If you went to public school growing up, chances are you heard this urban legend: that in order to save money, the district had used the same floorplan for your alma mater as a nearby mental institution. While windows that barely opened, and oppressive overhead lighting all hinted that this wasn’t outside of the realm of possibility, the truth is many school planners simply were looking for function over form, and aesthetic pleasure is usually not at the forefront of their minds. However, in light of a new study that says school layouts can actually influence a child’s development by as much as 25 percent, perhaps school planners should be taking design cues from Architectual Digest rather than the federal government?
As part of a recent study, 751 pupils using 34 classrooms across seven primary schools in Blackpool, England were studied over the 2011-12 academic year by the University of Salford’s School of the Built Environment, and architecture firm Nightingale Associates. Data such as age, gender, and academic performance were collected on each of the attending children at the start and end of the year, while each classroom was rated for quality on ten different environmental factors, such as “orientation for natural light, shape, color, temperature and acoustics.”
At the end of the testing period, it became apparent to researchers that the architecture and design of the classrooms had a significant impact in influencing academic performance. Six of the key environmental factors — color, choice, connection, complexity, flexibility and light, were clearly correlated with either higher or lower grade scores.
Though anyone with common sense knows that a pleasant environment leads to higher productivity (a concept which has been promoted everywhere from the White House to Google), this is the first time a study like this had been conducted, successfully linking the impact of design directly to learning rates in schools. The results were particularly interesting over in the UK, where the government has introduced a controversial series of templates for building new schools, which focus on cost cutting over community-friendly design. At the risk of making architects everywhere recoil in horror, some of the standardized measures being enforced through these new templates include “a ban on curved walls and certain kinds of insulated wall and ETFE roofs, sticking to one size for windows and doors, encouraging stacking of blocks on top of each other, and an emphasis on ‘basic’ finishes to interior decorations like balustrades.”
As a result of these implementations, The Royal Institute of British Architects issued a statement criticising the “one size fits all” format that often stymies innovation in modern teaching environments. Other concerns raised include the fear that these new standard corridors would be too small for large numbers of students, that the environmental impact of the buildings would be higher than expected, and that the new templates would be inaccessible for students and teachers with disabilities.
While schools by their very nature tend to favor order and logic rather than extravagance, this standardization tends to make one think more of large hulking public housing projects, rather than an inviting educational institution. Though not taken into account in this study, one also has to wonder about the effects of design on drop out rates–after all, wouldn’t someone prefer to spend time in a comfortable atmosphere rather than one that already looks like a prison? While it’s a sad truth that necessary cuts need to be made to public building projects, at what point do we go too far? School is where most children spend the majority of their youth, and if these buildings start to look more like penal colonies than institutions for higher learning, just what kind of children will we be raising?