Elegant Innovation: Lessons from Urban Schools, Part One
The preponderance of school design literature focuses on suburban schools. That was a natural outgrowth of the second half of last century, when school construction for baby-boomers focused on areas where the growth and the funding for construction, were occurring. There is a generational shift, however, due to two factors: (1) a recognition and (partial) correction of long-term urban disinvestment; and (2) a return of middle-class young people to cities as a place to live and raise their families, adding further impetus to revitalize urban schools.
As capital investment in schools has increased in many cities, some themes have emerged. I’ll take a deeper look into three themes I’ve identified including: facility benefits of older schools; educational program innovations; and making the most of small school sites, in a series of Insight posts. From my viewpoint, factors that many architects and planners viewed as deficits can also be seen as assets, and there are lessons that can apply to school planning and design anywhere.
Save, reuse, repurpose
Let’s start by examining facilities. Many schools in older cities were built before WWII, at a time of burgeoning urban populations across the U.S. Those schools were often designed as prominent civic institutions. They were seen as places where immigrant populations would learn to become citizens, and where migrants from rural America would prosper in the new industrial economies of the early 20th century. The scale and features of school buildings from these decades spoke to the importance of public education. In some cities, school systems hired noted architects, or employed highly capable designers on staff. As a result of these favorable conditions, pre-WWII urban schools commonly embody design advantages that are still relevant and can be incorporated into innovative redesigns. Some advantageous features are:
- Generous classroom size: Classrooms were often large enough (850 to 900 SF) to accommodate students in small groups and to allow for project-based learning. Classroom size is very relevant for today’s project-based educational styles. These large instructional spaces stand in contrast with post-WWII ‘factory model’ classrooms, which are often much smaller.
- Natural Lighting: Daylight was recognized as an essential classroom amenity. Small neighborhood school buildings were often configured so that classrooms were day lit from two sides. In contrast, schools built in the late 60s and 70s sometimes have no natural lighting or views, a condition that can be difficult to correct.
- Vertical scale: High ceilings, with even higher ‘floor-to-floor’ heights, were standard before WWII, and can now accommodate modern mechanical systems. This contrasts with many baby-boom era schools, built with only 11’ or 12’ floor-to-floor heights.
- Ventilation: Popular older passive ventilation systems encased in vertical chases can be retrofitted with modern, healthy, and code-compliant systems.
Past Present Future
Historic school buildings are a public trust. However, as stewards of public education, our first task is to ensure that students of today and tomorrow receive a worthy education, whether their school building is one year old, or 100 years old. It is assuring to know that we can honor our history while at the same time providing a state of the art education for generations to come.
In my next post I’ll share some of the educational innovations and programs that originated in urban schools but can be applied in any district.