Designing schools to be safer and encourage learning

Architectural Record takes a look at how schools might be designed differently after the December 2012 Newtown shootings:

While fortress-like buildings with thick concrete walls, windows with bars, and special security vestibules may be more defensible than what is currently in vogue, they are hardly the kind of places that are optimal for learning. Edmund Einy, a principal at GKKWorks, says that what’s been done so far in many urban schools in the name of safety—such as slapping bars on the windows—has had a pernicious effect on students’ morale and performance. Einy’s new Blair International Baccalaureate Middle School, in Pasadena, foregoes bars. But administrators must greet students before they are allowed to go inside, which led GKKWorks to create an entry plaza. “There’s not much more we can do,” he says. “What are we going to do, put kids in prisons?”…

In recent years, glass has become the material of choice for the walls of many schools, which have cottoned to the idea that students will be more stimulated in rooms bathed in natural light. An example—according to Thomas Mellins, an architectural curator—is Ennead Architects’ Frank Sinatra School of the Arts in Queens, N.Y., where a transparent façade allows close-up views of ballet and other classes. (Mellins’ exhibition, “The Edgeless School: Design for Learning,” is on view at New York’s Center for Architecture through January 19, 2013.)

For his part, Mellins doesn’t rule out that the shootings may result in design changes; he just hopes law enforcement talks to architects early in the design process. But, Mellins says, “I don’t think safety concerns translate into a simple and direct agenda, like build this way, don’t build that way.”

In a sense, school design has baked-in security concerns ever since the mass school shooting in Columbine, Colorado, in 1999. Doors now routinely lock after the first bell. Metal detectors are also common. Possibly, more steel could be used in doors, but “that seems to be sort of in the opposite direction of where schools have been headed,” says architect Jerry Waters, of Portland, Oregon’s Dull Olson Weekes Architects. School buildings make up 70 percent of the firm’s portfolio. Waters adds, “When someone has the intent to kill, I’m not sure if architecture can solve that problem.”

I have multiple questions after reading this:

1. It sounds like there might be different designs based on the primary purpose of a school’s architecture: is it to help encourage learning or to keep kids safe? How much should the two be mixed?

2. I wonder about lockdown procedures in buildings with a lot of glass and open space. Where can students and staff hide if need be?

3. I’m intrigued that there is no reference here to any studies of this issue. Isn’t there any data on what environments are safer? I wonder if this is similar to the zeal that was once expressed in the US and elsewhere for high-rise public housing but these ideas were reversed decades later when the results weren’t as expected. Architectural determinism can be misused.

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