedict at Auburndale High School and design interiors with the look of sleek new furnishings. Institutional design? Well, these five schools are institutions. So their designs are institutional. But they are not, by any stretch of the imagination, bland.

Kettle River Floors

In Sandstone, Minn., the East Central School District recently built a 235,000-sq.-ft. PK-12 school designed by Minneapolis-based DLR Group. The $23.7-million sustainable facility makes the local environment an integral part of the school interior.

DLR drew inspiration for the interior design from the neighboring Kettle River, a nearby state park and an historic sandstone quarry adjacent to the school.“We’ve brought this imagery into the interior of the school,” says Jonathan Crump, AIA, LEED AP, and principal architect at DLR Group’s Minneapolis office.

The Kettle River takes its name from the kettle shapes the river’s waters carve into its sandstone riverbanks. East Central has adopted those kettle shapes as mosaic-tile design elements set into the concrete floor of the school’s first grade learning center.

Etched glass interior windows and leaf-shaped acoustic panels in the auditorium carry the forest theme throughout the school, as do the carpets, which feature stippled patterns designed to mirror the look of sunlight shining through the leaves of trees to the floor of a forest.“Another significant interior design element recreates the look of the quarry,” says Crump. “We’ve used concrete block material for the interior walls, setting it in a pattern recalling the drilling marks on the quarry’s walls.”

Maritime Heritage

The maritime themes employed in the interior design of the 65,000-sq.-ft., $9-million Whittier Elementary School reflect the heritage of the surrounding Seattle community. “People living in the neighborhood had attended school on this site 50 years ago,” says Craig Mason, the principal in charge of educational projects for the DLR Group’s Seattle office. “There was a strong desire that the new school reflect the neighborhood and honor its seafaring history.”

Mason’s team created an abstract ship canal in the two-story building’s main lobby. The “canal” actually separates the public side of the building from the school side. A footbridge designed to resemble a drawbridge crosses the canal above the lobby and connects one side of the building with the other.

The maritime design also appears on the lobby walls in the form of metal sculptures applied to the walls. VCT tiles reflect the different colors of bodies of water. A sea serpent play structure extends the water theme into recess.

New Age Industrial

What better way to contribute to the evolution of industrial design than through a career center? That’s what Celina, Ohio, based Fanning/Howey Associates set out to do with the design of the $10-million Michael Berry Career Center in Dearborn, Mich.

Working with Dearborn-based Ghafari Associates, the designers created a finished, high-tech industrial look for the school. The walls feature corrugated metal panels done in a silver anodized finish. The three-ft.-high panels run the length of the corridors just above the student lockers. The floor uses oddly shaped vinyl tile with designs resembling metal stair trends. The casework has a polished silver finish on its vertical surfaces. The panel system furniture is done with Plexiglas panels instead of fabric, which makes it possible to see the internal components of the panels.

Furniture selections also reflect the industrial theme. “In the resource center, we used a low table built with a white marker surface — so you can write on it,” says Ann Marie Jackson, IIDA, Fanning/Howey’s interior design department coordinator.

It’s a Zoo

Students helped Fanning/Howey design the leisure pool in a 93,000-sq.-ft. recreation center, part of an expansion of Milford High School in Highland, Mich. During a design charette, students aged seven to 17 working in small and large groups, decided the pool should have a zoo theme.

A large sculpted gorilla and a two-story enclosed “python” water-slide dominate the leisure pool. Shallow water areas, interactive water toys and a whirlpool offer amenities for children as well as adults. “There is also a floating alligator you can play on,” says Cecilia Durand, a Fanning/Howey designer that worked on the pool design. “And there are palm trees that shoot water into the pool.”

A jungle hut play structure and decorative tile work shaped like marine animals maintain the “Zoo” theme around the pool. For example, mosaic tiles create patterns that look like the boardwalk at the beach in one area of the pool. In another area, tile designs simulate footprints that a hippopotamus might leave. Ceramic tiles on the wall create artwork that shows where the hippo has gone — he has wandered into a pond off in the distance to munch on lily pads.

Interior Design by the Furniture

While the exterior of St. Benedict At Auburndale High School in Cordova, Tenn., uses an interesting circular turret as a focal point of the building’s design, the interior design is not particularly unusual. The rooms, walls and flooring resemble those of a conventional high school. But the furniture transforms the space into an upscale academic environment. “They went with all of our newest, cutting-edge furniture designs,” says Barry Swanquist, vice president of Educational Marketing for Green Bay-based KI.

The distance learning classrooms use a KI line of desks designed to deal with cabling. Doors on top and underneath the desk permit access to the data lines and power outlets. For general classrooms, the school selected huge working surfaces that provide “non-handed” access from either the right or left side. In the media center, study cubicles, bookshelves, seating and coffee tables come from a single KI line called Crossroads. “This is a transitional design,” Swanquist says. “It has traditional and contemporary detailing, so it won’t go out of style for a long time.”

The lecture halls feature tiered seating using KI desks designed with light writing and reading surfaces and wood laminate back panels. The work surfaces provide receptacles for data and power so students can use their laptops during lectures. Torsion chairs allow students to lean back and flex a bit during 90-minute lectures. The chairs are also on swing away arms, which make it easy for students to sit down and stand up.