How to design a school of the future

5 insights from Greenville County Schools on designing an award-winning building

Several years ago, Greenville County Schools in South Carolina took an innovative approach to designing a new middle school to be named for our former superintendent, Dr. Phinnize Fisher. We threw out traditional building specs and came up with a new process to design the school around a focused curriculum: STEAM and project-based learning (PBL).

Like most districts, our building specs drove our school design. They were effective in providing standardization but not innovation. Under the direction of Deputy Superintendent (now Superintendent) Dr. Burke Royster, we developed a new way to design schools that has become the model for how we design schools. In 2015, for the first time in more than 20 years, Dr. Phinnize Fisher Middle, a K-12 facility from the southeastern U.S. was named the national James D. MacConnell Award winner by the Council of Education Facility Planners International.

Here are some of the lessons we learned while designing the Dr. Phinnize Fisher Middle School.

1. Re-think the purpose of schools
We have schools so that students can learn. Up until recently, the school building was seen as just that—a building that houses students so they can learn. We were missing out on an amazing opportunity to use the building for learning, not just a place to learn. Fisher Middle has exposed ceilings with colorful pipes, server rooms that are behind glass, and walls and walls of windows letting in maximum sunlight and reducing energy costs. The building is literally a teaching tool.

2. Involve all stakeholders
In most cases, when a school is commissioned, the ed specs are pulled out, architects called in, and project managers start their work. With Fisher Middle, multiple stakeholders were involved well before we started to design the building. We asked for design input from local community partners, business partners, and multiple district departments. Typically, the academics division is not involved until the school is completed. For this project, academics was involved from the start.

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