Flexibility in the Learning Environment
Designing flexible spaces in schools is not a new concept. The majority of newly constructed or renovated schools opening in 2017 will tout flexible learning spaces for students and staff. Incorporating flexible solutions is due to the ever evolving demand of students who want the ability to shape and reshape their learning environment to meet their needs of the day.
Our approach to flexible design is not a singular function; we don’t look at just one element of a building that can be easily transformed and claim our design is flexible. We look at flexibility holistically and consider how every inch of the facility can be transformed into the ultimate agile environment. Adaptations can range from simple modifications at the student and teacher level, to comprehensive changes through construction. Ultimately, careful planning in design is the most effective contributor to the desired flexibility of a school facility.
Let’s look at flexibility through the lens of degrees of difficulty:
Furniture and equipment choices. The increase in first cost for easily moveable furniture is modest, as long as it is the result of thoughtful planning. The idea behind this concept is that the furniture can be moved and adapted multiple times throughout the day by teachers or students. No outside resources are necessary for these simple adjustments.
Operable partitions. A motorized or manually operated wall, which acoustically separates two major spaces, is something that can be operated once or twice a day by trained staff under the direction of teachers and administrators. Although these partitions can have notable first costs and maintenance costs, they do allow for a fairly simple change to take place inside an environment in a timely manner.
Variety of sizes and adjacencies of spaces. School designers frequently program diverse environments into newly constructed facilities. Although many teachers continue to have a dedicated classroom, shared spaces can be scheduled hourly and used by anyone in the school. This kind of flexibility, or sharing of spaces, does not increase construction costs when the spaces are part of the overall design.
5-year, 20-year, 50-year walls. The concepts I mentioned above are simple ways districts can implement flexibility into their schools immediately. Let’s look at the very walls that shape the inside of a school. This level of detail is how we create absolute pliability in a facility. Our design solution for the Panther Lake Elementary School employs a flexible walls system, whereby all walls are rated by lifespan: daily, 5-year, 20-year and 50-year. In this school, building systems are routed only through permanent walls, ceilings and floors, which allows the district to make building modifications over time with minimal construction and associated waste.
In general, 5-year walls consist of simple stud-framed partitions with no infrastructure within them. Rearranging these walls might be accomplished over a holiday or short break, an undertaking possible under the control of district staff, and one that costs very little extra to build or maintain. A 20-year wall typically contains significant infrastructure such as plumbing and heavy data. Relocating these types of walls might occur every 20 years as part of a major building remodel. The designated 50-year walls cannot be moved without altering the basic structure of the building. These drastic changes rarely occur during the life of a building due to cost and complexity, and likely such efforts are of a scale that require a major capital improvement bond measure involving the will of the general public.
Contemporary pedagogical research upholds the importance of designing flexible learning spaces to improve student-learning outcomes, and we know the world of education is always evolving. With innovative, integrated design and careful planning that incorporates multiple approaches to flexibility, a district can achieve increased levels of adaptability and convertibility in their facilities, preparing them to be truly future-ready.