The Essentials of Early Learning Center Design – Part Three (Encourage Interaction)

The next installment in my series on the essentials of early learning center design has to do with children’s desire to connect with their peers. Thus, part of the designer’s challenge is to create a space that furthers the early learner’s natural movement toward interaction (and play).

This preliminary concept for a private school shows the potential for a floor plan to promote a flexible environment that encourages interaction. Teachers can reconfigure dividers to create eight individual classrooms, four expanded spaces, two larger teaching zones, and one large multiuse space.

This preliminary concept for a private school shows the potential for a floor plan to promote a flexible environment that encourages interaction. Teachers can reconfigure dividers to create eight individual classrooms, four expanded spaces, two larger teaching zones, and one large multiuse space.

In the traditional classroom, children sit in rows and listen. That’s not very effective anymore. The new early learning center is a place of discovery where students learn and grow together.

A flexible floor plan allows the space to shift from a traditional layout to a completely open space with barrier-free interaction. This “learning habitat” also enables various arrangements between those extremes. The example above, customized to three- to five-year-olds, inspires learning prior to the formalization of the educational environment. The open area gives young learners more opportunities for movement and new kinds of interaction.

Movable partitions with a translucent film give students a hint at activities in neighboring spaces, but they’re not clear enough to be distracting.

Movable partitions with a translucent film give students a hint at activities in neighboring spaces, but they’re not clear enough to be distracting.

The proposed movable partitions in the above concept enhance the sense of community within the early learning center. They enable students to see movement in other rooms. However, the translucent film on the partitions blurs views enough so students don’t lose focus. When teachers want to expand space, they simply move the partitions. This gives the youngest learners a sense of belonging, whether it’s to a smaller group or part of a larger community.

Read my early learning center design posts on indoor/outdoor connectivity and inspiring curiosity.


PreK-12 Think Thank Explores Future of Educational Environments

Think Tank BLog Banner-01

How can educators and facility designers join forces to build change for schools’ ultimate beneficiary: the student?

It was with this question in mind that educational visionaries gathered at Legat Architects’ PreK-12 Think Tank yesterday afternoon. DIRTT’s penthouse Green Learning Center overlooking the Chicago River set the tone as participants discussed the future of educational environments.

Over 75 K-12 educational visionaries from many different fields converged at DIRTT’s Green Learning Center to participate in Legat’s PreK-12 Think Tank.

Over 75 K-12 educational visionaries from many different fields converged at DIRTT’s Green Learning Center to participate in Legat’s PreK-12 Think Tank.

Speakers including educators, architects, and interior designers shared their observations about what’s in store for tomorrow’s schools. There was a great deal of vibrant discussion and debate. High school teachers and tech specialists in rolling desks sat beside architects and engineers in bean bag chairs and talked about how to get parents and community members more involved in school settings.

Professors, elementary school teachers, buildings and grounds personnel, construction professionals, and interior designers sat at high-top tables and debated the influence of curriculum on settings and vice versa.

Breakout sessions brought together different viewpoints to discuss a variety of topics.

Breakout sessions brought together different viewpoints to discuss a variety of topics.

The conference focused on three themes that impact the future of education: adaptability, sustainability, and diversity. The following speakers delivered PechaKucha style presentations:

  • Dr. David Moyer (Superintendent, Elmhurst Community Unit School District 205) revealed lessons learned from his experience leading the community-inspired new Hamilton Elementary School with student achievement at its core.
  • Patrick Brosnan (President/CEO, Legat Architects) discussed how educators and architects can work together to create opportunities for leadership and a “culture of continuous change.”
  • Betsy Maddox (Educational Specialist, DIRTT) introduced some of the construction stresses that schools face and how customized prefabricated interior environments can be easily reconfigured to adapt to teaching needs, curricular changes, and evolving technology.
  • Vuk Vujovic (Director of Sustainable Design, Legat Architects) shared some of the ways that schools are pushing the envelope with cost-effective strategies that promote energy efficiency, environmental respect, and even healthy eating.
  • Andrea Cooper’s (Sustainability Consultant, WMA Engineering) summary of the seven Petals of the Living Building Challenge covered everything from bridging the gap between humans and nature to reducing the environmental impact of building materials.
  • Monique Taylor (Interior Designer, Legat Architects) navigated some of the obstacles that educational designers face when it comes to choosing the healthiest possible materials and furnishings.
  • Melissa Ward (Early Childhood Coordinator, Community Consolidated School District 59) offered tips based on her experience with CCSD 59’s new Early Learning Center, which brings together the district’s youngest students in a place that encourages collaboration and problem-solving.
  • Lauren Peterson (Project Associate, Legat Architects) analyzed the nine Learning Styles and how schools can literally and figuratively “take down the walls” to create environments that respect each style.
  • Dina Sorensen (Design Research Associate, VMDO Architects) wrapped up the evening with an inspiring presentation that encouraged everyone to “search beyond the edges of architecture” and aim for “that fragile moment when a child opts into a space.”

After each session, participants broke into smaller groups to discuss the implications of the content and present questions and thoughts.

Chicago’s skyline set the backdrop as participants voted on design concepts for an “Educational Environmental Element.”

Chicago’s skyline set the backdrop as participants voted on design concepts for an “Educational Environmental Element.”

The evening finished with all the Think Tank participants judging a design competition that challenged architects to envision an “Educational Environmental Element” for the new CCSD 59 Early Learning Center. The element had to be interactive and teach three- to five-year-olds about environmental responsibility. The winning entry will be built and presented to the district.

Thanks to all who participated in this event. You can view event photos here.

In the coming weeks and months, we’ll be blogging about some of the lessons that the Think Tank unveiled.


Train Station Design: Regaining the Power of Rail

Taking the train used to be an exciting experience. For many travelers, passing by beautiful train stations was an enjoyable part of their journey.

However, in the 60s and 70s, the train station lost its power as a community focal point and a symbol of connection between towns. Speed of construction and saving dollars took precedence over aesthetics and material quality.

Some new stations, like the Tinley Park 80th Avenue Metra station, look like they’ve always been there.

Some new stations, like the Tinley Park 80th Avenue Metra station, look like they’ve always been there.

Fortunately, we’re seeing a resurgence of iconic train stations in many communities. Cities and villages are closing down those decrepit shoebox stations where people bought a ticket then left as quickly as possible. Enter a new wave of stations that encourage citizens to stay, and in some cases, become the heart of the community.

Some communities want a new station to hark back to an earlier time or fit into a long-established downtown. Others want a whole new look that sets the tone for future architecture. In either case, the thoughtfully-designed train station can spark development and renewal.

This concept reflects the contemporary nature of high-speed rail.

This concept reflects the contemporary nature of high-speed rail.

What does your community want its ideal train station to achieve? To blend in? To make a statement? Whichever the case, the station has the potential to be so much more than a place to buy a ticket. Beautiful materials and strong design draw attention. Inviting interiors and amenities like WiFi and food service entice people to stay. A nice outdoor plaza might double as a gathering place for small concerts or community events.

I believe that in the coming years, train stations will continue their rally. In the best scenarios, they will even regain their reputation as the grand civic buildings they once were.


Design that Supports the Shift from Treating Illness to Promoting Health – Part 2 (Aesthetics)

In their ongoing quest to promote healthy lifestyles, health care providers have introduced a flurry of wellness-focused programs in recent years. Health care architects, as partners in this journey, have a duty to design hospitals, medical office buildings, and other facilities that encourage wellness.

My first entry on this topic discussed facilities’ programmatic response to this new perspective on health care. This time, I’d like to turn the focus to aesthetics . . . what architecture does with light, materials, colors, and space to create a pleasant atmosphere. What if a facility’s design could actually motivate occupants to make healthier choices? Good news: it has been done.

An extended display window helped transform a dark 1970s-era bank (inset) into the community-focused Erie HealthReach Waukegan Health Center.

An extended display window helped transform a dark 1970s-era bank (inset) into the community-focused Erie HealthReach Waukegan Health Center.

A grand stair within the display window encourages occupants to take the stairs in lieu of the elevator.

A grand stair within the display window encourages occupants to take the stairs in lieu of the elevator.

A Display Window with Benefits
The Erie HealthReach Waukegan Health Center offers a strong example of architecture’s ability to influence healthy behavior. The retrofit converted a bank in a 40-year-old building into a community health center.

One of the biggest aesthetic challenges that we confronted was that the bank was dark and inward-focused. For inspiration, we drew from display windows that address street activity in urban setting. The resulting large-scale extended display window at Erie HealthReach Waukegan engages the community on the outside and involves people on the inside.

This element houses the grand stair, brings natural light deep into the building, and glows with activity. Additionally, the vibrant grand stair has had a more direct impact on patients and staff . . .

A Picture of Health
Many of us have experienced a portrait painting whose eyes seem to follow us. The grand stair inside the display window is kind of like that, with one major exception: instead of making people uncomfortable, it encourages people to use it!

The stair feature is highly visible from both outside and inside the building. Its openness has actually inspired patients and staff to take the stairs rather than the elevator. The space entices occupants with bright colors, sleek materials, contemporary lighting, and abundant views.

Strong design like this reinforces the movement toward promoting optimum health.


The Essentials of Early Learning Center Design – Part Two (Inspire Curiosity)

Children are naturally inquisitive about the environments they occupy. This is especially true in the critical developmental period between the ages of three and five.

This installment of my series on early learning design focuses on the relationships between students, parents, and learning spaces, which should be flexible and interactive teaching tools.

A multipurpose room concept for the British School of Chicago emphasizes student curiosity and outdoor connectivity.

A multipurpose room concept for the British School of Chicago emphasizes student curiosity and outdoor connectivity.

Where the Intriguing Things Are
For an early learning center expansion, the British School of Chicago wanted to create a multipurpose space that offers indoor/outdoor connectivity and responds to students’ inquisitiveness. When children walk into the space, leaders stated, they should no longer feel like they are in a school.

The large windows with views to the campus are just the beginning. The design, inspired by the classic children’s book Where the Wild Things Are, creates a learning habitat rich in things to see, touch, and experience.

Since the school is a couple blocks from the Chicago River, the team thought in terms of riverbanks and oak savannas. This is reflected in the curving floor pattern and ceiling ribbons.

The concept of flowing extends to the branches that grow out of columns clad with reclaimed lumber.

A “portal wall” in the parent lounge encourages views into the multipurpose space.

A “portal wall” in the parent lounge encourages views into the multipurpose space.

A Portal to Playtime
Students are not the only ones whose curiosity the early learning center should pique; parents want to see how their little ones respond to different stimuli and interact with their peers. Thus, the design should give moms and dads views of their children in action.

A “portal wall” in a parent lounge concept (also developed for the British School of Chicago) has openings that frame views of the multipurpose space. The lounge offers a great way to welcome family members of enrolled children and showcase the nature-inspired environment to prospective students and their parents. Note that the windows enable views from both parents’ and children’s perspectives.


Design that Supports the Shift from Treating Illness to Promoting Health – Part 1 (Program)

How many people do you know who like going to the doctor? Probably not many.

We’ve been conditioned to go to ambulatory care centers and medical office buildings only when something is wrong. But what if that mindset changed? What if, instead of dreading going to the doctor’s office, the patient actually looked forward to it?

This shift is happening. Health care providers have kicked it off by introducing new education-focused programs. That’s half the battle.

The other half is creating health care centers that support this new mindset. These are bright, welcoming facilities where people can learn about everything from exercise and nutrition to strategies for effective parenting.

A community education room/demonstration kitchen at Erie Family Health Center’s Skokie/Evanston campus allows the organization to run a variety of programs such as diabetes support groups and healthy eating seminars.

A community education room/demonstration kitchen at Erie Family Health Center’s Skokie/Evanston campus allows the organization to run a variety of programs such as diabetes support groups and healthy eating seminars.

This is the first in a series of posts about how architecture can support this shift from a focus on treating illness to one of promoting health.

The first consideration is a programmatic one. If providers truly are to become a community health resource, they should offer spaces that support their programs.

Community health centers are paving the way for these types of spaces. We recently finished retrofits of older buildings into community health centers for Erie Family Health Center facilities in Evanston and Waukegan, Illinois. Community is a vital part of the organization’s brand. Therefore, both facilities offer a community health room where the organization can run its programs. Importantly, these rooms are not relegated to the back of the facility; rather, they are featured front and center off the main entry.

The bright nature of the spaces helps the organization not only run programs that promote long-term health, but also entice community members to participate.


Revive and Revere: The Campus Master Plan

It happens to many school districts: The curriculum and technology advance at breakneck speed, yet the facilities lag behind. Each year, classrooms become less capable of handling curricular changes, and labs weaken in their ability to adapt to advances in learning. The corridors start to look dated, the façade shows signs of its age, HVAC systems falter. The list goes on and on.

A master plan sets a path to revive LaSalle-Peru High School’s 90-year-old campus, while preserving its revered historic elements.

A master plan sets a path to revive LaSalle-Peru High School’s 90-year-old campus, while preserving its revered historic elements.

To compound the problem, community members, many of which have attended the facilities themselves, may feel an attachment to parts of the campus. Maybe it’s a gymnasium or a theater. It could be a canopy or a clock tower.

The community-driven master plan acts as a guide for districts and schools to bring new life to aging campuses, while also respecting those beloved monuments. When facility users (including students) and community members participate in the planning process, it gains momentum and increases referendum success.

Campus Revival

Educators, administrators, staff members, and over 40 community volunteers participated in the master plan that provides a vision to transform the LaSalle-Peru high school campus.

Educators, administrators, staff members, and over 40 community volunteers participated in the master plan that provides a vision to transform the LaSalle-Peru high school campus.

LaSalle-Peru Township High School District 120 (LaSalle, Illinois) recently confronted a problem like this. Its high school campus was starting to show its 90 years, and it hadn’t had a major expansion in over fifty years. Moreover, many members of the community had strong feelings about the campus’s iconic clock tower, theater, and stadium.

Legat Architects and Kmetz Architects led a community collaborative process that brought together many stakeholders (including community members) to address these issues. Specific sessions included the following:

  • An “Engagement Session” included a “movie night” with video clips that described the future of learning, along with group discussions.
  • An “Envisioning Session” challenged groups to discuss what the future of learning could look like. Groups brainstormed concepts for different parts of the facility, ranging from the entry and cafeteria to the media center and learning labs.
  • A “Concepts Session” challenged participants to create and prioritize campus expansion.
  • A “Transform Session” refined three options, and participants voted on the ones that best met their goals.

The outcome of all this was a master plan strongly supported by those who participated. It includes major additions, renovations, and learning environment enhancements, but it also maintains those parts of the campus that are valued in the community.

The district created the following video that introduces the plan. The video celebrates LaSalle-Peru High School’s history, explores its values, and stresses the need for campus upgrades.

At the April 15, 1928 dedication of the LaSalle-Peru campus, the Honorable Francis G. Blair said, “The civic spirit of a people can be measured by what they do for their children.”

The L-P master plan, which has the future of the district’s students at its heart, embodies that spirit.


Care at the Core

When it comes to health care services, people have become informed consumers. They go to the Internet to self-diagnose, compare doctors, and size up programs. They also log on to shop facilities.

Legat Architects is expanding its blog to discuss issues relevant to the health care architecture and design industry. Photo copyright Michael Havens through Creative Commons.

Legat Architects is expanding its blog to discuss issues relevant to the health care architecture and design industry. Photo copyright Michael Havens through Creative Commons.

Whether they’re going to a prenatal orientation class, an MRI, or a congregate living lounge, people want a setting that meets their needs. What is that place? What does it look like? How can its operators use it to maximize their efficiency and integrate the newest equipment? How can the facility achieve care at its core?

These are just a few of the questions that we’ll tackle as we expand Legat Architects’ blog to include issues that impact health care facilities. We will draw from experience at over 500 health care projects to offer programming and design lessons for a variety of facilities: hospitals, medical office buildings, community health centers, senior living facilities, and more.

We’ll break down architectural responses to advances in technology and delivery, as well as changes in the construction climate. So please join us in our journey to “care at the core.”


Sustainable Natatorium/Aquatics Center Design – Part Four (Buy-in from the Beginning)

In a previous post, I discussed the importance of a goal-oriented collaborative design process that starts as early as possible. This is especially important when it comes to the sustainable aspirations of a construction project, whether it’s a new aquatics center or a cafeteria renovation.

Niles Township High School District 219’s emphasis on sustainability fueled planning and design of the Niles North Aquatics Center.

Niles Township High School District 219’s emphasis on sustainability fueled planning and design of the Niles North Aquatics Center.

Long before we began programming the Niles North High School Aquatics Center, Niles Township High School District 219 (D219) had made sustainable practices a priority. D219 had created a 5-year Plan to “supercharge the achievement of every student” at its two high schools. Part of the plan called for improving energy efficiency and reducing its environmental footprint.

So when it came time to discuss sustainable components of the Aquatics Center, it was full steam ahead. We explored sustainable strategies related to daylighting and water conservation in a design workshop that brought to the table community members, student athletes, coaches, architects, engineers, and construction professionals.

Smaller design workshops focused on the use of recycled and regionally sourced materials, as well as reviewing conceptual energy models to ensure that the design would be as efficient as possible. Pool facilities typically consume five times more energy than the average commercial building, so energy efficiency was a must.

The resulting design decreases the center’s energy use by 44% and water use by 42% compared to a typical aquatics center of similar size.

The author (center) presents the LEED Gold certification plaque to D219 representatives. From left: Board Vice President Dr. Sheri Doniger, Board Secretary Carlton Evans, Mike Maloney, Facilities Committee Chair Jeff Greenspan, and Ruth Klint.

The author (center) presents the LEED Gold certification plaque to D219 representatives. From left: Board Vice President Dr. Sheri Doniger, Board Secretary Carlton Evans, Mike Maloney, Facilities Committee Chair Jeff Greenspan, and Ruth Klint.

This winter, the Aquatics Center achieved LEED for Schools Gold certification from the US Green Building Council. The center became the country’s highest LEED rated facility of its kind. That’s a powerful testament to the importance of buy-in from the beginning.

Read my other aquatics center sustainability posts on using mindful massing, controlling natural light, saving water.


The Essentials of Early Learning Center Design – Part One (Indoor/Outdoor Connectivity)

Place influences . . . especially when it comes to early childhood education. The wisely planned and designed early learning center engages young minds at this pivotal time. It also helps educators plant the seeds for lifelong learning.

The design of early learning centers can boost learning at a critical developmental stage. Photo copyright André Benedix through creative commons.

The design of early learning centers can boost learning at a critical developmental stage. Photo copyright André Benedix through creative commons.

This post kicks off a series on some of the most important architectural elements of an early learning facility. These include connecting to nature, inspiring curiosity, encouraging interaction, and welcoming the community.

Indoor/Outdoor Connectivity

The ideal early learning center offers connectivity between the indoors and the outdoors. That means views to the outside and curriculum-responsive outdoor activities.

Outside views help stimulate young minds.

Outside views help stimulate young minds.

Many of today’s schools were built at a time when outside views were considered a distraction. A growing collection of research reveals the truth: Natural light and views to the outdoors relax the retina and improve cognitive retention.

What’s happening outside the early learning center? Here’s an opportunity to create outdoor settings that support the curriculum and engage young minds.

What’s happening outside the early learning center? Here’s an opportunity to create outdoor settings that support the curriculum and engage young minds. Image courtesy Hitchcock Design Group.

The importance of connectivity extends to outdoor play areas. Ideally, an early learning center will have outdoor settings that go beyond standard play equipment to support continuous learning.

The Community Consolidated School District 59 Early Learning Center now under construction will have three thematic gardens: sensory, fine arts, and nature. The gardens allow students to learn in different settings and to engage in participation through play. For instance, students can make music on the xylophone wall in the fine arts garden, or help tend plantings in the nature garden.

Importantly, these gardens are not cordoned off on plots where students can’t see them. Rather, classrooms and corridors surround the gardens. The inside and the outside connect!