Back to Nature: Can wood construction create healthier, more productive learning environments?

In Japan, government officials are infusing schools with wood in hopes of creating better learning environments.

March 01, 2005 |

Can the use of wood in school construction create healthier, safer, more productive learning environments?

In Japan, there's an ongoing effort by government officials to construct school buildings with wood materials and finishes—everything from floors and ceilings to furniture and structural elements—in the belief that wood environments have a positive impact on students.

Officials with Japan's Ministry of Education believe wood has numerous endemic qualities that promote the learning process. Visually, they say, wood evokes feelings of warmth, softness, and "positive sensations" among students and teachers. Wood's natural insulating properties help control temperature and humidity swings and sound reverberation, and its shock absorbency reduces the risk of injury. And a three-year study of 700 schools by the Japanese Wood Academic Society reports some data to indicate reduced incidence of influenza outbreaks in wooden schools compared to flu outbreaks in reinforced concrete facilities.

While the research on the benefits of wood in schools is largely anecdotal, the Ministry of Education is fully committed to promoting the social and cultural aspects of this traditional Japanese construction material. Since 1985, the ministry has subsidized school construction projects that incorporate wood with between $19,000 and $190,000, depending on the size and scale of the facility. This effort has resulted in a new breed of timber-framed schools and an even greater number of schools incorporating wood-based interior finishes, such as floors, walls, and ceilings. The ministry has committed subsidies through 2007.

At the 8,530-sm Gumma International Academy in Ota, scheduled for completion next month, exposed Southern yellow pine and Douglas fir glulam timbers form the structural post and beam elements for the roof of the K-9 school. Inside, local architect Ceolacanth and Associates specified wood flooring and ceiling panels.

However, the ministry has a long way to go in its mission to infuse Japan's school system with wood. Timber-framed schools make up just 2% of the country's 44,500 schools. Japan is one of the world's largest wood importers, but wood is generally more costly than concrete, and procuring materials can be a challenge for Building Teams, depending on the capacity of the local mills. There are also limitations to the size and scale of timber-frame structures, and they must meet strict fire and seismic safety standards.

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