Take Your Seats

Tucked into an 18th century paper mill on the banks of the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia, AIM Academy is a learning environment that stimulates creativity and guides signature strengths among its students, all of whom have learning differences. In designing a space for students who might not thrive in a traditional academic environment, architects and interior designers selected furniture that would permit flexibility without taxing resources.

Classroom and Common Space Flexibility
Nontraditional learning thrives in a nontraditional facility, and an arts-based education for children with dyslexia, dysgraphia and dyscalculia particularly requires flexible space. Furniture selected for AIM Academy are like puzzle pieces; tables and desks can be reconfigured easily to support large-group instruction, collaborative project-based learning and individual study. Research shows that this approach increases student engagement and interaction, and encourages creative problem solving.

Storage is particularly important in preventing classroom chaos. Teachers need to be able to store their science kits and other tools within the classroom in cabinets and shelving that are easy for students to access. Lower school classrooms feature millwork cabinets with colorful laminate countertops and large storage closets. Maintaining orderliness and tidiness is important for learning in any classroom, but particularly so in classrooms where student learning is not uniform.

The furniture at AIM is a mix of new and repurposed furniture. Working collaboratively with Corporate Interiors, Inc., a Philadelphia-based furniture dealer, designers were made aware of creative ways to save the school money while also safeguarding the environment. Repurposed furniture was purchased from a Corporate Interiors warehouse sale; the furniture was cleaned, and the seats recovered in bright orange fabric. Private office furniture had been purchased from one of Corporate Interiors’ clients who was brokering off the collection. The savings realized from repurposing furniture was immense and kept these cast-offs out of landfills.

Seating, desks and tables were ordered in a height that would accommodate the specific age groups of the lower, middle and upper schools. At AIM, there are 200 students ranging from grades 1 to 12. In order for students to feel successful and independent, they need to have furniture that is comfortable. The global Resource Center, Lower School Library and student lounges feature upholstered lounge seating, ottomans for use as seating or tables and tablet-arm lounge chairs for individual work.

As the school expands, additional collaborative and individual learning spaces have begun to emerge in hallways and other spaces throughout the school. Additional adjustable height collaborative tables have been added outside the classrooms recently, accompanied by ottomans that have been very popular in the Global Resource Center and the Lower School Library. Extra help outside the classroom is more fun, as the formal chair has been replaced by informal seating. There are also bench ottomans throughout the school, providing touch down space for students and teachers.

The color pallet of the fabric on all furniture is bright, yet warm, and reflects the nurturing environment of the school. Patterns and solids have been combined to create more interest and allow for all furniture pieces to be relocated to almost anywhere in the school. While the lower school furniture features dynamic colors, the pallet becomes more sophisticated, although in the same color family, in the upper school.

AIM Academy’s approach to education is reflected in the approach that the designers took in creating the space. Research-based evidence on how furniture and spaces are used by schoolchildren informed the overall floor plan design and furniture selection. The result is bright colors, sunlight and sustainable features throughout, and a building that reflects the arts-based, college-prep curriculum. The facility celebrates the architecture of the existing building, using light, color and flexible furniture to support individual learning as well as collaboration between students. 

Jennifer Crawford, AIA, is the managing partner at Blackney Hayes Architects, a Philadelphia firm that specializes in the design of school facilities. Ellen Farber, Associate IIDA, Allied ASID, is principal of the Philadelphia-based firm Ellen Farber Interior Design. She was responsible for the selection and purchase of furniture for AIM Academy.