Credit: Shelley Paulson

Kelly Martinez, Assoc. AIA, recently published “Innovative Learning Environments: Design Awards Meets Research Evidence,” a study on the effect of evidence-based design on educational performance. Martinez’s research explicitly deals with schools in California, Texas, and New York, but her methodology has broader implications for measuring how well design can support client needs at school, at work, and even at home. She completed her research as the 2012 AIA Education Research Scholar, which is managed by the AIA Committee on Architecture for Education, and she is now an intern with the Kodet Architectural Group in Minneapolis.

To try and create a sound comparison, I started with the same questions for each school. But I tailored other questions to specific schools, depending on their curricular focuses. In the end, everything was pinned to understanding the three major challenges faced by the design team and the three features that addressed those challenges. Given the comments from my interviews, the outcomes in terms of how the program would work tracked with how the design intended it to work. I think this has to do with how closely teachers and staff were included in the design process.

For each school, I needed to get a specific idea of how the design affected day-to-day experiences. One of the biggest surprises was that the schools were largely innovative in their curricular approaches to the program, but the classrooms themselves felt very conventional in terms of forward-facing seats and a main focal point. There were innovative spaces throughout the rest of the school—such as common spaces that acted as plazas or smaller workspaces—but the classrooms were what you would expect they would be.

At Mothers’ Club Family Learning Center in Pasadena, Calif., the client wanted flexible spaces to meet the variety of needs under one roof. At LearningSpring School in New York City, flexibility was less desirable, since students with autism need more structure in their everyday experiences. That client also needed an area for occupational therapy to improve basic life skills. At the Redding School of the Arts in Redding, Calif., the big thing was indoor/outdoor space, since half of the school’s curriculum takes place outside. At Kathlyn Joy Gilliam Academy in Dallas, the big concern was preparing students for a college environment—unstructured time for students and spaces for collaboration. All of this was supported by a central area called “the commons,” which acted as a hub.

It was a lot of fun to find out how much variety these schools possess, in terms of curricular needs, but also that the client, so to speak, is several people: the school, the teacher, the administrator, the student, and the parent.