Evidence-Based Design

Opening the Doors to Evidence-Based Design In Ojai, California

In 2021, the Thacher School, located in Ojai, Calif., opened the doors to its project-based learning hub. The space was designed to support a multidisciplinary learning environment with collaborative common areas and classrooms that provide greater flexibility in their use. One of the project’s goals was to aid student learning through evidence-based design, which roots decisions about the built environment in research to optimize occupant experience. While the hub incorporates several elements to achieve this goal, the building’s eight full-lite, oversized interior sliding glass doors proved to be key.

The Thacher School walk through area with study nook 


These doors range in from 97.5 inches to 120 inches in height and from 62.125 inches to 79.25 inches in width. All eight doors and their assemblies hold expansive glass lites with sturdy, impact-resistant aluminum framing. They promote a fluid classroom layout, balance visual connectivity with acoustic privacy and contribute ample daylight and visual connectivity—all of which are researched tenets of evidence-based design. As such, they help create an optimal learning environment for Thacher’s students.

Although the specifics of the project-based learning hub are particular to Thacher, they bely general benefits. Each architectural element of a classroom or school holds the potential to contribute to a student’s ability to learn within the space. This is why careful consideration of building design can positively impact student success. By examining how interior sliding doors helped support evidence-based design at Thacher, architects and institutions can extract the concept’s basic premises and incorporate them into their spaces to help students reach their full potential.

Flexible Layout Can Contribute to Student Success

While research on the benefits of flexible spaces in educational settings is scarce, the studies available seem to indicate that flexibility in classroom design can boost academic performance. A 2016 study of U.K. primary schools conducted by Barrett, Davies, Zhang and Barrett implies that environmental parameters affect learning in different ways. Lighting and individualization most impact math studies. Connection to others and links to nature most benefit reading and writing, respectively. Accordingly, it would seem to follow that when classrooms can adapt their space to accentuate these parameters based on subject, they could potentially increase student success rates across the board.

Further building the case, Mark Fehlandt’s 2017 study suggests that flexible classroom design helps educators implement modern teaching practices to facilitate active student learning. In the research, flexible classroom layout did not directly contribute to student achievement. Instead, it helped teachers shift their pedagogy to engage students more effectively. In either study, flexible layout seems to have an effect, direct or indirect, on student learning and so should be a consideration when creating classrooms.

In the case of the Thacher School, Alayna Fraser, from Blackbird Architects (the firm behind the hub’s design), addressed the vital role flexibility played in designing an optimal learning environment. Fraser noted the oversized sliding doors “allow adjacent rooms to function nearly as one space rather than two—adding to the flexible use of the building” and “can easily be opened when activities benefit from connectivity to adjacent spaces or remain closed, providing excellent acoustic privacy when needed.” For these reasons, sliding doors allow educators to change the layout of their classrooms to provide environments that support student success no matter the subject.

Further, these doors enhance the flexibility of the entire hub. Students walking through the learning hub can peek into any classroom, whether the doors are closed or opened, and glimpse the lesson being taught. Those inside the classroom can also look out and see students collaborating on large whiteboards and laptops. The ability for students to see multiple modes of learning happening simultaneously helps establish connections between subjects and projects to support student success. The door design ensures both faculty and students can approach a lesson in a way that is most conducive to the material itself and the learning style of the student.

The Thatcher School glass wall classroom with large slider window door 


Sliding Doors Balance Visual Connectivity and Acoustic Privacy

It is also important that educational settings provide students with quiet environments for concentrated learning. Building on past research, Dockrell and Shield studied the impact of noise on academic performance in 2006. Students were randomly assigned to varying levels of noise conditions (from quiet to babble plus environmental noise). The analyses were controlled for ability. The results suggest that in general noise has a significant and negative effect on both performance and speed of processing a task. Further, students with special educational needs were negatively affected in a different manner than their peers. These results were in line with previous studies, which, when taken together, suggest that acoustic privacy can have a substantial impact on student success rates.

Supporting the need for acoustically isolated spaces, the oversized sliding door systems in Thacher’s building were specified with perimeter acoustic jamb gaskets and drop-down bottom seals to provide a Noise Isolation Class (NIC) rating of up to 39. This meant the door assemblies reduced surrounding classroom noise by 39 decibels—effectively rendering sounds equal to average freeway traffic to the level of a soft whisper. As a result, they minimize noise from adjacent areas to provide students with a distraction-free learning environment. Additionally, these doors have a soft-close dampening system that reduces closing noise.

While all students benefit from acoustically isolated spaces, it is important to note the increased effect noise can have on students with hearing loss and/or students with attention deficits or autism. For students with hearing loss, background noise can reduce their ability to comprehend class lessons and assignments, limiting their academic achievement. Likewise, background noise can heighten sensory processing challenges (which are common for those with attention deficits and/or autism). This limits the ability for neurodivergent students to achieve their academic potential. For these reasons, doors that provide premium acoustic performance can not only help educational environments support student learning in general but can also support a more accessible learning space.

Large Glass Lites Support Daylighting Goals

In 1999, the Herschong Mahone Group conducted one of the first evidence-based design studies by examining the effects of daylight on more than 2,000 classrooms in California, Washington and Colorado. The data indicate students with the most classroom daylighting progressed 20 percent faster on math tests and 26 percent on reading tests in one year than those with the least. These findings are reported to be consistent regardless of curricula or teaching styles. They were duplicated in a 2002 study by Edwards & Torcelli and a 2008 study by Tanner. Furthermore, according to a study by The National Center for Education Statistics, 16 – 28 percent of schools fail to provide a satisfactory amount of natural lighting to their students. Finding efficient ways to improve access to daylight is vital to evidence-based design.

With such evidence behind the benefits of access to daylight in schools, it follows that the Thacher School would desire to increase natural light within its project-based learning hub. The building’s exterior features an extensive amount of glazing that floods the common areas with natural light. Drawing this light into the hub’s interior, the oversized, full-lite sliding doors help maximize the classrooms’ access to daylight. In fact, some of the doors within the hub are so massive they take up the vast majority of a wall. Because they were specified with transparent sidelites and transoms, as well as full-lites, they leave few barriers to natural light. When used in conjunction with other architectural elements, sliding doors can help educational settings meet and exceed daylighting goals.

Improving Student Success with Well-Designed Doors

The doors used in Thacher’s project-based learning hub were customized for the school, so they present specific benefits that are particular to the building. However, they also generally support researched tenets of evidence-based design in classrooms. As such, they exemplify how well-chosen architectural features can potentially enhance student learning outcomes. While door specifications can vary greatly by school, architects and administrators can support academic success by considering how door design contributes to evidence-based design by providing access to daylight, flexible layout and a balance of visual connection and acoustic privacy.

This article originally appeared in the Summer 2022 issue of Spaces4Learning.