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.


A birch forest inspired a design concept for atrium space at New Trier High School.

Nature-based Learning Part 2: Biomimicry

When Leonardo da Vinci wanted to solve the problem of human flight, he turned to nature: birds and bats. His sketches set the course for today’s advancements in modern aviation.

da Vinci’s story illustrates biomimicry, the second of the environmental concepts poised to influence the design of educational facilities in the coming years. While biophilia acknowledges the bond between humans and nature, biomimicry involves creating facilities that imitate nature to solve problems.

A birch forest inspired a design concept for atrium space at New Trier High School. Image courtesy Legat Architects and Moore Ruble Yudell.

A birch forest inspired a design concept for atrium space at New Trier High School. Image courtesy Legat Architects and Moore Ruble Yudell.

The design concept for an atrium at New Trier High School exemplifies systems biomimicry, which draws from natural systems. In this case, the structural elements mimic tree trunks and branch extensions. The roof encourages light to penetrate the space, similar to a forest.

There are several other types of biomimicry:

  • Some leading tech companies use the term “swarm” to achieve a kind of cultural biomimicry. This practice, modeled after a swarm of bees, brings together diverse viewpoints to brainstorm a quick solution to a problem.
  • Velcro was invented by a Swiss engineer after he studied the surface of the burrs that stuck to him and his dog during a hike. That’s element biomimicry.
  • Evocative biomimicry looks to abstract patterns in nature to inspire design. For instance, the roof of the proposed atrium at New Trier High School uses a transparent plastic material called ETFE. The abstract pattern, based roughly on a forest canopy, lets in and lets out light based on different solar exposures and different times of the year.
The roof of the New Trier concept borrows from natural patterns to control light within the space. Image courtesy Legat Architects and Moore Ruble Yudell.

The roof of the New Trier concept borrows from natural patterns to control light within the space. Image courtesy Legat Architects and Moore Ruble Yudell.

For hundreds of years, architects have struggled to create the most efficient and beautiful facilities. Biomimicry suggests that perhaps Mother Nature has already achieved that ideal. Now, as educational planners and leaders, we have to learn from her methods!

 


Nature-based Learning Part 1: Biophilia

When students are exposed to nature (whether outside or inside with views to the outdoors) their senses are activated. And when the senses are engaged, the brain is more receptive to receiving new information.

Studies have shown that exposure to nature:

  • Increases attention span
  • Strengthens memory
  • Reduces stress
  • Improves mood
  • Enhances creativity
Conceptual design of an atrium at New Trier High School recognizes the instinctive bond between humans and natural living systems.

Conceptual design of an atrium at New Trier High School recognizes the instinctive bond between humans and natural living systems. Image courtesy Legat Architects and Moore Ruble Yudell.

It was with this research in mind that we collaborated with Moore Ruble Yudell to design an atrium for a design competition at New Trier High School in Winnetka, Illinois.

Two nature-related concepts propelled the design of the atrium: biophilia and biomimicry.

The Way We Connect

Biophilia. Sounds a bit like a disease, doesn’t it? Actually, it’s quite the opposite.

In 1984, naturalist Edward O. Wilson defined biophilia as “the innate tendency [in human beings] to focus on life and lifelike process…our existence depends on this propensity, our spirit is woven from it, hopes rise on its currents.”

Since then, biophilia has become part of the contemporary architectural vocabulary. Not only does biophilia support learning, but it also supports the bottom line. Terrapin Bright Green recently launched a paper titled “The Economics of Biophilia.” It explains why designing with nature in mind makes financial sense.

The landscape plan for New Trier High School shows many connections to nature.

The landscape plan for New Trier High School shows many connections to nature. Image courtesy Legat Architects and Moore Ruble Yudell.

The New Trier project integrates biophilia with living wall systems and vegetative roofs. Natural light and views to the outdoors fill the atrium. Circulation patterns connect the space with outdoor learning environments in the landscapes surrounding the facility.

Stay tuned for a discussion on biomimicry, the other half of the nature/design equation.

 


Five Tips to Achieve a Program-driven Early Childhood Center

As communities continue to grow, school districts struggle to meet intensified early childhood education demands. Lack of early learning space can lead to makeshift “classrooms” that fail to support current instructional and learning styles. Also, I’m seeing a ripple effect in that insufficient early childhood space is creating inequalities among other schools within districts.

Recent research in early childhood learning reinforces the importance of early childhood centers (ECCs) that respond to current teaching strategies and to student needs. Following are a few potential key elements of program-driven early childhood centers.

Early learning communities promote therapy, exercise, and group activities.

Early learning communities promote therapy, exercise, and group activities.

Early Learning Communities

Today’s early childhood classrooms need to promote collaboration since the rooms have one instructor and one or two specialists.

We propose zoning ECCs into early learning communities. The plan above, for instance, shows a two communities along a corridor in an ECC. Each community has various learning stations that accommodate three to four students. An observation/office area connects the classrooms. The corridor offers community gathering space and leads to other communities.

Multi-purpose spaces can encourage activity and create connections with the outdoors.

Multi-purpose spaces can encourage activity and create connections with the outdoors.

Activity Space and Pathways to Nature

The multi-purpose room can function as an indoor play center with stations for small group activities and movement. The right design not only fills the space with natural light, but also enables students to see the outdoors.

Outdoor learning should also be taken into account; research reveals that exposure to nature improves focus, prolongs attention span, and encourages exploration.

Enlarge corridors to encourage learning beyond the classroom.

Enlarge corridors to encourage learning beyond the classroom.

Corridors that Teach

Even corridors can support a collaborative learning environment. Widening hallways opens up opportunities for students to receive therapy, exercise large motor muscles, or write/draw together on a “wonder wall.”

Teacher Collaboration Rooms

These rooms allow for meeting and office space for up to six staff members (e.g., four classroom teachers, a speech pathologist, and an OT/P therapist). They work in a team to best address the needs of their students. This allows the teacher’s desk to move out of the classroom, thereby enlarging each classroom by 100 to 150 square feet.

A smaller version of the teacher collaboration room is the integrated therapy room. It doubles as an observation room for therapists and parents to view student behavior during diagnostics/assessments. The therapists have a desk and a workstation so the rooms can be shared.

The media center can function as not only a vibrant learning environment, but also a place to welcome parents.

The media center can function as not only a vibrant learning environment, but also a place to welcome parents.

Media Center/Welcome Center

Every ECC should have a safe welcome area that stimulates curiosity and allows children to interact while parents talk with teachers. The media center has the potential to do the job. Flexible furnishings, vibrant colors, and light-filled nooks enable a range of activities: parent/teacher discussions, collaborative learning sessions with therapists and teachers, and student break-out areas.