Buildings Matter: an array of thoughts on physical school design

Physical (or architectural) school design is often confused with “school design” itself, but I have been trying to argue for a holistic understanding of school design (see “on getting to purposes”) in which physical design is one of the elements of broader school design. Physical Design will be an ongoing theme on this blog and here are some teasers…

1) An awesome school building gets built in Brixton, south London. Does it match the needs of the school? Maybe. But regardless, it offers a window onto how challenging designing for schools can be. As the article notes, it’s particularly challenging when governments are involved, but it’s still difficult when they”re not. More importantly the author’s reject the popular British contention that school buildings don’t matter. You really can’t beat this quote from school principal Peter Walker: “‘What the building does best,’ says Walker, is communicate to pupils that ‘someone is valuing them’. It is palpably exceptional, adult and unpatronising.”

2) I really find the work coming out of School Design and Planning Laboratory, at the University of Georgia, to be very interesting. They don’t seem to have a huge operation going, but they are taking the concept of school planning and design seriously, and that doesn’t seem too common. As I noted on twitter last week, they site C. Kenneth Tanner  & Jeff Lackney (2006).  Educational Planning: Leadership, Architecture, and  Management (if you can find a copy of this book for less than $90, please let me know). Tanner and Lackney lay out 31 global school design principles that have currency today. First and foremost, my favorite!:

1. Plan Schools as Neighborhood-Scaled Community Learning Centers

The potential exists to transform the traditional school building into a community-learning center that serves the educational needs of the entire population in the community. Typically, a community-learning center can be created by interlacing residential neighborhoods, various existing community and school organizations, functions and facilities.

3) Ronald E. Bogle, writing for, encourages creating and learning-relevant physical design here. Awesome takeaway:

Hallways make up 20 percent of a traditional school’s footprint. You don’t need them. When I tell school leaders this, they look at me like I’m nuts. But when I explain how wasted-space walkways can be turned into learning spaces, thereby reducing the need for classroom space, it starts to make sense.

3) Learning by Design, a magazine on physical and architectural design that features fascinating and unique school buildings, to which they give prizes, releases their current issues online. The first grand prize winner, in the spring edition (p. 4) is a high school built into a college campus. Interesting model, nice looking building.

3) From Ireland, Darmody, Smyth, and Doherty’s report on elementary school design covers a wide range of considerations (it’s seriously comprehensive. Boring and comprehensive). I appreciate the attention to the interactions of school and community (page XIV or 75 for example). Also, once again, if anyone wasn’t convinced. The school building does matter.



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