The Architecture of Ideal Learning Environments

In a discussion with some of the nation’s most renowned architects, five key principles for K-12 school design were identified.

We spoke with four top American K-12 architects: Fanning Howey (Corgan), Perkins+Will (Huckabee), and Perkins+Will (Huckabee) to gain an understanding of best practices in modern school design. They bill hundreds of millions of dollars in work annually and have constructed or renovated thousands of schools throughout the United States and around the world.

During our discussions, we gained important insights into five common design principles: technology integration, safety and security, transparency, multipurpose space, and outdoor learning.


School technology integration was boiled down to separate rooms with large terminals that students were allowed to use. The technology used in modern schools represents a quantum leap forward. It can be found everywhere, is indistinguishable, is personal, and is mobile.

Architects believe that the school must be wired for the future. Projectors, screens, and sound systems have been making their way out of classrooms and into common areas such as hallways, cafeterias, and even stairwells, among other places. Access to the network is possible from any location on campus. Students can also view and share their work through the use of digital displays that are strategically placed throughout the building. These side effects can be quite subversive. Student dependence on teachers is reduced, peer-to-peer collaboration is encouraged, and the scope of learning is expanded beyond the confines of the classroom.

Kerri Ranney works for Huckabee as the vice president of education. “Except the internet, the students that we are educating are completely unaware of the rest of the world.” To prepare our students for the types of companies and work environments in which they will find themselves after graduating from college, we must be able to accept this reality.

The Ecole Kenwood French Immersion School in Columbus, Ohio, was designed by Fanning Howey Architecture. The stairwell was widened to accommodate carpeted student seating. In addition, an overhead projector and a large projection screen are available. There is also wireless Internet access available. This location is popular for project-based learning lectures and student presentations because of its convenient location (PBL).

An Indiana resident named Fanning Howey designed a wet retention pond in Whitestown to collect stormwater and use it for irrigation. Zionsville West Middle School used it as an outdoor laboratory for its students.

“The one-acre pond has shallow-depth areas that are ideal for wetland species. For small groups, there are observation decks on the boardwalk that can be accessed via wireless technology. For school projects, Wi-Fi is available in many of our outdoor spaces, including the playground. It’s almost as if it’s expected “Jeff Bolinger, a landscape architect at Fanning Howey who is also a member of the American Society of Landscape Architects, explains how he came to be involved in the project.


The tragedies at Columbine High School in Colorado and Parkland High School in Florida have brought attention to the importance of security and safety measures in school design. While school terror prevention is the most pressing issue on the public’s mind, student bullying is a common occurrence that presents its own set of architectural challenges to school administrators and designers.

Bullies are not uncommon in areas that are far from adults’ attention. A recent study by the National Center for Education Statistics found that students aged 12-18 reported almost twice the number of bullying incidents in corridors and stairwells, where they spend less time than in other areas such as cafeterias and playgrounds. According to architects, a more transparent design that emphasizes windows and clear lines, even between floors, decreases bullying and improves learning environments for vulnerable students.

“The old layouts are anonymous and encourage bullying,” David Stephen, an architect, educator, and founder of New Vista Designs for Learning in Boston. He is also an architect. It’s safer to have more visual interconnectivity because there are many sets of adult eyes that connect with the children around the school.

Huckabee Architecture designed and installed the floor-to-ceiling glass classroom walls at Annie Purl Elementary School in Georgetown, Texas, which is located in the city of Georgetown. Each academic wing contains classrooms that are connected to a central collaboration area as well as a teaching laboratory. The ability to see students in the classroom, collaboration space, or corridors from virtually any location in the learning environment is a significant benefit to educators.

Several security layers can be relied on by architects in the event of an active shooter or an intruder situation. It is preferable to have a single point of entry into a school to limit unwelcome access. Many schools, on the other hand, now have double-locked entrances. The school can be entered through these doors by a total of two people. Many schools use surveillance cameras to screen visitors, and many of them require students to sign in.

Contrary to popular belief, large open spaces can be used to protect individuals during a lockdown situation. In an academic wing designed to protect a middle-western public school from the unthinkable, Fanning Howey architects describe the various levels of security available. It was decided to use bulletproof glass for the two entry doors that surround the academic wing because it was more cost-effective. They can be locked remotely from any office and transform the space into a safe environment for learning to take place. If an intruder gains access to the academic wings, four corner classrooms can be used as safe-havens. Both the common areas and adjacent classes have bulletproof glass, which can be accessed from either. Any further entry will not be permitted once the seal has been broken.


Architectural transparency, which is the principle of visual interconnectedness, is being used in the design of new school construction. In place of traditional internal spaces such as hallways, classrooms, and cafeterias, which are typically separated from one another by opaque structures such as walls and doorways, open layouts that emphasize glass partitions and uninterrupted lines of sight have taken inspiration from cutting-edge work environments such as Google and Apple campuses have been implemented.

According to Stephen of New Vista Designs for Learning, hallways in traditional schools are often the same in appearance. They are 10 feet wide and have lockers on either side. The doors to the classroom have also been closed.

Educational architects believe that allowing students to see into adjacent spaces fosters the formation of learning communities, encourages collaboration, and provides a platform for the celebration and observation of student work.

Fanning Howey was responsible for the construction of the British International School in Houston, Texas. It is a private school for students in pre-kindergarten through 12th grade. The Agora, which is Greek for “gathering spot,” is the focal point of the entire structure, which was inspired by the ancient Greek public courtyards that are now the beating heart of modern city life.

The Agora’s classroom walls are all framed with floor-to-ceiling windows, allowing natural light to stream in. It provides an excellent viewing opportunity for students of all ages to see what is going on in other classrooms as well as to observe their work from this central location.

Steven argues that the act of peering through glass into an interesting thing happening in a maker space or robotics lab or a classroom leads to an open discussion about teaching, learning, and technology in the community.

Transparency is not only possible with floor-to-ceiling windows, but also with other types of windows. When designing Campus International School, a kindergarten through sixth-grade public magnet school in Cleveland, Perkins + Will used a less expensive alternative — strategically placed glass windows — to create a continuous line of sight throughout the space. Although the impact is not as dramatic, it is still more cost-effective than alternatives. This has the same learning impact as it always has, encouraging collaboration and inspiring students to learn from their peers.


To keep up with the rapid pace of technological and social change, modern learning environments are evolving. According to architects, a key component of creating successful educational spaces is incorporating long-term flexibility so that as technology, curricula, and pedagogies evolve throughout the building’s 50-year lifespan, the structure can adapt to these changes rather than hindering them.

“We are well aware that education will evolve. We also know that curriculums will be revised in the future. “So, how can we best provide a facility that is equipped to change throughout its life?” asks Chuck Tyler, principal architect at Fanning Howey.

Educational plans from the industrial era, which emphasized enclosed spaces and single-use spaces, are being revised. These hallways were created to allow students to move between classes as quickly as possible. Every square inch of the school has been examined for its potential to enhance learning opportunities. To expand the classroom, corridors are being built, and stairwells are being converted into seating areas. Wi-Fi-enabled televisions are mounted on walls throughout the school to serve as writing surfaces or to display educational materials. In place of traditional single-purpose rooms such as cafeterias and libraries, hybrid theatres, makerspaces, and media centers are becoming more common.

In the words of Steve Turckes, principal and global leader of Perkins+Will’s K-12 education practice, “the factory model school most of us attended—where you have similar sized classrooms marching down each side of the hallway—is not going to support their teaching and learning.”

Adaptable spaces must also be able to respond quickly to the changing needs of teachers. Instructional variety, such as group work, direct instruction, and independent work are all possible with this method. Lightweight chairs, beanbags, and area rugs, as well as tables of varying heights and even movable or folding walls, can be used to transform alcoves into more functional spaces. Afterward, these areas can be used to accommodate project-based learning or direct instruction sessions.

Milan High School in Milan, Michigan, offers a project-based learning option known as the Milan Center for Innovative Studies, which is part of the Milan Center for Innovative Studies. It is home to the Innovation Zone, which has been designated as a collaborative space. Students can conduct individual research and work collaboratively on group projects in this area of the school. They also give speeches and presentations. The Innovation Zone serves as the social center of the school as well. It is home to the campus bookstore as well as a coffee shop, which reflects the concept of work-life balance that is so popular among start-ups these days.


Research shows that learning outdoors has many benefits, including increased creativity and decreased stress. A 1998 study found that students learn more when they have hands-on experience and are more connected to their environment. This makes it easier for them to engage in the curriculum and do better on academic tests.

The majority of leading education architects believe that some outdoor learning environments can be described as “spaces that encourage learning.” These could include a set of benches, an amphitheater, or partially covered areas that provide Wi-Fi and other amenities, among other things. Using these outdoor spaces for instruction, presentations, and group work is a great idea. Students who spend the majority of their school day indoors, on the other hand, gain a different perspective from them.

Incorporating outdoor learning spaces into the curriculum can help students become more engaged with nature while also extending their learning opportunities.

Daugherty Elementary in Garland, Texas, has a new learning space thanks to the efforts of Corgan, an architecture and design firm. This facility provides educational zones that are aligned with Texas state standards. The pavement is etched with fossils from the state of Texas. Students learn about the earth’s cycle and rotation through the use of shadow walls, which are panels suspended from the ceiling with cutout images that cast shadows when the sun shines through them. Students can keep track of the amount of rain that has fallen by using a rainwater cistern. The use of xeriscape landscaping, which requires very little water, allows students to learn about local drought-tolerant plants as well as water conservation.

The Lady Bird Johnson Middle School in Irving, Texas, is the world’s largest net-zero public school, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. It generates more energy than the building consumes, allowing it to serve as a learning laboratory for students. Corgan designed the building’s green energy capabilities to be integrated into the school’s science curriculum for students in grades 6-8. Students in the sixth grade compare the efficiency of fossil fuels to that of renewable energy sources such as solar, wind, and geothermal energy. This is the total amount of energy available to the school.