Learning rooms, wellness rooms, nature trails. This is the K-12 school of the future


The corridor-and-classroom model of school architecture is out. Instead, future-oriented schools have flexible “learning rooms”, wellness rooms, touch-free lighting and sanitary facilities – and of course a souped-up air conditioning system for optimal ventilation.

Why it matters: Many pandemic aid funds are earmarked for school improvements, so there is a large window of opportunity for building projects that advance student pedagogy and physical and mental well-being.

Driving the news: At the same time, instruction has shifted from a “Sage on a Stage” to a “Whole Child” approach — which emphasizes collaboration, small groups, and hands-on learning — and some school districts are finding themselves with money for complementary architecture.

  • Desirable features include transparent walls that connect students to nature, moveable partitions and furniture, “calming spaces” to address mental health, and “learn stairs” – steps that double as amphitheater-style seats.
  • Other modern touches like gender-neutral bathrooms, larger access ramps, and whiteboard walls are also on the wish list.
  • Cafeterias are more open spaces where people can eat, learn and socialize at all times, while libraries with 3D printers and other technologies are turning into maker spaces.
  • Space that can be used for educational games, virtual reality, and coding lessons is in high demand.

What you say: “Classroom design has evolved,” says Troy Hoggard, architect at CannonDesign. He worked with the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh at Ehrman Crest Elementary/Middle School in Seneca Valley, Pennsylvania, which opened this fall.

  • The school’s corridors double as study rooms and include details such as a solar calendar that projects the day and season onto the floor.
  • The playground is designed for direct access to nature, with trails for kids to search for frogs and crickets.

Between the lines: School designers also need to consider increased safety — like open sight lines — and climate change, which is prompting some counties to build storm and tornado shelters.

  • Ehrman Crest is Pennsylvania’s first school with full storm protection for all 1,400 students and faculty, Hoggard said.
  • Due to updated building codes in the Pittsburgh area reflecting increasing winds, “it was built to the standards of somewhere in Oklahoma or Nebraska,” he tells Axios.

Architects give more too Highlighting automotive and culinary arts programs, recognizing that schools are not just for graduates.

  • In the past, the rooms for such programs were “at the back of the school, and only kids who were taking those classes went there,” said Laura Sachtleben, who leads the educational practice at Stantec, a design and construction company.
  • “Now they’re being celebrated, they’re being pulled in front of the facility,” she said. “There’s a lot of glass and visibility so all students can see and get excited about what’s happening in these other programs.”

Yes but: Nationwide, school-building efforts are being tempered by rising material and labor costs, labor shortages, and supply chain issues, all of which have collectively put many projects on hold.

  • And many neighborhoods are in low-income neighborhoods battle to keep their buildings from falling apart, not to mention splashy architectural upgrades.

The bottom line: In schools built decades ago, the need for pandemic-era upgrades draws attention to a variety of wish-list items.

  • “Now we have an opportunity to reach a wider audience that hasn’t thought about why schools need to change,” says Vaughn Dierks, a partner at Wold Architects and Engineers, who specializes in school design.
  • “We always think that if you just replace a ventilation system, it’s a huge missed opportunity.”

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