New designs fuel inspiration while responding to students’ changing habits

By Amy Bell, AIA, LEED Green Associate

WHAT INSPIRES YOU? Close your eyes and imagine the space where you feel the most inspired, most ambitious, or most cre- ative. What is it about that space that elicits those particular emotions and feelings?

   These are the questions designers seek to answer as they break away from traditional school designs in response to changes in teaching methods and shrinking school construction budgets. Through thoughtful design that engages the end user and stimulates creativity, today’s architects have the power to positively impact the educational system like never before.

   Those space attributes that make you feel most inspired should be emulated in the educational environment; natural lighting and bright colors are just part of the answer. Engendering a sense of ownership or connectedness to the space is equally vital and can lead to a more alert and productive student body.


Educational facilities that create a sense of student ownership have the power to further engage students. At Auburn High School’s Cafeteria and Kitchen Renovation Project in Auburn, Alabama, designers set aside a large area of architectural mill- work to allow students to display artwork. In turn, students take pride in the space.

   Todd Freeman, Auburn High School’s executive director of school operations and services at the time of construction, pro- posed the concept: “We wanted to find a way to connect the kids to the cafeteria. The school’s art program is very strong and we wanted to showcase that.”

   Students also constructed displays in an existing campus building to showcase work by the school’s photography, graphic arts, and drawing classes.

   In Georgiana, Alabama, the K-12 Butler County Magnet School uses large flat-panel TV monitors for announcements, as well as student and group recognition. The school is in a rural community, but places an emphasis on technology and new teaching methods throughout its design with a variety of teaching and independent study areas. Other specialty areas include a circular Internet café for high school students and meeting spaces at the end of each classroom wing where students and teachers can gather in smaller groups or display special creative projects.

   Dr. Mike Looney, superintendent of the Butler County School District during the school’s construction, is now adopting simi- lar ideals in his current position as superintendent of schools for Williamson County School District in Tennessee. A new K-8 complex, currently in design, is scheduled to open there in August 2015.

   “The more we imbed relevance in the school environment, the more likely students will be successful,” says Looney. Today’s learners need space to collaborate, meet, and innovate, so every space should be designed to build upon this theme.”

   Looney credits the school board for its encouragement of stu- dent, teacher, and community ownership when developing new facilities. “Once construction of a new school is approved, the school’s principal actively engages the community in a variety of ways, through PTO and support groups,” says Looney. “The stu- dents and parents assist in choosing the mascot, school colors, and even the name of the new school.”


Butler county Magnet School

Auburn High School

Auburn High School

   In another example of student ownership, Alabama State University’s new Houston Markham Jr. Football Complex fea- tures a giant mural in an entrance passageway with photos of previous players drafted by the NFL. A large seating area, natural lighting, and vibrant colors in the same area allows players to treat the passageway as a personalized communal area.

   Speaking at an April 9, 2013, Security Summit in Atlanta, Michael Dorn of School Safety Partners asserted that a more secure environment is another byproduct of students claiming their space. Since students and teachers are more alert and aware when working in spaces where they have ownership, natural surveillance can reduce the reliance on more conventional secu- rity surveillance systems. “Security cameras can help make your school safer in some situations, but there is not a camera system in the world that has anywhere near the ability to make your school as safe as each of you,” Dorn remarked.


Today, teachers are moving out of the classroom and into collab- orative spaces, as students rely more heavily on wireless technol- ogy such as tablets and laptops. In turn, architects are making these spaces more engaging through the use of natural light and bright colors. Natural lighting can be enhanced through sky- lights and light shelves, or simply by aligning corridor spaces

   to maximize daylight. While these collective spaces often add square footage and cost to a school’s design, the result is an edu- cational setting that is more engaging and stimulating, leading to a different but no less important sense of ownership.

   At Trinity Presbyterian School in Montgomery, Alabama, 25-plus eager students line up every morning at the doors to the school’s new K-6 library. “It’s a bright space with great lighting; the entire back wall is floor-to-ceiling windows,” says school librarian Keeli Osmer. “The front wall, which also has floor-to-ceiling windows, looks out over the athletic complex.”

Trinity Presbyterian School

Trinity Presbyterian School

   The library is an inviting space featuring modular furniture and chairs arranged in different shapes. “It’s great for setting up individualized learning stations for different abilities and age groups,” says Osmer. An adjoining resource room has 25 com- puters for use by students and faculty, and is completely glassed in, allowing Osmer to see everything from her desk. According to research by William Nagy, Richard Anderson, and Patricia Herman published in the American Educational Research Journal, if a child begins reading 20 minutes a day while in kindergarten, he or she is more likely to score in the 90th percentile on standardized tests by 6th grade.

   “I’m certain that the new library has had a positive impact on our reading scores,” says Osmer, adding that the school’s old library was a dark, drab space with small windows. “Schools are coming around to the idea that educational environments should be more inviting. [When] you make [the space] a little more exciting and engaging, the students are naturally going to be more receptive to learning.”


In a way, everyone in a school system is a designer. Administrators design their school curriculum, teachers design their lesson plans, and students design their future goals. In that same vein, early faculty and student involvement in the design process of any school project can foster a feeling of ownership, and the end result will be a better marriage between aesthetics and functionality.

   While getting input from every end user is impractical, sur- veys and focus groups comprised of a select group of students and faculty could help designers gain key insights. On occasion, end users who are not engaged in the design process are dis- satisfied with the end result, whether in relation to functionality, teachability, or stimulation. Many of these issues can be avoided by simply organizing a small focus group or through some system of anonymous feedback. School administrators should therefore be careful to select a designer who seeks to engage the end users and is skilled at extracting information.

   These are exciting times for educational design. Designers, with the assistance of administrators, faculty, and students, have the potential to affect education in a quantifiable way by design- ing components into facilities that encourage ownership and meet the changing needs of students and faculty. 

Volume 26/Fall 2017 

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