Rethinking the "Culture of Convenience"

Lean operations, enhanced productivity, increased workplace convenience—architecture can have an important impact in terms of efficiency across many building types today. Hospitals, hotels, office buildings, retail facilities, courts, and correctional facilities are all being designed to streamline operations, share resources, and, for example, minimize the number of steps needed to move from one program area or task to the next.

In many of these facilities, efficient design helps save time and potentially even reduces the amount of staff needed in some situations. Design can also create more patient-friendly or customer-friendly environments. It’s a sensible concept that in many situations offers value and better service.

But what about schools? Is there a downside to convenience, to reducing travel time and minimizing steps and physical movement? For many of us working in K-12 school design, the answer is yes—ultra-efficient, compact design can have its drawbacks, and we need to think carefully about the implications.

As noted in a recent article in School Planning & Management magazine, approximately 12.5 million children in the United States aged 2 to 19 years are obese. As school districts address this crisis, architects have an opportunity to introduce creative ideas to encourage more physical activity in school design. Many ideas, such as motivational signage or design and furnishings that enable students to move purposefully about the classroom, can have a very small impact on the budget but go a long way to encourage activity.

Typically, classrooms that allow for movement provide a more stimulating, engaging style of instruction, and encourage active, hands-on learning. Educators are also seeing the benefit of connecting with nature, with outdoor classrooms and resources that provide another opportunity for students to be more active and engaged. Outdoor fitness areas and playgrounds with active play components should also be priorities. Trends toward smaller gyms and the elimination or reduction of recess and physical education should be reconsidered.

Food service areas and cafeterias can also be transformed to encourage good nutrition. As we work with our clients, we often encourage creating appealing environments with lots of choices such as salad bars, and the elimination of fryers in favor of convection or steam ovens.

In general, it’s a challenge. How do you design a school to be efficient, safe, and easily supervised—where students can move without a lot of stress from one class to another—while at the same time avoiding an arrangement that allows for too little movement? It’s a challenge that resourceful architects can and should help to address.

Northmoor-Edison Primary School, Peoria, Illinois (Photo courtesy Paul Kluber, Chroma Studio)

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