Improving School Environments by Design

Incorporating some of the best design principles means selecting the best products and systems currently available
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Sponsored by Inpro, NanaWall Systems, and SOPREMA, Inc.
By Peter J. Arsenault, FAIA, NCARB, LEED AP

Learning Objectives:

  1. Identify and recognize the significance of flexible space, acoustics, and sunlight control on interior school spaces.
  2. Assess the health and safety performance aspects of roofing systems as they relate to durability and sustainability.
  3. Explain the importance of proper attention to restroom design in schools, particularly related to shower and locker rooms for privacy and safety.
  4. Determine ways to incorporate the design principles presented into building project documentation as shown in examples.


AAA 1 Structured Learning Hour
This course can be self-reported to the AANB, as per their CE Guidelines
AAPEI 1 Structured Learning Hour
MAA 1 Structured Learning Hour
This course can be self-reported to the NLAA.
This course can be self-reported to the NSAA
NWTAA 1 Structured Learning Hour
OAA 1 Learning Hour
SAA 1 Hour of Core Learning
This course can be self-reported to the AIBC, as per their CE Guidelines.
This course is approved as a Structured Course
This course can be self-reported to the AANB, as per their CE Guidelines
Approved for structured learning
Approved for Core Learning
This course can be self-reported to the NLAA
Course may qualify for Learning Hours with NWTAA
Course eligible for OAA Learning Hours
This course is approved as a core course
This course can be self-reported for Learning Units to the Architectural Institute of British Columbia
This test is no longer available for credit

The design of K–12 schools continues to be studied, reviewed, and assessed, all with the intention of creating better learning and work environments for students, teachers, and staff. This is exemplified by the AIA Committee on Architecture for Education (CAE), which includes more than 8,000 architects and allied professional members nationwide. The CAE serves as an active and dedicated knowledge community of the AIA serving design professionals specializing in educational facilities. The Research Subcommittee of the CAE is supported by the CAE Foundation and has recently put forward a bold idea, namely “it is time to create a value proposition for data-driven evidence to help inform and influence design strategies for architects and educators around the human impact of buildings.” The impetus behind this idea is to go beyond post-occupancy evaluations of school designs and move forward into more academic-based, scholarly research that can be disseminated across the professions to drive better design decisions. Toward that end, its invites broad participation to help the industry focus on the value of the relationship between human performance and building design.

Photo courtesy of

Using up-to-date information based on research and testing can inform the innovative design of school buildings to boost the health, safety, and general welfare of students, teachers, and staff.

While the concept of such evidence-based research may sound abstract, it is still manifest in some very practical decision-making during the design of school buildings. In some geographic locations, the focus is on new construction to accommodate population growth or changing demographics. In other locations, renovations and additions are much more the norm, where innovation is needed to improve and modernize the existing school facilities. In this course, we will use several aspects of school design as examples of common areas of concern for any of these project types or locations. We will also explore some of the performance issues that need to be addressed to keep school designs focused on better outcomes for all of the people who use them.

Flexible Space as a Design Concept

Collaborative teaching and group learning are concepts in education that have received a lot of attention and investigation in recent times. In fact, it is generally understood that next-generation school design requires a more open and shared use of space to help foster such communal learning. Moreover, budgetary concerns often drive the need to utilize constructed space as efficiently and completely as possible. As a result, school boards and educators often request architects to consider ways to incorporate spaces that can be flexible in terms of usage by transforming them in size and character. Of course, that has to be easy to do and still allow for the spaces to function properly in each mode. After all, the goal is to enhance teaching and learning, not detract from it.

Among the solutions to meet these design challenges in schools are innovative operable glass walls. These products are made of panels that can be easily moved to define smaller spaces when they are closed and larger spaces when they are open. From a learning perspective, this solution allows the creation of defined areas for focused learning or the opening up of larger common areas where multiple students can work together on a range of activities utilizing shared resources, such as technology centers or presentation areas. Not only does this approach offer the sought-after variety for student programming, but it also means that teachers can support each other, fostering a better managed classroom environment. From an overall design perspective, creating such a flexible classroom configuration with operable glass walls can optimize or even reduce the needed floor space within a building envelope, which can translate into reduced construction costs.

This flexible space design approach using operable glass walls can address all of the following common needs articulated by teachers and administrators:

  • Variable-sized work groups: Operable glass wall systems enable the separation of smaller groups that can engage effectively in discussions, separate teaching plans, or group projects while also providing opportunities for quiet zones, test centers, advanced or remedial work areas, etc.
  • Multiple concurrent activities: Dividing the space with clear glass systems allows teachers to monitor multiple activities in separated spaces.
  • Outside volunteer space: When parents or visitors volunteer in the classroom, they can use this area to work independently with students.
  • Shared resources: Flexible access offers common storage space for shared books, supplies, or computers, thus reducing redundant purchases.
  • Teamwork: Joining two or more classrooms with shared space allows teachers to configure space to meet their needs.
  • Class management: One teacher can temporarily monitor two classes if another teacher has an emergency or needs a break.
  • Minimized visual distractions: Use of mixed transparent glazing in the upper portion of the glass wall and opaque glazing in the lower portion allows seated students to be isolated from excessive distraction beyond the wall, while a standing teacher can monitor multiple spaces.
  • Cool-off/recovery areas: Separated areas offer isolated, private space for behavioral and emotional issues or disciplinary actions.

Photos courtesy of NanaWall Systems

Operable glass walls separate private spaces from a common area when the panels are closed (left) and connect the spaces together when the panels are open (right).


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Improving School Environments by Design
Buyer's Guide
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