Architectural design for learning

In the fifth article in  a Catalyst Community series, we’ll learn about the impact architectural design has on the learning environment. 
Paul Haselhuhn is the president of WTA Architects.
Our instructor  is Paul Haselhuhn, a Midland resident, and the president of WTA (Wigen Tincknell Associates) Architects, a general practice firm founded in Saginaw in 1947. They specialize in architectural design including commercial, education, healthcare, governmental and more. 

Paul Haselhuhn is the President of WTA Architects. Haselhuhn has been with WTA since 1998. He’s been a project manager on a wide variety of projects and now specializes in higher education and commercial facilities. 

Design for Learning

Building as much square footage as possible with the funds we have available often leads to poorly designed spaces that, although may provide shelter and a space for some variation of function, often miss out on having a true purpose and sense of grace.  So, when designing spaces for education, where should our priorities be? With respect to our local K-12 schools, the funds are from taxpayer money, so it’s extremely important that we are good stewards. Purposeful design in our schools is critical if we’re going to provide our children with the best possible learning environments.

SVSU Pioneer Hall-Today’s learning studios are flexible spaces that allow for small and large group work with integrated technology.Today, schools need to be flexible, collaborative, and engaging. They need to provide space that enhances the learning environment. Let’s look at lighting, for example. Most lighting in schools is designed to be adequate for a specific visual task but does not consider its impact on the occupant’s biology. Studies show that natural light not only improves student performance, but has an impact on health, wellness, and academic performance. As many of us are acutely aware this time of year, exposure to sunlight greatly boosts our mood, but it also impacts alertness and concentration levels. Although children tend to get outdoors more than adults, they still spend more than 80% of their time indoors, which inhibits access to natural light and the benefits that come with it. As we spend resources on designing our schools, one of the most important things we can focus on for our students is the incorporation of natural light. 

Additionally, schools must be built for durability. This usually means painted concrete masonry block walls and concrete floors, along with the incorporation of significant amounts of steel and plastics. Now don’t get me wrong, these are all wonderful materials that offer longevity and flexibility. Oftentimes however, these materials are harsh, both in physical touch and visual perception. Along with durability, it’s critical that successful school designs provide balance by introducing natural materials that provide both physical and visual warmth, a counterbalance for the senses, and respite for the mind. In many cases we are adding on to an existing building. It’s important to complement the existing architecture style. This doesn’t necessarily mean that we copy the existing, but the addition shouldn’t look like a wart growing off the side of the original building.
Handley Elementary-Schools need to be flexible, collaborative, and engaging.
So, what about the spaces themselves? You know, the classrooms, the corridors? Design of these spaces has evolved significantly. In addition to considering the impact of daylight and materials, how the spaces function and how instruction is given is changing at a rate never before seen. Less often are we calling them classrooms. Today they are referred to as learning studios. The idea of a classroom only set up for lecture-style teaching is becoming obsolete. Today’s learning studios are flexible spaces that allow for small and large group work with integrated technology. Teachers and students need the ability to share and present from anywhere in the room. And corridor spaces are evolving beyond just a place to traverse from class to class and stop at a locker on the way. They now incorporate shared breakout spaces that allow for further adaptive use both during and between classes. 

Moreover, let’s not forget about libraries, because they aren’t going anywhere either. For a while we dabbled with calling them media centers, and some still do. But a library has always been a space to exchange knowledge, it’s as simple as that. Today’s school libraries still have books, although fewer of them, computers and technology that may not be available elsewhere, and collaborative spaces. One notable change is that today’s libraries tend to be louder and more engaging than those spaces of old. More often than not, exchange of knowledge is done in a more vocal and active way, creating a more robust and energetic environment. 

SVSU Pioneer Hall, WTA Architects
To effectively educate our children, our teachers need spaces that do not add to intimidation and stress. They need a space that will work with them, is inviting, and promotes learning. Our students and teachers should be more than an afterthought and so should the spaces in which they learn and work.