Did you know that 64 million European children spend more time at school than anywhere else other than their home? European children spend approximately 200 days each year at their primary schools. With this information, how do we go about designing healthier classrooms that create productive learning environments? This question is perhaps more important than ever, as this will be the first time since the 1970s that Europe and the UK will see a boom in the construction and renovation of schools. What a tremendous opportunity this is for both architects and educators to rethink what an educational facility should be and how the physical environment can be designed to have a positive impact on learning.
More than 64 million European school children and 4.5 million teachers spend around 200 days in school per year. Children spend around 70% of their time indoors corresponding to almost one year indoors throughout their primary school years. Many studies show that a well-designed indoor school environment will promote improved knowledge and learning, as well as children’s health and well-being.
Recent research conducted by Professor Peter Barrett and his team of school design experts at the University of Salford, UK, showed clear evidence that well-designed primary schools can substantially boost children’s academic performance in reading, writing, and math.
Their ground-breaking study, the HEAD Project (Holistic Evidence and Design), concluded that differences in the physical characteristics of classrooms explained 16% of the variation in learning progress over a year for the 3,766 students included in the study. To put it simply, the better designed the classroom, the better children do academically.
The Vital Design Elements
The findings outlined in the HEAD study reveal that certain design elements are intrinsic to improving learning in the classroom. They are:
- Indoor air quality
- Acoustic environment
- Classroom design
This is the first time that clear evidence of the effect on users of the overall design of the physical learning space has been isolated in real life situations. In the past, specific aspects such as air quality have been studied, but how it all comes together for real people in real spaces has, until now, been based on gut-feeling and wishful thinking.
For three years, researchers of the HEAD project carried out detailed surveys of 153 classrooms from 27 diverse schools and collected performance statistics for pupils studying in those spaces.
The Importance of Sensory Factors
The study considered a wide range of sensory factors and used multilevel statistical modeling to isolate the effects of classroom design from other factors, such as the pupils themselves and their teachers.
This guide, and the HEAD study on which it is largely based, assesses three primary physical characteristics of school design which have been found to be particularly influential to learning:
- Naturalness: Light, temperature and air quality. These elements together account for half the learning impact of a school design
- Classroom design: Ownership and flexibility, accounting for a quarter of the learning impact
- Stimulation: Complexity and color, also accounting for a quarter of the learning impact
As noted by researchers in the report, "Surprisingly, whole-school factors (e.g. size, navigation routes, specialist facilities, play facilities) do not seem to be anywhere near as important as the design of the individual classrooms. The message is that, first and foremost, each classroom has to be well designed."
Below you will find practical guidelines on how to implement the HEAD findings in your next educational facility project. Whilst reading these guidelines, why not consider how these design principles (for optimal learning outcomes) could also be applied to other types of buildings - creating better healthcare facilities, better workspaces, better living places, etc.
We all know that the best antidote to the ‘winter blues’ is a break to a warmer, sunnier climate, preferably with white sandy beaches and clear blue waters. The reinvigorating effect of natural light and warmth can also be felt on a smaller scale, and in a wide range of environments, from homes and offices to public buildings, schools, and universities. It is perhaps no surprise then, that when a recent study  looked at how the physical design of educational buildings affects student's performance, one of the significant individual parameters was lighting.
More Daylight Improves Learning 
- Students with the most daylight in their classrooms progressed: 20% faster on math tests / 26% faster on reading tests
- Students that had a well-designed skylight in their room improved: 19-20% faster than those without a skylight
- Students in classrooms where windows could be opened were found to progress: 7–8% faster than those with fixed windows
Ways to Improve the Daylight Conditions in Classrooms
- Ensure that daylight is the superior light source for most of the daylit hours during the year when designing schools and classrooms
- Select solar shading systems that can ensure a high level of daylight quality and maintain views of the outdoors.
- Concentrate on the schools most utilized spaces – invest in daylight solutions where the students are – and allow slightly darker areas within the room, if needed.
- Integrate successful architectural daylight solutions in the overall school design, that combines the advantages of windows both in the façade and in the roof.
How to Design with Daylight?
2. Indoor Air Quality
Poor indoor air quality can not only seriously inhibit students’ concentration and overall performance, but can also lead to increased absenteeism due to illness. Adequate ventilation is therefore imperative for healthy classroom design to help students flourish.
Ways to Improve the Indoor Air Quality in Classrooms
- Open the windows and air out classrooms during lessons. Most schools in Europe have been designed for natural ventilation.
- Innovative natural ventilation solutions, e.g. demand controlled natural ventilation, it can maintain the CO2 level within the recommended range.
- Mechanical ventilation systems can ensure an optimum level of air quality without compromising thermal comfort in colder months.
- Hybrid solutions can combine the advantages of both natural and mechanical ventilation.
3. Acoustic Environment
One important function of the building envelope is to protect the interior from unwanted outdoor noise. Sound insulation is an important parameter of building components, as outdoor noise can have negative effects on health, mood, and learning capabilities. Our perception plays an important role in identifying whether it is sound (positive) or noise that we hear. Unwanted noise is irritating or annoying, and in severe circumstance harmful. Comfortable auditory perception and freedom from intrusive background noise are vital for enabling communication in classrooms and allowing students to concentrate.
Just like the bowls of porridge in the well-known fairy tale of Goldilocks and the Three Bears, the temperature in classrooms should neither be too hot, nor too cold, but just right.
Ways to Improve the Indoor Temperature Conditions in Classrooms
- Use solar shading and natural ventilation in the summer to prevent high indoor temperatures that would reduce learning capabilities.
- Specify energy-efficient mechanical ventilation with the systematical use of natural ventilation to reach an energy neutral strategy for cooling.
- Design windows in the façade and the roof to allow efficient airflow across the space (e.g. cross ventilation, stack effect).
- Integrate effective solar shading solutions in the school design by interrelating air quality, air temperature, view, and daylight with an iterative approach.
5. Classroom Design
Well-designed classrooms can improve students’ learning progress by around 16% in a single year. Ownership and flexibility account for a quarter of this learning impact, so let’s take a look at these important factors in terms of classroom design.
This is an illustration of a classroom with several good features of flexibility, inspired by the Clever Classrooms report: It has defined learning zones, an attached breakout space, an optimum shape with a teaching area relatively close to the furthest students as well as big wall areas for varied display options.
While stimulation, color, and visual complexity are important for creating a vibrant learning environment in classrooms, what is the healthy balance between under-stimulation and over-stimulation?
* This article was originally published as a detailed e-book that you can download here, in its full version.
 Impact of Lighting on School Performance in European Classrooms (2016) C. Maesano and I. Annesi-Maesano, CLIMA 2016, 12th REHVA World Congress 2016, Aalborg.
 1999 by George Loisos for The California Board for Energy Efficiency Program. Submitted by HESCHONG MAHONE GROUP Test score results for over 21,000 students in 2000 classrooms from districts, located in Orange County, California, Seattle, Washington, and Fort Collins, Colorado.