Never is the value of architecture so poignant, as when it becomes a tool to facilitate learning, development and exploration. Inspired by this video, which presents three new schools in Concord, New Hampshire that physically embody the educational philosophies of independence, collaboration, and creativity, we spoke with HMFH Architects to delve further into this vital question: how can architecture help children develop the early skills, creativity and inquisitiveness needed to become the independent and inspired adults of future generations? Find out after the break.
These three schools, the Mill Brook School, McAuliffe Elementary School, and the Abbot-Downing School all share the common goals of creating an environment that promotes mental, social and physical health of its students and faculty. The architecture is designed to encourage not only the educational goals of the administration, but also a lifestyle. Through the physical division of space, the categorically open plans of the schools create subdivisions (not boundaries) within the classroom spaces. Implied nooks allow different activities to take place, where small class groups and faculty can work within the broader context of the school.
The students are not confined to a classroom with a few windows peering out over a lawn or into a school yard. Instead, they have the whole of their school within sight: poster boards of their classmates’ projects, other class groups working on other assignments, and the events that may be going on simultaneously at another part of the school. This encourages participation and group work – observation and inquisitiveness.
In areas where privacy and isolation are necessary – in offices, specific classrooms or the library for example – ample glazing is provided, both along the exterior of the building as well as into the hallways. Transparency is an element of openness that breaks down the physical boundary of the spaces and encourages a sense of belonging within a community. These private areas are not off limits, are not secretive, and may be a tool to encourage positive behaviors among observing students. It encourages collaboration that can either be working closely with one another or through observation, which in turn develops confidence when approaching new tasks.
Where physical health is concerned, the brightness of the facilities encourages a stimulating sensory experience for students. Natural light and bold, bright colors are opportunities for creating implied uses for the subdivisions between the spaces; different colors evoke different emotions and may affect behavior from calming effects to excitability. The faculty and students also praise the acoustic qualities of the spaces, noting that the different measures taken by the architects reducing echos and creates crisp sounds, vital for a learning environment. Natural ventilation and adequate air circulation also promotes a healthy environment for alertness and attention among faculty and students.
We had a word with HMFH Architects to discuss their approach to these three public schools:
AD: How much collaboration was needed between the city / administration to push the design through? Did you experience any critiques during negotiations – concerns about openness, safety, noise levels, order, etc?
HFMH: From the start of the process, the city knew that consolidation and replacement of familiar old school buildings that held lots of sentimental value would be a tough sell. Neighbors were worried about change, noise and general disruption. All of these issues were points of contention during the early stages of the project. However, the city is fortunate to have a strong, visionary Superintendent of Schools who worked collaboratively with her academic team to develop a vision for the schools that reflects more dynamic 21st century teaching approach to teaching and learning. The educators were involved from the early stages and were very supportive of the approach. Thus there was a united team working with the designers to help resolve neighborhood and community concerns.
AD: How much research went in to understanding childhood development, productivity, and education in order to formulate this approach?
HFMH: From the initial meetings with stakeholders, there was strong advocacy for re-thinking the idea of the traditional library. Literacy is an integral part of all learning activities and yet the traditional libraries were isolated from much of the day-to-day learning in the old schools. With technology and project-based activities changing the nature of learning, and recent research indicating the importance of collaborative spaces that enable physical activity and self-directed learning, both the school administration and designers knew that the schools had to provide a range of variable learning environments.
There are many arguments against this type of approach. For one, noise levels can cause distractions, not to mention that among the many things that may be going on simultaneously it is difficult to hold attention of 6-10 year olds for very long. But perhaps there are psychological reasons for why this may be a good thing. The faculty praise the facility for its openness and happily describe the excitement they see in their students. Maybe there is something to encouraging this sense of community, and acknowledging that the distractions of everyday life are opportunities for learning experiences. “Brain-based research indicates that robust learning is multi-modal and distributive, meaning that we learn most effectively when all of our senses are engaged,” says HFMH Architects. ”We learn through constructive, meaningful, and challenging problem-solving. We learn through social engagement with others. And we learn best when we are healthy, alert, and physically and emotionally engaged with the material. The designers, in response to the school system’s frustration with the traditional library presented the Learning Corridor concept as a logical response to both the shortcomings of the traditional library and to the research on how we learn.” There is a social boundary that is broken in this type of school and that dissolution of our preconceptions of an educational system may be exactly the tools needed for educational reform.
Maybe not all school systems have the funds to aspire to this kind of example and it is likely that this scenario does not work under all circumstances. But HFMH notes that, “the schools are some of the most cost-effective schools HMFH has designed, on par if not more cost-effective than traditional double-loaded corridor school design.” Taking into consideration prescriptive design requirements of the school board for square footage accommodation, these particular models were able to optimize the shared space between the Library Corridor and hallway to acquire approval for the design.
When asked what this typology hopes to achieve HFMH writes:
For children to be successful in the workplace of tomorrow teaching today needs to support the development of collaborative, curious and high performing students. The intent of the Learning Corridor in the Concord Schools is to encourage the necessary collaborative, inquiry-based learning. Everything from the sinks in the project areas to the informal, movable furniture is there to support the hands-on activities that reinforce learning and encourage creativity. The layout also allows self-directed activities to take place that encourage initiative and independence. The Learning Corridor provides flexible spaces that are easily transformable to meet all types of learning styles including small, quiet spaces like story rooms and small group project areas, or performance spaces like the amphitheater or cafetorium. Playful, lively, stimulating school buildings should inspire children every day, and be comfortable spaces where they feel secure and engaged.
This is not a suggestion that the “failing public school systems” of the United States can be fixed with architecture, but it is certainly a factor in the healthy and effectiveness of the education system.
When asked whether this design approach is the future of school design, the architects said, “It is a practical approach to the challenge of how to accommodate and foster more collaborative, hands-on learning in a public school setting. With more rigorous curricular expectations and ever-higher performance standards for students, schools of the future must be flexible and engaging and enable teachers to reach every student in the best way that he or she learns. In addition, learning is becoming much more individualized with one-on-one and small group learning as highly effective strategies.”
Architect: HMFH Architects, Inc. Project Location: Concord, New Hampshire Year Completed: 2012 Photographs: 2012 Ed Wonsek