Inside Stories

Question: Does warm, friendly and exciting interior design make pre-K through 12 schools more effective learning and teaching spaces?

We asked this question of design professionals at three architectural firms that specialize in pre-K through 12 schools. The answer? As you might expect: a unanimous yes.

Show us, we said. Show us two of your schools that have engaged students and teachers alike and led to or at least appear to be leading to improved learning and teaching.

Here’s what they came up with.

Fanning Howey: Furniture, Finishes and Technology
Celina, Ohio-based Fanning Howey designed a Multimedia Broadcast Academy for the School City of Hammond school district in Hammond, Ind. High school students interested in radio and television production get hands-on experience at the Academy.

The 6,500-square-foot facility boasts fully equipped television and radio production studios, video and radio editing suites plus a multimedia lab, classroom and project room.

Originally a technical high school, the building closed in 1981 and fell into disrepair.

Fanning Howey has turned the aging industrial building into a professional production facility. “The production capabilities are so good that a local radio station uses the school’s studio to prepare materials,” says Greg Monberg, director of Design Research with Fanning Howey and the academy project designer.

Carla Remenschneider, Fanning Howey’s interior design coordinator and the interior designer on this project, describes the design concept as furniture, finishes and technology working together to create collaborative learning spaces.

Take the multimedia classroom, for instance. Long tables radiate from each corner toward the middle of the room enabling students, in chairs with casters, to move about easily to view one or the other of two large plasma screens located on opposite sides of the room, the large format projection screen on the side or the whiteboard up front. 

Huddleboards, small mobile marker boards from Steelcase Inc., sit on a rack with wheels in the corner of the room. In the photo, two are hanging from the whiteboard.

The academy’s project room is another example. It features a mediascape system. Two large monitors sit at either end of a high square table. Students can sit on high chairs, also with castors, or stand at the table to work. Electronic devices resembling hockey pucks connect to the monitors and provide USB connectors for laptops. When students and teachers plug in, they can display materials from their computers on the monitors. The project room also offers a dry-erase wallcovering.

The academy is so new that no one has made a formal assessment of teaching or learning performance. But plenty of encouraging anecdotal evidence exists. “I wish I would have had my camera set up the first day and watched the students’ faces as they walked into the classroom,” says Robert Love, a former broadcast industry professional who signed on to teach at the academy. “They were all saying, ‘This is so cool.’ This place is something special to them.

“I’m a first-year teacher, and the building made it easier for me to instruct these students.”

Fanning Howey: New School, Better Grades
The new Harding Elementary School opened in Hammond, Ind., in 2006. It was one of two new schools ordered up to replace several underused and underperforming facilities.

The single-story 118,000-square-foot building serves 700 students. “That’s a lot of students for an elementary school,” says Remenschneider, who handled the interior design. “The design reduces the scale by creating six small intimate learning communities made up of five to six classrooms sized for 125 to 150 students.”

Three classroom wings, each with two learning communities, enclose three sides of a large square open-air courtyard. Closing off the fourth side of the square is a wing with the gymnasium, cafeteria and media center.

The media center is one of the design focal points. Inside, it features comfortable earth tones, wooden tables and chairs and high ceilings. Floor-to-ceiling windows look out on a pond in the courtyard, where, to the delight of the children, ducks and ducklings have taken up residence.

All five or six classrooms in the individual learning communities open up in the direction of the interior courtyard into an extended learning space where students from the classrooms can work together on team teaching projects.

Inside the lively, busy-looking classrooms, Remenschneider’s furnishings promote collaboration among students. Instead of desks, students work at tables that can accommodate up to six. Students sit in ergonomic chairs — with casters.” Some teachers were reticent about the casters,” says Remenschneider. “They were afraid the younger kids would be speeding around the room all day long, but it really wasn’t an issue.”

The cinderblock walls are finished in water-based paint, student projects and whiteboards.

“The building’s impact on learning was immediate,” says Remenschneider. “Test scores increased dramatically. During the first year, the percentage of students passing the standardized No-Child-Left-Behind tests rose by four percent.”

Fifth grade science test scores increased from a 34-percent pass rate to 51 percent, continues Remenschneider. Third grade English scores went from a pass rate of 37 percent to 57 percent.

NAC Architecture: Student-Centered Designs
The new Machias and Riverview elementary schools in Washington State’s Snohomish School District replaced two older schools at the start of the 2011-2012 school year.

Like Harding Elementary, both of these schools feature classrooms clustered around shared learning spaces.

The 70,000-square-foot, two-story Riverview has square(ish) clusters with two classrooms on either side of the shared learning area.

At 82,000 square feet, the two-story Mathias clusters its classrooms in a triangular configuration around the shared space.

Both schools also feature engaging libraries. In fact, the Riverview library has proven extremely popular among students, logging a 69-percent increase in book circulation compared to the library in the old school.

“In addition, the staff is using the Riverview library for their meetings, which were previously held off site,” says Philip Riedel, AIA, LEED-AP, an associate principal with the Seattle-based NAC Architecture and the designer for both projects. “People like to hang out in the library.”

Credit the interior design, developed by NAC Interior Designer Marcia Wall, for the library’s popularity. It is a large room differentiated into zones. There is a formal classroom, a casual reading area with soft furniture, story steps for the younger students and a computer area. “The space offers a variety of experiences, and you can always find a spot that you like,” Riedel says.

Riverview’s shared learning areas are warm and inviting too, with soft, colorful seating for lounging, tables and chairs for studying and projects and computer stations for online activities. The expansive use of glass provides views into other rooms and to the outside.

The designs of both Riverview and Machias feature generous amounts of wood for furnishings, ceiling trellises and wood beams.

Machias makes use of materials salvaged from the school it replaces. “The brick and concrete was ground down and used as a sub-base under the pavement,” says Steven M. Shiver, AIA, NCIDQ, LEED-AP, a principal with NAC. “We also took curved glulam (glued and laminated timber) beams from the gym and turned them on end to make kind of a curving skeleton for the building.”

The glulam beams make an attractive frame for a number of Machias spaces. Take the IDEA lab, or the InterDisciplinary Educational Activities lab, for instance. The curved beams frame the glass exterior walls of the room, where teachers bring students to work on projects of all kinds. “The teachers at Machias do a lot of project-based team teaching, and this space encourages that,” Shiver says.

The wood theme continues in the large shared learning spaces at Machias. For instance, wood trellis ceiling accents break down the scale of the room. Furnishings include wood bookcases and tabletops.

A large monitor perched on the wall runs the same software used by the interactive whiteboards in the classrooms, while the entire wall, thanks to a special paint, functions as a huge dry-erase marker board.

Riedel and Shiver have eliminated virtually all of the institutional components that used to characterize school design from their work — even in the corridors. “We wanted to bring rich materials and textures into the corridors of these schools, too,” Shiver says. “We used hard, durable materials with easy-to-clean surfaces, but we also created a warm, inviting space.”

Natural daylight streams into the corridors from the glass ceiling above. There is a wood slat ceiling as well as glulam beams. The railings are painted steel with a two layers of perforated metal, which create a moiré pattern or rippling effect as you walk by. One wall of the corridor is covered with Chilewich from New York City-based Chilewich | Sultan LLC. The other wall covering is a composite board with a plastic laminate that is easy to wipe down. “We used different sized sheets to create a visually interesting pattern on that wall,” Shiver says.

No formal results have been tallied for either Machias or Riverview after their first school year. The teachers from both schools, however, say that the buildings engaged the students in positive ways. They seemed to pay more attention, and their behavior in class improved. The teachers attributed this to the openness and transparency of the design.

Hutton Architecture Studio: Adventures in Science
When you walk through the front entrance of the Institute of Science and Technology, the LED lighting in the ceiling recreates the star fields of the northern hemisphere. The Terrazzo floor leads you to a sweeping golden stairway that rises over a display case with an astronaut’s suit inside.

At the top of the stairway, the ceiling forms a rotunda. An aperture at the top of the dome admits sunlight focused on it by a parabolic device on the roof that tracks the movement of the sun throughout the day. Ten thousand lumens flow through the aperture. Once inside, the light strikes a diffuser, which reflects and spreads the light to illuminate the ceiling.

Just a year old, the 58,000-square-foot, two-story institute stands on a Cherry Creek School District campus in suburban Denver. The new STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) school will serve students in grades 6 through 12 attending the existing middle school and high school on the campus.

“The building has four zones,” says Paul C. Hutton, AIA, a principal with Denver-based Hutton Architecture Studio. “They are biology, chemistry, engineering-technology and physics.”

As you enter each of these zones, you pass under a 112-foot-long mural offering a timeline of the particular discipline from its earliest days through the present. The timelines include the names of about 40 individuals important to the history of the field.

“The goal is to personalize science by illustrating its history,” continues Hutton. “We’ve also embedded science in the building with the murals. We’ve also used geometric patterns and mathematical formulas as part of the interior design.”

Hutton Architecture Studio: A LEED Gold School District
With 320 students, the Sangre de Cristo School District in southern Colorado ranks as one of the smallest school districts in the country. Last year, the district opened a single new school to replace an aging high school, middle school and elementary school.

Designed by Hutton Architecture Studio and Denver-based klipp, which merged with gkkworks in February, the 80,000-square-foot building is almost completely lighted with natural light. “There are a few electric lights in a hallway,” Hutton chuckles. “It is a LEED Gold building, just one point short of LEED Platinum.”

The building illustrates how sustainable building techniques and materials can contribute to the interior beauty of a school building.

District officials wanted as much natural lighting as possible to cut energy costs. The windows, skylights and clerestories that provide the natural light also make natural light and landscape views part of the interior design.

Inside the library, generous windows and skylights admit plenty of natural light. The light colored carpeting — with recycled content — reflects the natural light and improves the day lighting.

The gymnasium features three full basketball courts and needs no electric lights. The day lighting strategy brings in light from the south-facing wall through a translucent clerestory, which diffuses the bright direct sunlight. The north wall, which receives no direct sunlight, uses a clerestory with regular glass.

The LEED features go beyond daylighting. For instance, Hutton specified maple number 3 for the gym floor. Compared to number 1, the clear-looking highest grade of maple, number 3 costs less and has texture and grain. Number 3 is also considered sustainable because more of the tree can be used.

Looking from the main lobby of the single-story building into the library, you can see a wooden wall made of beetle-killed pine, which comes from tall slender lodge-pole pine that has been killed by beetles. It’s a local product, so it earns LEED points. It’s also an attractive building material.

The flooring in the lobby and throughout the building is a mix of three colors of another sustainable product: bio-based tile or BBT.

The walls in the lobby are a mixture of plasterboard and concrete block with integral color. The color enables inexpensive, sustainable concrete block to make a surprisingly pleasant looking wall.

“The new school has brought the entire community together,” says Hutton.

Again, no formal study has been made of the effect of the Institute of Science and Technology building or the Sangre de Cristo School on learning and teaching.

But how could any of the buildings profiled here have anything less than a positive effect on learning and teaching? Each building, in its own way, creates a colorful, warm and engaging world that students and teachers alike can enjoy as they go about their work.