The challenge

To do this we must abandon practically everything we know about today’s school facilities. Twentieth – century school building design has been driven by two primary philosophies. First, the core­building block of the educationist’s philosophy is reflected in the classroom: one teacher who has the knowledge ready to disseminate to a group of learners. This goes back to the Greek civilization when a teacher (who then was the primary source of knowledge) needed about thirty students to make a living. This core concept was further shaped by the Fordist mentality (industrial, assembly line efficiencies) predominant in the first half of the twentieth century, when mass education became a reality in the USA and other developed nations. Second, also from the first half of the twentieth century, is the philosophy of modernist architecture. Often described as ‘Form Follows Function’, the idea is to fit the shape and form of the building exactly to its educationist’s efficiency needs. The reality is that a school’s design is always shaped by additional, non­functional issues. These include the architect’s aesthetic, the community’s image, and the client’s politics.

This approach was further shaped by the military, particularly during World War II in the first half of the twentieth century. Military planners needed to use their resources very quickly and efficiently. Therefore, they developed the facility planning processes that are the basis of today’s educational/architectural programming approach. Both the process and the content for school design were focused on functional efficiency. This ethos naturally led to greater specialization for nearly every classroom, laboratory and room in the building. Each had a dedicated function which left little scope for alternative uses. This positivistic approach continues to dominate the school agenda, where most other building types have become far less proscriptive.

As educators and architects designed schools that were highly demanding from a functional perspective, it became apparent that the buildings needed to allow for some activities that did not fit the primary function. This resulted in a number of ‘flexibility’ strategies. The more tightly the design fits the function, the more flexibility was called for. Attempts at maximizing flexibility often resulted in school designs that no longer provided the learner with a sense of place. As we enter into the twenty – first century the world of education is exploring an expanding variety of new learning strategies based on research on how we learn. The functionalist’s approach is increasingly limiting and is being called into question. School facilities begin to be unsupportive of multiple effective learning strategies.

To provide environments that do support expanding the possibilities for learning a new approach is required. One concept is to frame the problem around the idea of contingency. The definition of contingency used here is ‘that which is dependent on conditions or occurrences not yet established’. Actually integrating contingency concepts into the design of learning and learning environments is a necessity. To be sustainable we must simultaneously design for greater longevity and increased flexibility of use. Economics and public policy are pressuring educators toward changes in their approach to learning while communities expect a long-term return on their investment in schools. In order to make these investments, the facility, and learning itself, sustainable we must implement new design strategies. This will result in facilities that are not only durable but will also accommodate numerous use patterns (including non-educational use). Schools must not only be designed for their first life, but also for their second, third and even fourth life. I will now explore these new strategies as they apply to the classroom, the whole school, and the community.