Expanding the Learning Environment

When Alpharetta High School, north of Atlanta, was in the planning stages, administrators and educators had many goals for the building. Among them: a campus atmosphere and a flexible space that encouraged collaboration and learning.

The campus atmosphere came in large part with separate arts and athletics buildings, and the flexible dimension came with the help of garage-style overhead sectional doors. It was a seemingly simple feature that made an impact while signaling broader trends.

Sectional and overhead doors, large partitions, as well as rolling gates, grilles and shutters of various types are common fixtures performing various functions in K-12 school buildings, including providing security or defining spaces in gymnasiums, hallways, reception counters. Rolling overhead doors have appeared for decades in high school automobile mechanic shop classrooms and are typical parts of school loading docks. To take one recent example, a series of such doors were included in an extension project that added a loading dock to JP McCaskey High School in Lancaster, Penn.

Yet, rolling and movable doors and walls have additional functions. As Alpharetta High School’s architect, Barbara Crum of Perkins+Will, tells School Planning & Management magazine, “We are now incorporating all kinds of sectional doors — overhead garage doors, folding partitions, sliding panels — in our designs to expand the classroom space in support of project-based learning.” As for Alpharetta itself, “we used the sectional doors there to maximize flexibility and use space for as many functions as possible.”

Perkins+Will is seeing good results and is taking it to the next level. Crum points out in that a new project by the firm, Dalton, Ga.’s Coahulla Creek High School, which opened in August 2011, “All of the classrooms have sectional partitions that open onto a large flexible space that supports collaborative learning,” she says.

Furthermore, having classroom spaces that are flexible and broadly open to the outdoors offers an alternative to traditional, static lecture situations, says technical designer Albert Lam of LPA Inc. Lam has used sectional doors in K-12 projects in Southern California, including Paramount High School, as well as work for the Los Angeles Unified School District now in the design phase.

It’s not a question of just leaving an exterior wall open and inserting a movable system. Instead, their inclusion needs to be part of a broader, coordinated system to enhance sustainability. Lam notes, for example, that HVAC systems have to account for the natural ventilation enabled by such doors, which if designed accordingly, can make for an energy-efficient feature that reinvigorates classroom settings.

The use of movable walls and sectional doors in California seems anecdotally to be a gathering trend, Lam said, with more districts actively seeking out sustainable projects and asking more questions about features that promote sustainability.

Accelerated School, a 131,000-square-foot pre-K through 12 complex in South Los Angeles, offers a take on the use of such doors in a bustling urban setting, in this case for a large school with a long, corner streetscape. There, “teachers have the freedom to open the interior classroom spaces to the outdoors via large sectional doors,” with students and teachers gathering for lessons and activities in courtyard areas and on terraces, according to architect Marmol Radziner.

Using features that can conveniently reconfigure classroom spaces dovetails with the move in K-12 away from lectures and the aforementioned shift toward more collaboration. For Robert Sibilia, a product manager for operable glass wall manufacturer NanaWall, it’s one of the takeaways from the School & College Building Expo conference held in Orlando in January.

Flexible walls make flexible uses of classrooms easier: groups of students can work together, do peer tutoring or take tests in areas of a classroom defined by movable, transparent walls that enable views while helping to block out noise. Transparent, movable walls also create options for passive daylighting and natural ventilation, Sibilia points out.

Movable walls can also define, say, two science laboratories, both served by centralized wiring and plumbing, or combine them into one large laboratory as needed. This capability is one way to prepare for inevitable changes in curriculum and class size that come during the lifespan of a school building. Such systems are making it so that the classrooms can be designed for deep into the 21st century, according to Sibilia.

There are many design configurations. At San Anselmo, Calif.’s St. Francis Drake High School, for example, a large, three-sided folding system is both a barrier and a passageway between an assembly space and an athletic field. Granted, districts in warmer climates have plenty of options for outdoor-indoor sectional doors, but there are other systems for interiors.

For example, thermal performance for such systems could increase the options, Sibilia said. Furthermore, as he points out, the frequent use of such systems for school interiors is evident in cooler regions of the country, as at Booker T. Washington High School, Chicago, and Michigan’s East Kentwood High School, where a transparent folding system separates two pools, enabling activities for various age groups, as well as easier monitoring by instructors who can supervise students while standing between the two pools.

At United Nations International School in New York City, a curving moveable wall defines, opens and encloses a large area, with the wall’s 19 panels folding away into a parking bay designed specifically for the system.

Sibilia declined to give cost comparisons — there are too many options and too many ways to gauge an average return on investment. Instead, Sibilia focuses on what a district is trying to accomplish with a moveable wall system, in terms of cost, academics and energy savings. A configuration such as the aforementioned lab spaces could address each of those factors. Generally speaking, though, having flexible classroom space “gives schools options to educate with more flexibility,” Sibilia adds.

Back at Alpharetta High in Georgia, how have the sectional doors worked out? Eight years later, there is a lot happening in the variable space enabled by the overhead doors.

The school’s art rooms feature the doors, which open into a wide corridor that also serves flexibly as a side lobby of the school theatre, a gallery to display student projects, an auxiliary area for art instruction and a place for students to make big projects, Crum explains.

Michael Scheifflee, department head of Alpharetta’s Fine Arts program, says, “The doors are a great addition to our art studios. They allow extra light into the rooms.” There is another dimension: “It allows students to spread out and have plenty of room to work on their sculptures, paintings and drawings. The doors really allow us to develop artworks of a much larger scale and also provide visitors to our school an opportunity to see our classes at work with being an interruption to our process. When we host arts events, the doors provide a welcoming feeling to all visitors and allow for free-flowing traffic between our studios and our gallery.” Also, with theater performance and music classrooms nearby, the open area becomes a variable space where creative types encounter different art forms.

And remember the district’s goal of creating a campus atmosphere? The doors help along that line, too; Scheifflee adds that “the doors give a college studio feeling to a high school classroom setting.” 

Scott Berman is a Denmark-based freelance writer with experience in educational topics.