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A lesson in design: High-performance schools are the future

Of all the trends that the K-12 market has experienced, there is one that we believe is here to stay and will guide the future of education:  the design and construction of "high-performance" schools that meet the needs of all users.

High-performance schools are facilities that can impact the learning environment in a variety of critical ways including, but not limited to: improving test scores, increasing average daily attendance, reducing operating costs, increasing teacher satisfaction and retention, mitigating liability exposure and reducing environmental impacts.

In order to support school officials in achieving these lofty goals, it is important for architects to manage priorities, time and budget during the design and construction process. But there are other factors at play–including people, environment and technology–that can help shape the success of your next school project.

Below are some key considerations and recommendations: 


• Design with Users’ Needs in Mind: Identifying the underlying physical and psychological aspects that affect the learning experience is step one. This can be accomplished through a variety of advanced research techniques that aim to uncover the spoken and unspoken needs of all users–from students and visitors to teachers and administrators.


• Think Green: Key design elements, such as material use, water management, indoor environmental quality, etc., can impact the environment. These elements should be taken into consideration during the design phase to build a facility that will easily adapt to and accommodate the school’s changing needs.

• Perform an Energy Audit: Working with the appropriate officials to perform an energy audit, an investigation of all facets of a building’s energy use, helps identify areas for energy improvement.  Energy improvements can free up resources by lowering utility bills to fund other enhancements to the learning environment.

• Lead with LEED: As of April 20, 2007, all new construction and major renovations of K-12 school facilities seeking LEED certification must use the LEED for Schools Rating System, the recognized standard for high-performance schools. The LEED for Schools Rating System recognizes the unique nature of the design and construction of K-12 schools.  By addressing the distinct needs of school spaces and children’s health issues, this standard provides a comprehensive tool for schools that wish to build green, with measurable results.


• Factor in Technology: "Classrooms of the future"–a popular catchphrase–embrace the need for and use of technology as an effective learning and productivity tool. While markers, whiteboards and textbooks are still essential tools for education, more and more administrators recognize the important role that technology plays in helping students prepare for the global challenges that lie ahead. To that end, we–as architects–should work closely with school officials to integrate a number of advanced solutions, from technology infrastructure to hardware and software, throughout the entire facility.

Designing schools that enhance the K-12 learning experience and help children reach their ultimate potential has long been a priority for top architecture teams.  Continued collaboration with school officials will help transform the classroom experience for both students and educators well into the future.

John Francona is the senior vice president of the K-12 division at Astorino, an architecture firm in Pittsburgh, Pa.

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