Architect’s Toolbox

Good design is thinking design. Architects consider a multitude of factors and make use of the tools and principles outlined here to shape buildings. When these factors are optimized, buildings not only function well, they have a positive effect on their occupants and their environments.

1. Air Quality

Clean air is vital to good health. There are two basic types of contamination—biological and chemical—that can have a negative impact. Mould, which can damage structural materials and cause respiratory problems (especially in children), thrives in warm environments that offer plenty of moisture and oxygen. Long-term exposure to chemical contamination, meanwhile, can cause irritation, induce allergic reactions, and even affect the central nervous system. Chemical contamination is usually caused by certain construction materials, finishes, and cleaning products. To avoid air quality problems, building materials that offer low chemical emission rates are selected, and school design allows for good ventilation. Good ventilation resulting in decreased levels of carbon dioxide has been shown to increase the speed at which students complete tasks.

2. Lighting

Architects measure lighting—illuminance—as the amount of visible light spread over a given area. It is measured in lux and a typical classroom has an illuminance of 300 to 500 lx. Daylight from more than one orientation and artificial lighting options should be combined to ensure vivid colours and well-defined objects, with illumination that is consistent and evenly distributed. Architects also work with different modes of light—task lighting is integral to a usefully-designed classroom. In a music classroom, for example, a bright light placed above a music stand allows students to read sheet music without straining their eyes. Good lighting is crucial to learning, and, as a number of scientific studies have shown, daylight is particularly beneficial. Natural light helps students maintain a healthy circadian rhythm, which encourages healthy sleep patterns. A lack of daylight, meanwhile, can delay production of cortisol, a hormone that helps students concentrate. 

3. Acoustics

There are two acoustic elements that can influence teaching and learning: ambient noise and reverberation. Excessive ambient noise—the amount of noise created by everything but the teacher’s voice, including noise from outside the classroom—can make it difficult for students to understand and absorb information. It also forces teachers to raise their voices, making teaching more difficult. A classroom that reverberates sound, or echoes, can also compromise speech intelligibility. A teacher’s voice should ideally be at least 15 decibels (dB) louder than all other sounds in the classroom—a measure known as the signal-to-noise ratio. Poor acoustics can impair the learning environment. A number of studies conducted over the past ten years have shown that excessively noisy classrooms can impair students’ concentration and make reading and memorization more difficult.

4. Materials

Materials are all the physical components that make up a building. Durability, as well as use and maintenance costs, are key factors in choosing building materials. The durability, inexpensiveness, and flexibility of concrete make it a popular choice in school design. Sustainability is also a factor, valuing materials that use fewer natural resources and result in less energy consumption.. Well-chosen materials can inspire students’ imagination and intellect, and can even improve the learning environment—materials that absorb sound, for example, can make for quieter classrooms that are more conducive to learning.

5. Spatial Organization

Consider both the organization of individual classrooms and the layout of the school as a whole. Rooms should allow for flexible seating arrangements to facilitate class discussion as well as quiet study and group work, and should ideally leave about 10 square feet of space per student, plus circulation space. High ceilings ensure the diffusion of noise and light, reducing the distractions both can cause. The teacher’s desk should offer a clear view of the class and any displays—in this way, a teacher can maintain an authoritative position while engaging with media. School layout should encourage student interaction; areas should relate to one another, creating logical transitions between spaces. Research indicates that good spatial design can improve student behaviour and concentration, encourage productive class discussion, and make for more efficient and effective teaching.

6. Biophilia

Biophilia is the hypothesis that humans have an innate affinity for the natural world. It is understood that indoor plants can decrease the severity of symptoms of illness, improve indoor air quality by filtering pollutants, and enhance mood. But there are also a number of ways in which indoor flora can benefit students and teachers, specifically. In the classroom, even a small assemblage of plant life can improve students’ concentration, attention to detail, and overall performance. Indoor plants can also reduce fatigue, resulting in more engaged and effective teaching and learning. Equally important is observation of and interaction with the natural world outside of the classroom. The environment of the school is key—for example, rooftop space can be adapted for use, and school grounds can be fitted with structures that attract birds and butterflies. The school site should include trees and other plant life.

7. Thermal Conditions

Temperature, measured in Celsius (C) or Fahrenheit (F), and humidity, expressed as a percentage, are the most important elements comprising a classroom’s thermal conditions. A classroom’s temperature should be moderate and relatively constant—ideally ranging from 20–23C (68–74F)—and its humidity should range between 40 and 70 per cent. In these conditions, students thrive, performing tasks more quickly and with greater accuracy than when thermal conditions fall outside the given ranges. Research has also shown that teachers feel they perform better when they have some measure of control over their thermal environment. Effective school design ensures that appropriate thermal conditions can be achieved and maintained with minimal energy usage.

8. Context

Architectural context can be considered in three ways: the relationship of a building to its natural surroundings, the relationship of a building to its built and cultural surroundings, and the relationship of a building to its contents. A well-designed building exists in harmony with its setting, neither blighting or unduly altering the natural landscape, nor differing too greatly in height, size, or style from the buildings that surround it. Contextually aware buildings include design elements that symbolize their function and cultural backdrop. A school building that works within its context allows students to appreciate their place in their built, natural, and cultural environment, while providing them with a distinct sense of purpose within that environment.

9. Site and Scale

Site and scale describe the way a building fits into its surroundings from a physical and technical, rather than aesthetic or cultural, point of view. Considerations may include the positioning of windows based on the views they offer and the type of lighting they provide, existing infrastructure (the proximity of highways and major arterial routes, the availability of public transit, pedestrian accessibility, etc.), and the environmental impact of construction. Site and scale can affect a school’s learning environment. An accessibly sited school, for example, may improve attendance and reduce student and teacher fatigue by shortening commutes. An appropriately scaled building, meanwhile, can help to instil in students the importance of environmental responsibility.