Open High School Design

By Runner1928 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons
A quick link to an interesting article on Fast Company’s Co.Design blog on a high school in Alexandria, Minnesota, which redesigned its infrastructure and interior with Google’s iconic complex in mind.

The new space is bright, open, social, and reconfigurable. It’s made up of six smaller, acoustically separate environments, which connect through an open area called the Community Commons, a combination cafeteria, theater, and social space. Everything is open, right down to walls made out of glass, while all of the furniture is designed to be easy to move around and reconfigure.

This idea of configurability, as well as providing a mixture of different types of spaces, is something we’ve discussed here before.

On the architect firm’s website describing the project, the Cuningham Group, the vision of the school as a community is also brought to the fore:

The design was conceived as a village of learning communities that share an open light filled community commons, the heart and soul of the village. This ‘village’ includes both an Activity Center complete with a Fitness Center that will be open to the public; and a Performing Arts Center featuring a 1,000-seat theater designed in collaboration with several community arts groups.

The firm also made a video which provides a view of exterior and interior spaces of the school. What can be seen is that most spaces are well-lit with natural light from large windows, and provide many sight-lines between spaces for safety and transparency.

Access to Natural Light is a Matter of Public Health

“Employers should look at daylight exposure less as a mark of accomplishment and more as a matter of public health.”

–Eric Jaffe, “Workers In Windowless Offices Lose 46 Minutes Of Sleep A Night” on Fast Co. Design

Our Children Deserve Natural Light In Schools

Here’s an interesting report from PG&E from California in 1999 that demonstrates “a statistically compelling connection between daylighting and student performance.” They also note there is a similar correlation between “skylighting and retail sales.”
The researchers used multivariate linear regression analysis to examine school performance data from three different school districts. Here’s some of that data from one school district.

“Controlling for all other influences, we found that students with the most daylighting in their classrooms progressed 20% faster on math tests and 26% on reading tests in one year than those with the least. Similarly, students in classrooms with the largest window areas were found to progress 15% faster in math and 23% faster in reading than those with the least. And students that had a well-designed skylight in their room, one that diffused the daylight throughout the room and which allowed teachers to control the amount of daylight entering the room, also improved 19-20% faster than those students without a skylight. We also identified another window-related effect, in that students in classrooms where windows could be opened were found to progress 7-8% faster than those in rooms with fixed windows. This occurred regardless of whether the classroom also had air conditioning. These effects were all observed with 99% statistical certainty.”

The researchers summed up the findings of their report as follows:

  • We found a uniformly positive and statistically significant correlation between the presence of daylighting and better student test scores in all three districts.
  • We found that the positive effect of daylighting was distinct from all the other attributes of windows.

In reaction to such findings, I think an article on the American School & University website put it well:

“Looking at the list of benefits, one might be surprised that optimizing daylighting in schools often is regarded as a design preference instead of a basic responsibility.”

This is the type of thought that comes to my mind when I look at findings on the impact of the physical environment on cognition and behavior. How in the world is this not seen as a basic protection of human comfort and student well-being, not to mention an obvious benefit to student performance?

Here’s a factor well within our control that can have significant impact, especially when we integrate other similar findings on physical factors such as acoustics, greenery, and furniture into the design. Yet instead in education reform we all too often focus on abstract theory, distant policy mechanisms, and Taylorist management practices.

Such principles of design should be part of school construction legislation. It should be a given, not an accessory.

For further information on daylighting in schools, here’s an article in the Journal of American Science.