Technology has changed many aspects of commercial real estate in recent years, but perhaps none more so than the design and construction of schools. Many generations, from baby boomers to older millennials, grew up with lockers, static desks, fluorescent lighting, and few windows in classrooms. But future generations will eventually know nothing of these outdated features, as renovation and construction of schools brings them up to modern ideas of education.

The last two decades have been the biggest era of change, said Stephen Halsey, vice president of Moseley Architects in Richmond. Halsey has been designing K -12 schools for more than 20 years.

“There’s so much technology at everybody’s fingertips, along with school divisions really being focused on developing life-ready skills. There’s really been an embrace in the last 10 years that not everybody’s equipped to go to college, or needs to go to college. There needs to be a path for students to be able to be successful in whatever they choose and that really has integrated that type of thinking with space design and technology so that instruction supports that concept of kids being life-ready,” said Halsey.

The process of planning and designing schools has changed for the better as well, says Halsey. Everyone from the school board down to teachers, and sometimes even parents and students now have input in how the school should look. In the development of Powhatan Middle School, which opened in 2018, the media center/library specialist was instrumental in eliminating a corridor so that students would be compelled to pass through the library, thus making it a focal point of the school. She also requested a gaming lounge, which supports the school’s Technology Foundations program, as well as acts as a fun hangout for students, says Halsey, who was the managing principal on the project.

That flexibility is key in designing schools these days, including incorporating mobile technology and convertible and varietal spaces. “One of the biggest things in middle schools is not building a dedicated auditorium like we used to because that space sits empty 75% of the time, “ said Halsey. “In Powhatan, they have a very robust middle school band program and really were clamoring for an auditorium, but the budget just didn’t allow for it so we designed a space that, in terms of details, configurations, and acoustics, is a performance space that you eat in.”

Flexibility is also fundamental in designing environmentally friendly schools, like Huguenot High which opened in 2015. Features such as storm water management systems, an energy-efficient HVAC system, LED lighting, and a green roof led to a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED®) Gold certification for the school. “Because of where it’s located, we had a lot of site features in terms of being able to get LEED points for connectivity to community, so there are bike racks and sidewalks and dedicated bike lanes – alternate ways to get to campus,” said Halsey, who served as the project manager and project designer for Huguenot.

Flexible seating also plays a big part in classrooms these days. “Furniture has made a big evolution the last four or five years and it goes back to supporting that idea of project-based learning and individualized student learning. We’ve been doing classrooms that have three or four or five different types of seating. Students have choice when they come in to a classroom each day,” said Halsey. The change has been a positive one for several reasons.

“The whole idea that there’s an expectation for students to remain still and stagnant in their desks for seven hours a day was just never realistic. It flew in the face of human dynamics. Students now feel empowered, like they have a say in what happens inside the classroom. It’s also had an impact on student behavior – so that if students have a say in where they sit, it encourages them to behave better and encourages them to get to class on time or early,” said Halsey.

Teachers also have more choices – they are no longer required to stand at the front of the room before a chalkboard. “Technology has allowed teachers to be a lot more flexible in the way they deliver content. They are no longer tethered to a spot in the room. And with furniture being light and mobile, teachers are able to reconfigure the room based on what they’re trying to teach at that point,” said Halsey.

And with so many school shootings in recent years, how does security impact the architecture plan of the building? “It’s always discussed at the beginning of a project –what’s the strategy with security and where do you find that balance of providing a safe space for students and teachers and at the same time not having schools devolve into fortified environments,” said Halsey. Preventative measures such as a security desk, access control systems that trigger alarms if doors are breached, and spots in classrooms where students and teachers can hide if necessary are all considered in the planning, he said.

Changing the layout of the school can also decrease incidences of bullying. “The biggest discussion we have with school systems about trying to minimize those kinds of instances is making sure when you design a school and you’re laying a school out, you really minimize and eliminate nooks and crannies for those kinds of incidents to happen. You don’t want to have dead end corners or spots where students can get ganged up on,” said Halsey. A 2016 study by the National Center for Education Statistics confirms that bullying is more likely to happen in enclosed spaces such as stairwells and hallways.

Budget considerations are often an impediment in the design process. “Probably the biggest challenge is aligning project scope and needs and wants and desires of the school system with the money available,” said Halsey. Factors like a shortage of labor or the price of construction materials can lead to difficulties. “They could end up with less school than they anticipated just because of market environments.”

But ultimately the investment is worth it. “Communities are investing a lot of money in these schools and they want them to be used beyond the instructional day,” said Halsey. Modernizing schools leads to buildings that are in use throughout the entire year and that can serve a wider swath of people than just students and teachers.

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