Adventures in Curiosity: Beneficiaries of Early Learning Centers

Early learning centers provide an opportunity to truly customize design for a particular age group. They also have the potential to set the tone for making the learning experience an adventure in curiosity.

When all early learning functions are joined in one place, the students, educators, and community benefit with an efficient and focused facility layered with learning environments.

Designers of the Community Consolidated School District 59 Early Learning Center are animating spaces that were once ignored. Pockets of space within the corridor are expanded and themed according to the adjacent Learning Gardens: Sensory, Nature, and Fine Arts. The floor pattern and materials, the ceiling heights and colors, and the wall materials help to define these learning and interaction spaces.

Designers of the Community Consolidated School District 59 Early Learning Center are animating spaces that were once ignored. Pockets of space within the corridor are expanded and themed according to the adjacent Learning Gardens: Sensory, Nature, and Fine Arts. The floor pattern and materials, the ceiling heights and colors, and the wall materials help to define these learning and interaction spaces.

Students First

A student’s first experience with school can be intimidating. As educators and architects, we have to create a welcoming early learning environment that supports students’ curiosity while easing their fears of separation.

Many spaces can be adapted to the child’s view and experience: classrooms, hallways, courtyards, entries, play spaces. To create adaptive and flexible learning spaces, designers can tweak factors such as color, textures, displays, counters, sinks, and furniture.

Getting Educators Excited

Because the 21st century early learning center centralizes this function, it gives teachers the opportunity to cross-pollinate ideas and resources. I’ve repeatedly seen teachers get excited about collaborating and sharing spaces in early learning centers. Examples include teaching one to one, small groups, “in-between spaces” for combined resources, and staging spaces for special needs.

A Community Resource

Not only does the dedicated early learning center start learners on the right foot, but it also supports families with special needs and builds community within the framework of the center. It even reaches out beyond the facility to the community at large.

Early childhood is a pivotal time for students to retain their natural curiosity and fall in love with learning. The research-based early learning facility encourages that passion, while boosting teacher morale and supporting families.

Here are Five Tips to Achieve a Program-driven Early Childhood Center.


Design That Links the Next Generation and the Environment

Nature is a closed loop, and we as humans have broken that loop; we’re the only species on Earth that creates waste that cannot be used by anything else. We designed ourselves into this dilemma. I believe that we’re smart enough to design ourselves out of it.

The bad news: the next generation will have to assume much of the burden of meeting this challenge. The good news: we as architects and building owners can do something about it now!

Half the classrooms at Hubble Middle School have views to a five-acre detention basin planted with native prairie grasses.

Half the classrooms at Hubble Middle School have views to a five-acre detention basin planted with native prairie grasses.

Our challenge today is to build bridges between today’s youngsters and their natural surroundings. We do this by designing schools that encourage a more intimate knowledge of the environment and an appreciation for its value. If that happens, students are much more likely to become agents for the change that we need.

Outdoor classrooms inspire teachers to get their students outside and connect with their natural surroundings.

Outdoor classrooms inspire teachers to get their students outside and connect with their natural surroundings.

It starts with simple techniques, like designing spaces with a variety of colors and textures similar to what is found outdoors. If a campus has a natural element, do classrooms have good views to it? Also, how can outdoor areas encourage teachers to take their students outside?

Designers also have to embrace biomimicry, which involves using patterns found in nature to solve design problems. For instance, how can buildings mimic plants to better absorb the sun’s energy? Learn more about the different types of biomimicry.

I often tell my students that this is one of the most exciting times to practice architecture. That’s particularly true when it comes to environmental concerns.


Plants on the inside: Here’s the data to support your suspicions

Some corporations and government agencies advocate “lean” facilities with little to no décor including plants. That’s too bad: research reveals that having plants in the office makes a big difference. You’re probably not surprised.

Unfortunately, many school districts have followed suit with the “lean” mentality.

Research proves that interior vegetation boosts productivity, concentration, and satisfaction. Photo courtesy Sage Vertical Gardens.

Research proves that interior vegetation boosts productivity, concentration, and satisfaction.
Photo courtesy Sage Vertical Gardens.

A recent report from the Universities of Cardiff, Exeter, Queensland, and Groningen suggests plants in offices increase productivity by 15% and workplace satisfaction by up to 40%, according to a press release from Ambius. The study, published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, states that employees in green environments also report higher concentration levels.

If the presence of plants in the workplace can do this for adults, think about the implications for children in schools.

Internal foliage systems like vertical gardens have the potential to not only improve focus and productivity, but also help boost a child’s overall experience of the educational process. The concept of biophilia tells us that humans have an innate need for nature. So why not fulfill that need in the corridors, atriums, and classrooms of our schools?

Vertical wall systems come in all sizes. Here Scott Mehaffey with Sage Vertical Gardens shows students how the lighting system is calculated for a smaller unit.

Vertical wall systems come in all sizes. Here Scott Mehaffey with Sage Vertical Gardens shows students how the lighting system is calculated for a smaller unit.

If you’re coming to the IASB/IASA/IASBO 2014 Joint Annual Conference in Chicago this November, please stop by Legat Architects and Sage Vertical Gardens’ booth. We want to get your thoughts on where educational environments are headed in the coming years.


Buildings that Teach: A Framework for Curiosity and Curriculum

Richard Louv’s book Last Child in the Woods created an international movement to reconnect children and nature. He coined the term “nature-deficit disorder” to describe what happens when people detach from their natural surroundings: diminished use of senses, attention difficulties, and higher rates of physical and emotional illness.

A concept for a nature learning lab includes a geothermal heating/cooling system, an adjustable photovoltaic (solar) panel system, wind turbines, and a biodiversity machine. Rendering courtesy Judson University Graduate Immersive Studio, Winter 2012

A concept for a nature learning lab includes a geothermal heating/cooling system, an adjustable photovoltaic (solar) panel system, wind turbines, and a biodiversity machine. Rendering courtesy Judson University Graduate Immersive Studio, Winter 2012

Louv’s newer book, The Nature Principle: Reconnecting with Life in a Virtual Age, delivers another powerful call to action, this time for families. “The more high-tech we become,” he says, “the more nature we need.”

What better place to promote the human/technology/nature connection than our educational facilities? When architects integrate nature into their design, the building creates a biophilic connection, which promotes that instinctive bond between humans and nature.

If you’re going to the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE) Conference & Expo in Portland this year, I encourage you to register for my October 27 presentation “Buildings that Teach: A Framework for Curiosity and Curriculum.”

Craig Schiller (Rocky Mountain Institute), Daniel Hellmuth (Hellmuth + Bicknese Architects, LLC), and I will reveal how sustainable education can be integrated into the built environment. We will cite examples of high performing and living buildings throughout the country for both K-12 and higher education institutions. Those who attend will be able to identify and overcome challenges that come with concepts like immersion, diversity, and biomimicry. Dan will even talk about a Living Building Petal registered dorm at Berea College.

A biodiversity wall acts as a natural filter for wastewater. Rendering courtesy Loren Johnson, Judson University Graduate Immersive Studio, Winter 2012

A biodiversity wall acts as a natural filter for wastewater. Rendering courtesy Loren Johnson, Judson University Graduate Immersive Studio, Winter 2012

Just as technology influences the learning process, the building and its surroundings have the potential to inspire a renaissance in the way that students think and learn. Join me in Portland later this month to get the renaissance started!


How Buildings Teach Part 5: Immersion

Video games. Television. Advertisements. iPads. Cell phones. Laptops. Our technology-driven society has overstimulated children.

Schools and educational programmers are, in a sense, competing with all of these platforms for the attention of our children. It is very difficult for today’s students to narrow their focus in a traditional educational setting when they are constantly bombarded with visual stimuli.

The Challenger Learning Center in Pennsylvania will include a NASA-designed mission that challenges students to apply STEM skills that they have acquired in the program. Sketch courtesy Desmone & Associates Architects and Legat Architects.

The Challenger Learning Center in Pennsylvania will include a NASA-designed mission that challenges students to apply STEM skills that they have acquired in the program. Sketch courtesy Desmone & Associates Architects and Legat Architects.

The final lesson in how buildings teach, then, looks at how we can create educational settings as engaging and as flexible as the platforms with which they compete. The answer lies in immersion, or creating an authentic environment.

A multi-sensory, technology-driven design solution offers a new perspective for tomorrow’s leaders by plunging them into an environment much like that they will encounter in the real world.

The Challenger Learning Center now in conceptual design exemplifies the concept of immersion. As the first facility of its kind in Pennsylvania, the facility will replicate the look and feel of a real spacecraft and put students at the helm of a NASA-designed virtual space mission that integrates STEM lessons. The role-playing and hands-on challenges build problem-solving skills.

Imagine an immersive educational setting that allow students to step into a cathedral, a forest, and the aurora borealis all in the course of a day. Renderings courtesy David Merlo.

Imagine an immersive educational setting that allow students to step into a cathedral, a forest, and the aurora borealis all in the course of a day. Renderings courtesy David Merlo.

Technology can also help us create classrooms that transport students across the world or into the past to support lessons in science, history, and other subjects. David Merlo, a student of mine at Judson University, created a design concept for an immersive learning setting that gives students the opportunity to “almost experience first-hand” a variety of environments.

Thus ends our series on how buildings teach. Only one question remains: how can we as teachers and educational programmers move forward with these concepts?


How Buildings Teach Part 4: Adaptability

We cannot predict the future of curriculum delivery, but we can prepare for it. This challenge introduces the fourth way that buildings can teach: by offering spaces that can easily be modified to accommodate the curricular changes that are sure to happen.

One facility component that has the potential to be adaptable is the wall. A “kit of parts” approach to wall design involves sections that can be quickly reassembled.

The membrane wall functions as a kit of parts that can adapt to changes in delivery. Images courtesy Legat Architects and Moore Ruble Yudell.

The membrane wall functions as a kit of parts that can adapt to changes in delivery. Images courtesy Legat Architects and Moore Ruble Yudell.

The above example, extracted from a conceptual design for New Trier High School, takes the typical corridor wall to the next level. This “membrane wall” offers learning interfaces on both the corridor and the classroom side: exhibit niches, technology screens, views into the classroom or corridor, and even an aquarium.

The kit of parts on the corridor side might also include recessed seating, lockers, and recycling stations. Possibilities on the classroom side include shelving and display space, storage, and interactive seating and critique space.

Read more about the role that walls play in supporting education:

A Shared Interlude: Between the Walls

What If Walls Could Teach?


How Buildings Teach Part 3: Diversity

The next lesson in how buildings teach relates to the role that educational settings play in supporting learning preferences.

Students have different learning styles. When K-12 planners and school leaders work together to understand those viewpoints, we can customize educational environments.

Diversity in educational settings leads to better student performance in the short term and the long term. Photo courtesy Kingscott Associates

Diversity in educational settings leads to better student performance in the short term and the long term. Photo courtesy Kingscott Associates

Many older schools were designed with a different mindset: the architects figured that most students would go on to work in factories. This is evident in the design of these old facilities, where replication and uniformity dominate.

Today’s students have much more varied career trajectories. We can help these students achieve success by creating settings that respond to their different learning styles.

Children gravitate toward their ideal learning environment when classrooms offer a variety of scales, shapes, colors, and textures. When place matches strategy, optimal learning results.


On their way: Net-zero schools in Chicago

Today’s guest co-author is Jinho Kim, visiting professor at Judson University and sustainability coordinator at Legat Architects.

Across the nation, the popularity of the “living building” concept is growing. These “net-zero” energy buildings (NZEB) have zero net energy consumption. That means they harness energy from the sun, wind, or earth to exceed net annual demand.

Recently, our students at Judson University participated in the Living Building Challenge Collaborative Chicago (LBCCC) 2014 School Annex Design Competition. The ingenuity of their ideas proves that such a net-zero school is not only on its way to Chicago, but that the next generation of school architects will approach the drawing board with a living building mindset.

A design competition for an annex to Eli Whitney Elementary School in Chicago proved that net-zero schools are soon to arrive.

A design competition for an annex to Eli Whitney Elementary School in Chicago proved that net-zero schools are soon to arrive.

First a bit more on the LBCCC. The competition, open to professional firms and students, challenged entrants to consolidate temporary classrooms at Chicago Public Schools’ Eli Whitney Elementary School campus into a net-zero addition. The school is located in Little Village, a predominately Latino neighborhood in Chicago.

The design needed to better support the school’s STEM curriculum that starts as early as kindergarten. We challenged our students to not only create a campus rich with high-performance technologies, but also to transform it into a teaching tool that supports the curriculum. For instance, how can collected rainwater or photovoltaics (i.e., solar cells) support STEM lessons? We stressed that every aspect of their design, from window size to exterior and interior materials and finishes, can affect the natural environment.

Also, the class met with the Eli Whitney principal, students, and parents to listen to their concerns and needs.

The students approached the semester-long project with enthusiasm. Two students, Lane Williams and Kevin Danikowski, received an honorable mention in the LBCCC competition. Keep in mind that they were competing against design professionals at world-renowned firms!

Vibrant colors and sustainable systems surround the “oasis” in Lane Williams’s concept.

Vibrant colors and sustainable systems surround the “oasis” in Lane Williams’s concept.

The Oasis – Lane Williams

Lane capitalized on the importance of the courtyard. Recognizing the value of connection and community in the Little Village neighborhood, he created an activity-filled “oasis” between two existing buildings. He incorporated colorful murals in the Hispanic style to add vibrancy and respond to the cultural context.

Additionally, Lane proposed large skylights to bring natural light deep into classrooms in existing and new buildings. The skylights also act like natural ventilation shafts. A green wall on the south side of his addition offers natural shading, while a greenhouse between buildings enables planting of vegetables for school use. Lane’s sloped roof carries rainwater down to cisterns, which are partly exposed for public view. The water will run through filtering systems before reuse.

Kevin_Danikowski_Modules

Module Zero – Kevin Danikowski

Kevin proposed a module system to achieve net-zero energy consumption for several reasons: modules are fast, easily expandable, cost effective, and recyclable. He offered well-researched details regarding wall composition to maximize recycled content (e.g., barn wood and plastic plywood sheets) and reduce the amount of carbon dioxide generated.

Kevin’s scheme includes a solar chimney that uses the sun’s energy to help naturally ventilate the facility and reduce the cooling and heating load. In summer, hot air rises and exits quickly, but in winter, a cap on the chimney pushes warm air back into the facility to help heat it.

Kevin’s learning wall offers vegetation, research stations, a fruit vending machine…even an aquarium. He also introduced a solar share program that enables residents to take advantage of the excess energy generated by the school.


How Buildings Teach Part 2: Exposure

There is so much happening “behind the scenes” of school buildings. Unfortunately, most students never get a chance to see it. Architects have traditionally masked these inner workings behind walls and ceilings. Why not celebrate them?

The second lesson in how buildings teach has to do with exposure. With the current emphasis on energy-efficiency, this is a great time to highlight, rather than conceal sustainable building systems.

School designers should think of ways to encourage children to explore what’s happening behind the scenes. “Scan10222” by ttumlin, used under CC / Cropped from original

School designers should think of ways to encourage children to explore what’s happening behind the scenes. “Scan10222” by ttumlin, used under CC / Cropped from original

When different viewpoints are exposed, students see new solutions to standard construction practices. Exposing these technologies to students can provoke “why” questions within and beyond the classroom.

A green room monitors rooftop solar panels and supports the science curriculum at Niles West High School.

A green room monitors rooftop solar panels and supports the science curriculum at Niles West High School.

By revealing what makes buildings tick, we can transform the way that students think about the mundane.


Niles_STEM_Lab_Pulley

How Buildings Teach Part 1: Interaction

When architects put students and educators in the center of the design process, we can customize places to stimulate curiosity and learning. At every step of the process, we should be asking ourselves, “How can this material or object educate?”

Water features not only make public spaces more enticing, but can also support science classes.

Water features not only make public spaces more enticing, but can also support science classes.

There are several strategies to achieve environmental learning: interaction, exposure, diversity, adaptability, and immersion. These measures can lead to spontaneous collaboration and the transformation of purpose into place.

Design that celebrates both traditional instruments and modern technologies promotes curiosity and experimentation. Pulley image copyright Brian Jeffery Beggerly through creative commons (https://www.flickr.com/photos/beggs/).

Design that celebrates both traditional instruments and modern technologies promotes curiosity and experimentation. Pulley image copyright Brian Jeffery Beggerly through creative commons (https://www.flickr.com/photos/beggs/).

What Does That Do?

Objects at rest and in motion can teach physics without instruction. Think of all the instruments that can be built into exterior and interior environments: pulleys, wheels, pivot and sliding doors, balance and counter balance, water and kinetic sculptures. Not to mention all the current technologies, including both the flashy systems and the “guts” that make them work.

These “tools of the trade” promote demonstration by doing and experimentation.

At the Hamilton Elementary School now under construction, clear “garage doors” between classrooms will inspire interaction among students and support co-curricular projects.

At the Hamilton Elementary School now under construction, clear “garage doors” between classrooms will inspire interaction among students and support co-curricular projects.