Why School Buildings Matter

The classroom isn’t just a space in which we learn, it is a space from which we learn. 

“Students are the new object of the designer’s attention.In the twenty-first-century school, students and teachers are the starting point for all design decisions.” 

The Evolution of School Design

“What, exactly, can the history of school building design tell us not only about the present, but more importantly, what we must learn for the future?”

High Performance Design

Building high performance schools requires collaboration between educators, the facilities team, and board stakeholders. Exceptional school design isn’t about higher budgets—it’s about innovative thinking.

Excerpts from an interview with Steve Parker, Facilities Manager at Simcoe County District School Board.

Hollis Hopkins: How do you strive to optimize the learning and working environments at Simcoe County School Board?

Steve Parker: We work closely with superintendents and other support staff to make sure our spaces support an updated curriculum. For example, we call our full day kindergarten the Institute of Play and it is another step beyond the standard. There is no teacher at the front telling everyone what to do; instead there are stations of activities and an out- door classroom in development. We no longer have the little pens they used to prevent kindergartners from running around. Now they play with grade ones as friends or siblings. As far as I know this is unique in the province. Superintendents have rewritten the curriculum to reflect this newer thinking.

HH:What design standards are you working to establish?
SP: In the last twenty years, the most important aspect of classroom de- sign has been daylighting. The amount of window space was substantial in the 1950s–60s, then for some reason they decreased the size to just a sliver. One argument was about reducing distractions due to kids looking outside but it was actually counter-effective and increased activity in the learning environment. Now we have gone back to large openings so that we bring in as much natural light as possible.

Energy efficiency is another main trend and is at the forefront of every decision we make. Mundy’s Bay Public School is the top performing energy efficient school in North America. Because of that high standard, we have replicated this design thinking in two new elementary schools. We also have an energy monitoring device in the main foyer of the schools so students can look at how their and other schools are performing and can compete for energy efficiency.

HH:How are you able to plan a high performance school within the same constraints as other boards?

SP: All our schools are on budget and on time. Mundy’s Bay is gold certified for LEED construction. We couldn’t afford to continue building energy efficient buildings at the price they were coming in at so we had to find a way to do so within the Ministry budget. We chose not to go the LEED route with other schools because there is a lot of additional consulting that is specific to the certification; instead we mimicked the thinking of that LEED school in our other schools.

Some boards also repeat the design for each school so all are on budget and on time but they all look the same. Schools are for the students and when they travel for sports or other activities, they see that every school is identical. They don’t care about where they are learning or take ownership of the building because it is just like every other school around the county. There is no sense of trying to build a community school if they all have cookie cutter designs. We try to create a space that is standardized but is also unique.

We are building for the occupancy of the building and therefore trying to develop a standard well above the status quo. There is no other point to why we are here but to prepare these kids the best way we can. We are hoping we have found a way to keep these exceptional buildings going and inspire confidence that our kids are learning in the best environments possible.