When educators and school administrators describe their vision for new K-12 school buildings as ‘21st-century learning spaces,’ they’re not exaggerating. Many new schools are truly different in concept from their counterparts of only a few years ago.

September 07, 2012

7. Take sustainability to the next level to save money and add value.

School administrators have gone beyond the honeymoon stage with sustainability. They want green features that produce results. Fanning Howey’s Hall says a client in New Orleans told him: “We want LEED Silver, but we don’t want ‘eco-bling.’ We don’t want things that are not helping us educate children or are not saving us money.” New Orleans devised a checklist specifying which LEED points were most important, with an emphasis on energy efficiency.

Folding walls add space, flexibility

When the Texas Association of School Boards expressed interest in having greater flexibility in elementary school classrooms, SHW Group, Dallas, responded by eliminating the common wall between two classrooms and using a sound-dampening glass wall system (in this case, a NanaWall SL45 unit) to create a “flex space” with a laboratory. Both classrooms are visible from the flex space, giving teachers multiple options for educational activities while reducing the overall building footprint.

Teachers at Burleson (Texas) Elementary School have found more than 30 ways to use the flexible space, including small reading groups, “reading buddy areas” (for parent volunteers), a staging area for parents to set up parties, peer tutoring, babysitting areas on parents’ night, and breakfast nooks for children—even as “emotional breakdown areas” for children with temper tantrums. Teachers reported that having the open connection enables one of them to watch both classrooms while the other takes a restroom break.

More and more el-hi clients are looking for proof that backs up your choice of materials, equipment, and energy-efficiency systems with data showing that these systems perform as advertised, says DLR’s French. His firm has partnered with Colorado State University to evaluate 15 school projects across the country to see if energy-efficiency performance is holding up to expectations.

By the way, don’t forget that 30% of school construction dollars go into additions and renovations. Saving energy is just as important in these projects as it is in new construction. In Washington, D.C., the Phelps Architecture, Construction, and Engineering High School underwent a major renovation that was completed in 2010. The project, designed by Fanning Howey, preserved the original 1930s structure, while a circa-1971 addition was gutted and rebuilt with a new façade and new building systems. The project included four PV arrays, a hot water solar array for building system preheat, two helical wind turbines, and a geothermal cold water loop. These features, along with energy-monitoring systems, also serve as teaching tools.

Some school districts have reported remarkable gains after revamping their curricula, supported by new design. The district that includes Marysville Getchell High School saw its graduation rate rise from 50% to 89% after the school switched to a project-based course of study that students helped devise, says DLR’s French. The 1,600 students are divided into four self-contained academies on campus with a commons area that houses a shared gym, dining room, and fitness room. “The academy arrangement got kids more connected to teachers,” he says.

Such success stories could encourage more school districts to consider how academic innovation linked to a dramatic rethinking of school design could lead to greater success for their students, teachers, and communities. +


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