Facilities (Learning Spaces)

What If We Changed the Rules

elementary school flexible space


It may seem like a paradox to suggest that any prototype can be individual or unique. However, as designers of elementary schools, we understand both the benefits and challenges of a pure traditional prototype, and with a bit of inquiry, creativity, and imagination, we redefine this paradigm with unique results.

Why prototype at all?

School districts typically choose a prototype design approach to provide uniformity — the guarantee that all schools are equal on all levels: space needs, size, quality of finishes and systems. Another resounding reason is that prototyping can often save time and money, since theoretically prototype schools need only be designed once, shortening the process and costs for subsequent projects.

Equity vs Equality

Diligent participation with and knowledge of school districts reveal the critical influences at play. Combined with comprehensive visioning sessions at the local community level, we learn the programmatic and cultural needs of each school. Often these needs differ from neighborhood school to neighborhood school within the same school district. The request for equality created within a ‘pure prototype’ can become an obstacle to the need to provide different facilities for another set of students to succeed. Equity is not the same as equality.

Customizing the Prototype

Creating evenhandedness not repetitiveness is one way to flout convention while staying within prototype parameters. Fortified with deep knowledge of each school culture, we incorporate customizable “placeholders” into the prototype design that have the opportunity to celebrate the highly individual history, culture, community and story of the students. These design placeholders vary from simple color finish options to an undefined room left up to each school to use as they see fit. The size and quality is the same but with the opportunity to be unique. For example, integrated into the entryway at one school, students created tile artwork that proudly showcases their Spanish cultural heritage. At another, the reception area prominently features a gallery portraying the cumulative history of generations of families — great-grandparents, grandparents and parents — who attended that school.

An inventive archetype alternative is the use of a state-of-theart exterior façade that changes color with viewer orientation. With this system the prototype works by “branding the district” with a common exterior color while individualizing each school with its own unique coloring element. The effects are dramatic.

Site Adapting the Pure Prototype — Can we change the Rules?

I’ve personally been part of the design team on several pure traditional prototype projects. I’ve experienced a variety of design solutions, each with benefits and drawbacks. The typical design response of two levels of stacked classrooms in some plan arrangement resembling an E, H, or other has been endlessly repeated. As these typical designs are applied to a pure prototype the “flip”, “rotate”, or combination of, can yield some less than optimal results when placed on varying sites.

As we all consider building orientation with respect to heat gain and daylighting, the typical stacked classroom prototype presents some obvious challenges. So what if we changed the rules? What if all the classrooms, except for kindergarten, were located on the second floor? The result is daylight can exist virtually anywhere within a very compact footprint. The planning restraints of the building shape for daylight, E, H, etc. are lifted. The possibility to modulate the shape into a symmetric (or near) symmetric shape then allows for the prototype to be flipped or mirrored without sacrificing orientation. The result is a pure prototype design with the ability to adapt to virtually any site.

Prototypes — both traditional and adaptable — are becoming increasingly popular. When designed appropriately, prototypes can elevate learning environments, save districts time and money, and celebrate the local community in harmony.

This article originally appeared in the issue of .

About the Author

Tim Ganey, AIA, LEED-AP, is a principal with DLR Group, an integrated design firm providing architecture, engineering, planning and interior design, specializing in corporate, educational, justice, sports and entertainment facilities.