Perspectives 07.24.2020

Learning From Our Clients, Our Students, and Each Other to Build a Brighter Future

By Steve Turckes, FAIA, ALEP, LEED AP, PreK-12 Global Practice Leader

Schools as we know them today have seemingly been with us for a very long time. Nestled in our cities, communities, and neighborhoods, this common sight perhaps allows us to take their presence for granted. However it was not until 1918, just over 100 years ago, that compulsory schooling provided a path to educate every child in every state in the U.S.

The notion that all have a fundamental right to an education is the noblest of ideas. At its most ideal, it speaks to the basic human desire to understand our world, to equity of opportunity and to the power of free thought. More pragmatically, in terms of economic and human capital, education is one of the most important, if not the most important, investments we make as a society. It has the capacity to solve vexing problems, create new ventures, change the trajectory of lives, and foster a more empathic and enlightened populace.

The bottom line: schools improve human potential.

Too idealistic? My optimistic self emphatically says “NO!”, but my realist self admits that while all children in the U.S. have the right to an education, institutionalized inequities and funding mechanisms afford some more opportunities than others. The unfortunate truth is that a child’s ZIP code is often a predictor of their academic success. Recent events, especially the COVID-19 crisis and ongoing racial tensions throughout the country, underscore these realities.

When coupled with a June 2020 GAO report which finds “an estimated 54 percent of U.S. public school districts need to update or replace multiple building systems or features in their schools”; and, that high poverty school districts have fewer resources to fix their schools, it can safely be assumed that many districts in need of upgrades are unlikely  to get them. Notably, most of these schools were designed for a different time and place: for a past when we arranged cellular classrooms down either side of a corridor, grouped students by birth year as if that somehow determines interest and aptitude, sit them in tidy stationary rows while they passively “learn”. Ring the class period bell, rinse, repeat. Voila, the factory model school: designed to efficiently organize, sort, and move students down the educational assembly line. The unfortunate truth? The experience that too many students today have in school still feels like that outdated assembly line.

You might ask ‘That’s what school was like for me and I did okay; isn’t it possible that changes aren’t needed?’ The reality of our world today, and the signposts we have that provide hints about the future, suggest otherwise. Today’s world is one in which change is exponential and technology dissolves boundaries.

The ability to innovate is highly rewarded, so we can’t rely on educational systems and facilities that were designed for an economy that no longer exists. We need to rethink both, if today’s students are to be successful.

These thoughts are with me as we approach our work helping school clients envision their futures and navigate the myriad decisions along the path of a building project.

If we start every project with the end in mind, some questions spring forth. What should students know, be able to do, and demonstrate mastery of? What does the teaching and learning scaffolding look like upon which schools will build the educational experiences necessary to reach the end goal? And, what type of learning environments will best support all the above?

While every school community is different our work on these questions, particularly the last, suggests any number of common threads. To support the potential in each individual student, learning environments must be and do many things. They should be beautifully designed, welcoming, comfortable, light filled, student-centered, flexible, connected to nature, have superior indoor air quality, and be energy efficient and environmentally friendly. Schools should allow for interdisciplinary instruction, foster collaboration in a variety of settings and group sizes, promote creativity, support real-world projects and the acquisition of skills. And, while the importance of designing around principles of resiliency has grown in recognition, recent events underscore the need to make this an integral part of every school project.

Today, we know that we must provide students a sense of safety, belonging and purpose. Active learning settings should reign. If challenged to solve thorny problems, students will instinctively collaborate across traditional disciplines producing stunning results: award winning, patent worthy, life altering results. In my work I have witnessed this first-hand. Our children are raw, untapped potential waiting to be nurtured and released. They deserve the richest experiences we can provide in schools designed to support them. We can only achieve this by committing ourselves – as community members, as parents, as architects, and as citizens of the world – to providing outstanding learning experiences and environments that respond to the diverse needs of each school community. This is how we can unlock the true potential of our nation’s children, building a better future for all.


At Lisle Elementary School, the natural landscape that surrounds the building is brought inside through the use of wood elements, abundant views, and a beautifully planted terrace on the second story.
Open floor plans and collaborative classrooms with views outside help instructors support student learning and engagement, boosting wellness and inspiring creativity for all within.