Sunday, November 27, 2011

Designing a School

During my first fall of teaching in 2003, the school district I worked for passed a bond issue to build a new high school. The following spring the architects and facility committee (which I would later join) asked for staff input. So I ask you: What would your ideal school look like? What features would you prioritize? How would you maximize utility within a budget?

I was reminded of this activity by a recent post by Zac Chase. In that post, he discusses a class activity where he and other students plan the layout of a school in order to think about the environments that best support teaching and learning. In 2004, when I was faced with a similar task, I set to work sketching on paper. When sketching wasn't good enough, I went with graph paper and scale drawings. When graph paper wasn't good enough, I downloaded a free CAD program, taught myself how to use it, and set out to design an entire school. I was a bit obsessed. I had the following goals and guidelines to consider:
  1. The design needed to accommodate 750 students in classrooms and have "common spaces" (gym, locker room, cafeteria, library, etc.) to handle an expansion up to 1500 students.
  2. The school budget allowed for approximately 115,000 square feet.
  3. Hallways are an expensive use of little-used space. I wanted to minimize them.
  4. Departments would have common computer lab space and office space for teachers.
After a lot of editing and calculating, this is what I came up with on the first floor (open link in new tab and zoom for maximum detail):
First floor
And here was the plan for the second floor:
Second floor
I was (and still am) pretty proud of this creation. In fact, I still believe this school offers a better use of space than the school that was eventually built. However, with 7+ years of hindsight, I think this plan could have used the following improvements:
  1. Instead of shared "computer lab" space for each department, students would take their technology with them to the classroom.
  2. In place of the computer spaces, I'd provide more space for student group collaboration. I was thinking about the office for teacher collaboration space, but at the time I didn't think enough about student collaboration space.
  3. I didn't think too much about the cafeteria, and it shows. Dining areas should be more inviting than the rows-of-tables design I designed.
One other lesson I learned after serving on two facility committees is this: Don't just ask teachers what they want in their classroom and school. Ask teachers what they imagine a teacher twenty years from now will want. Otherwise, it's too easy to give teachers the impression that the school is being custom-built for them, something that's not likely to happen. It might not even be desirable. Instead, ask them questions that reflect the school's long-term value to the community.

Those are important, but otherwise I think my floorplans still have something to offer. I don't know why I hadn't shared them until now, but maybe they'll be of some use to somebody looking for school building ideas. Just promise me that if you build this thing, invite me to come see it!