Designing for the Middle School Mind

Oh, how complicated (and scary) the mind of a teen works – emotions are high and attention is scattered. They may be more worried about the gossip in the hallway than the lessons in the classrooms. Distractions are everywhere, and it can be difficult to keep them engaged. But to be fair, it isn’t entirely their fault. The brain doesn’t fully mature until about age 25, meaning teens are more likely to be less organized and focused at their age.1

According to scientist James Bjork, teens crave activities that lead to a high level of excitement or require little effort. As designers, we also need to consider this while working on a middle school project. The classrooms, common spaces, and active areas need to engage and relate to the middle schoolers’ minds.

As designers, there are several ways we can help teachers keep students attentive and engaged:

  • Furniture: having flexibility within the classroom for the students and teachers are essential to interactive learning. Teacher’s often have a fixed desk either in the front or the back of classroom as well as a mobile station, allowing for more student interactions. Selecting furniture that has a mix of pieces ranging from flexible chairs, stools, desks, and tables can promote movement within the classroom.
  • Acoustics and technology: teens do best with active learning styles, opposed to passive. This requires a classroom to be well-equipped with the latest technology. Mobile white boards or smart boards allow the technology to be effective regardless of the furniture configuration. By designing a tech-rich environment, teachers are then able to switch up their lessons more spontaneously – keeping those teen-minds more interested in the tasks at hand. There is also evidence that proves attaching music to a lesson helps students retain the information.2
  • Bottle filling stations: letting kids drink water during class time has proven to help their brains function smoothly and lengthen attention spans2. By providing water bottle filling stations, kids can have their H2O in class.
  • Quiet breakout space or focus room: for when a student needs to take some time to regroup, set those emotions aside, and then get back to work. Spaces like this, inside a classroom or separate gives their minds a break from the fast-paced world they live it.
  • Bring nature in: include plenty of opportunity for students to see outside since they no longer get recess time. Including big windows in the classrooms will allow natural light to flood the space, increasing productivity and improving moods. We do keep shades/blinds in mind while designing for when teachers need a dark room for projector-related activities.
  • Common social spaces: because many teens prefer to interact with their peers, we can create a deliberate space to do that between class periods.

In addition to thinking about middle school design that will be engaging, we also keep safety and security in mind.

The big jump from the small, safe elementary school into the new, exciting middle school setting is a big bite to chew for most kids – including their parents. It will be important for us, as architects, to design a non-threatening environment to help students feel safe and put parents’ fears more at ease.

If hallways are tight and cramped, teen emotions are heightened and shoving can begin. Therefore, we are designing corridors to be wide enough to keep students from bumping into one another during passing periods. One way to elevate hallway anxiety is by separating grade levels in wings – keeping the smaller 6th graders away from the bigger 8th graders. A good example of a project where we did this was at George Rogers Middle School.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Another way to keep grade levels separated is by floors, which we’ve done at Greenwood Middle School.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It is true that teens will all learn, act, and respond in different ways, but the path for design is clear. By designing an environment with “the teenager’s view of their environment in mind and where there are “active, stimulating place where people can talk and share, quite places for downtime, and space for movement is planned for,” we can lend a hand to teachers.

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1 McDonald, Emma S. “A Quick Look into the Middle School Brain.” NAESP, Jan. 2010. https://www.naesp.org/sites/default/files/resources/2/Principal/2010/J-Fp46.pdf

2 Wolpert-Gawron, Heather. “Tween Brains, Part III: How to Work It Out In The Classroom.” Tween Teacher, 30 Oct. 2013, tweenteacher.com/2013/10/30/tween-brains-part-iii-how-to-work-it-out-in-the-classroom/.

A First Timer’s Guide to an Architectural Project

Q&A with Dr. Kent Pettet – Franklin Township: Bunker Hill Elementary Principal.

Dr. Kent Pettet grew up in the Region of Indiana and attended Indiana University. His first job was teaching 5th Grade at Boone Grove Elementary School in Porter Township School Corporation. He moved to Colorado for five years while his wife went to grad school. He taught and became an Administrator before moving back to Indiana – now the Indianapolis area. After a few positions, he found his now home as Principal at Bunker Hill Elementary with the MSD of Franklin Township and loves the district.

Had you ever worked in a school during a renovation?

When I first came back to Indiana and started at Stout Field, Wayne Township was finishing a series of projects, but construction was just about done when I started. The renovation at Bunker Hill Elementary was my first time being a part of the whole planning process: looking at possible future educational trends, budget, schedule, etc.

 

Did you have any expectations going into it?

I wasn’t sure what to expect going into it. My district contact who was leading the project had talked with me about the total project budget, but I didn’t know what things actually cost. I was asked to create a list of things I felt needed to be updated and areas that needed improvement, so I did. I wasn’t even sure who lead the first meeting once we got started, or what to expect.

 

Was there anything you could have been given to help with your expectations?

Not really. When I went into the first meeting, everyone really listened to what I felt the school needed, I used the phrase “campus enhancement.” And everyone listened to what I felt those pieces were. I had no idea what anything would cost, so I didn’t know what was realistic.  At the 2nd meeting, Schmidt Associates had developed cost estimates for the various campus enhancements I suggested. I was then able to get a grasp of what was realistic.

I felt integral in the process of picking out what we were going do. A lot things I suggested (the parking lot and stairs, new lower level storefront, etc.) made it through to the final piece. I also tried to look at things through the school lens. I made sure maintenance personnel were involved. They know the lifecycle of things like the chiller and water heater, so I felt it was important for them to be informed during design.

 

Looking back. Is there anything you would do differently?

Not really. We hit some stressors, but it was because of our aggressive timeline. All my contacts at Schmidt Associates were prompt responding to calls and emails. When I had questions, I got good answers and things were explained well, no matter who we were talking to.

The one thing was a water fountain. We couldn’t visualize the solution being proposed, so it would have been nice to be able to see it.

Overall, I felt comfortable, maybe too comfortable, asking questions and getting answers. I felt it was a great experience and our school looks beautiful. It is night and day different and the timing is perfect as we are celebrating 100 years of the school.  The walls and lights are brighter. The cafeteria looks good and the stairs we connected to the classrooms help make it feel like a west coast campus being able to walk outdoors.

 

Any advice to a first-time principal?

Ask lots of questions. I was never afraid to ask lots of questions, so I would. We make assumptions, especially about things we think we know when it isn’t in our area of expertise. We don’t really know what it will take from a cost perspective or time perspective. A ceiling grid replacement isn’t as easy as you think. You need to look at the fire sprinklers, the electrical, wiring, lighting, etc. So be sure to ask as many questions as possible.

 

The Value of Long-Standing Relationships

As part of developing good relationships, personally or professionally, you need to learn about the person. What do they like or dislike? What is their communication style? Do they want coffee, donuts, or both in an early morning meeting? Getting to know a client on a personal level and professional level is something we enjoy here at Schmidt Associates. It is great fun when we get the chance to work with past clients again!

For recent additions to two Westfield Washington schools, Anna Marie Burrell and I reconnected with original principals Scott Williams and Robin Lynch. But first, here is a little back story.

15 to 20 years ago, Anna and I had the chance to design several elementary schools for Westfield. The district chose to make the design of the first elementary school, Carey Ridge, a prototype and their corporation standard. The second and third iterations of the prototype were Oak Trace, with Principal Robin Lynch, and Washington Woods, with Principal Scott Williams.

At Oak Trace, we collaborated with Robin throughout construction to morph the prototype building into something more unique and specific to this school. The building was picked up, so to speak, and flipped so that it was a mirror image of the original prototype. This fit the site better, and allowed us to customize the school to reflect Oak Trace.

Anna Marie and I met with Scott for the next new elementary, Washington Woods. Scott was inspired by the proposed wooded site of the new elementary. He worked with us to adapt the prototype materials and colors to blend the building into and compliment the wooded environment.

Fast forward 15-20 years, and we reconnected to work on an addition to the original prototype, Carey Ridge Elementary. As the surrounding community grew, the administration and Principal Susan Hobson realized there was a need for four more kindergarten rooms and a community room to be added to the existing school.

In response to Westfield’s overall growth, the same spaces were then planned as additions to Oak Trace and Washington Woods. Since we had worked with both Scott and Robin on their original buildings, the design meetings started off at an accelerated pace. Ever enterprising, each principal jumped right in and told us how they could use the space best. Neither were shy about delving knee-deep into our materials library to select finishes.

Schmidt Associates used a highly visible, transparent approach at Oak Trace and Washington Woods to demonstrate a design with the children’s best interests at heart. With support of the community, these projects delivered spaces that support the before and after school care, the all-day kindergarten, and a community room for flexible use.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The casual, but professional client to architect relationship helped make these projects a pleasure to be a part of. It was fun to reconnect with the principals after several years and see them so successful in their elementary homes!

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But don’t just take it from us, take it from two Westfield Washington elementary school principals:

Robin Lynch – Oak Trace Elementary

For me, the biggest thing is trust. You never know what you are going to get when you start working with a new vendor, contractor, or company. Having a long-standing relationship like I’ve had with Schmidt Associates’ K-12 leadership team means that I have been able to build trust over the years.

When we were planning our recent Kindergarten expansion, I had no hesitation having worked with Anna Marie Burrell and Cindy McLoed in years prior. I knew that working with them meant we would get exactly what we wanted and needed, and we would stay within our budget. It is important to me that our school delivers what the kids need most and function specifically for the Westfield community. Schmidt Associates knows how to take a generic design and tweak it until it uniquely serves our needs.

Working with the K-12 team from Schmidt Associates ensures that we are going to get the most child-friendly environment for our students, and that makes me very happy with their entire process. I truly have enjoyed working with them over the years.

Scott Williams – Washington Woods Elementary

I’ve worked with Anna Marie and Cindy for over 15 years now, when the first school project started. Schmidt Associates’ K-12 team has been good listeners and supportive to our school community. Their team really heard us, really considering what we needed and providing us with options. They strive to find what we uniquely need for our school here at Washington Woods.

Anna Marie, specifically, was the first person to bring me a design that didn’t include the “Westfield green” trim along the outside, which made me realize that we were on the same wavelength. Our ideas seemed to be in sync from there on out.

 

 

Getting Real About Value Engineering

“Value engineering” is perhaps the most overused and under-realized term in the design/construction industry today. It has become the catch bucket for any exercise that involves reducing costs.

By definition, value is the ratio of function to cost. Value is increased by improving function or reducing cost. A great example: the benefit analysis of solar shading provided by extending the overhang of a roof. Using Building Information Modeling (BIM) and special software programs, we can determine the optimum energy savings obtained from shading by applying the most cost-effective roof extension (the ratio of function to cost). Our analysis identifies the point of diminishing return – the point when the increased cost of the roof begins to yield lower shading benefit. This is value engineering.

In contrast, most references to a “value-engineering exercise” are in reality a “cost-reduction exercise.” It involves compiling a list of items (or functions) to eliminate from the project, thereby reducing cost. This is not necessarily a bad thing to do. In fact, it is often an unavoidable part of any project since needs and wants are almost always greater than budgets. However, calling it “value engineering” is a misnomer because the function is eliminated along with the cost.

It is important to recognize that value can be lost with the cost reduction. This often occurs when a function that yields a long-term benefit (reduced energy or operational cost) is eliminated to provide an initial cost reduction. A clear understanding of the difference between “value engineering” and “cost reduction” helps avoid decisions with unintended consequences or “de-value engineering.”

Does Your School Really Need New Construction?

Schools serve as a fixture within their communities, stirring up nostalgic moments for past students. Like for the college student driving past their old elementary school on their way through town during their first break away from school, remembering those days on the playground during recess. Or for the parents of high school students, strolling through the familiar hallways during parent-teacher night. Or for the spectators who pack in the basketball gym, year after year to support the town’s team. These schools serve as a significant piece of the community’s history far beyond the lessons taught within the classrooms.

When these schools inevitably start to age, the student population starts to grow, or when the schools simply can’t keep up with new programming demands, there needs to be a discussion about what to do moving forward with the facility. Do you really need to tear down the school that has been standing on Main Street for generations and build a completely new building? Can you just update the systems on the inside? Is there enough land on the lot to add a new wing?

Determining whether your school needs new construction begins with developing a space needs facility assessment, looking at both the physical conditions of the building and its capacity to serve educational programming needs. When used correctly, this tool accurately reflects the programs offered and how a facility should look under ideal student loading conditions. We described this tool in a previous blog here as a mechanism to establish criteria to determine equity between and among facilities.

In conjunction with spaces to accommodate the educational program, it is critical to identify and quantify the support areas, such as cafeteria, media area(s), small- and large-group spaces, administrative and mentoring spaces, and the core requirements of restrooms, mechanical, and technology support spaces. Incorporating adjacency studies helps assess whether an existing facility can be adapted, expanded and repurposed, or if it would be more educationally appropriate and cost-effective to build something new.

Adjacencies and facility layouts play a significant role in selecting a new site. Site size is important, but access to the site for vehicles and utilities is equally important to the ultimate success of a new educational facility.

Three key factors contribute to school site selection:

  1. Site size and configuration, including grading, natural vegetation and surrounding contextual elements
  2. Site location and access, as well as the feeder mechanism or facility transformation of elementary, middle, and high school space needs
  3. Natural and legislated external factors, such as drainage ways, utility access, and zoning.

As always, we recommend talking with an architect about your facility before determining if you need new construction.

Synthetic Turf 101 Infographic

Synthetic turf is quickly becoming the norm for many sporting venues at a variety of levels: professional, college, high school, and parks and recreation. This product makes sense when a variety of sports are played year round, and field use is at a premium. However, it does come at a high initial cost and is currently being beat up in the media over potential health concerns with crumb rubber. Natural turf is still a very good option for cost. Recent advances in technology may make natural turf the best choice for some Owners. In fact, the Baltimore Ravens recently removed their turf field to go back to natural turf.

Either way, it pays to investigate the pros and cons for each type of surface to determine which solution is best for the need and budget. This infographic provides a comparison of synthetic and natural turf fields.

 

 

Five Tips for Early Childhood Facility Planning, Design and Construction

Most of us may have a difficult time remembering what it was like to be in preschool, but try to put yourself there for a moment. Everything seems so much bigger than you, your imagination is running freely, and you are actually encouraged to nap in the middle of the day.

It is important to think from 4-year-old’s perspective and consider how they interact with the world around them when planning for an early childhood facility. The following five tips show a few aspects to keep in mind:

  1. Homey Feel

Creating a learning space that makes the students feel like they are at home is a main component to making them comfortable and confident in the classroom. Using rocking chairs and pillows in a reading time space and even at the front door of a typical classroom helps to make the children feel at ease. The image below of Wayne Township Preschool is a good example of this.

Click here to view more from this album

  1. Separation and Ease of Use

If the pre-school is part of a facility that includes an elementary or high school, keep in mind that the preschool functions differently than the rest. Constructing a facility that positions the early childhood area near the front entrance is essential because pick-up and drop-off will be separate from the rest of the school because they are on different schedules. Also, designing different recess areas for preschool children makes for a safer playtime.

  1. Keep it Low

Children at this age are using their senses to learn about their environments. The design should be planned to accommodate for their small stature. Textures on the bottom of the wall for them to explore, windows dropped to floor level for them to look out and shorter countertops they can reach are all essential in making a space practical for an early childhood facility.

  1. Hard and Soft Balance

Children at this age spend a lot of their time on the ground. Hard surfaces are easy to clean up after creating messy artwork and snack time. Soft surfaces are practical for naptime, playing and reading. Creating a balance between hard and soft surfaces will allow for all the necessary activities within the classroom.

  1. Utilize Color

Using playful, rich colors within the design on the space can help stimulate learning for the children. According to a study by the University of Kentucky, primary colors, especially red, are preferred during early preschool years. Warmer colors tend to excite brain waves, while cooler colors tend to be more calming. Depending on the type of space, colors should be considered and utilized accordingly.

Future blogs will explore these concepts in more detail.

 

 

Current trends of K-12 media spaces

 

Media Centers are always evolving in the school setting. Thoughtful design is mandatory to ensure spaces are utilized to their maximum potential and tailored to the ultimate goal of enhancing the student, teacher, and community member experience. Here are some current trends critical to a school’s Media Center space.

Flexibility

Looking at how the space can be flexible. A variety of flexible and inviting furnishings; prolific technology and power integration; and a variety of private, semi-private, and public spaces are often incorporated throughout evolving media centers. Design flexibility such as movable book shelves and adjustable furniture allows the space to be modified as technology and desires change.

Western Boone Jr./Sr. Media Center

 

Semi-Private Space

Media Centers are not purely quiet places anymore. We have found that commons spaces—open, sunlit, airy spaces with flexible seating, bordered by glass walled group study rooms—are popular, while their adjacent spaces are quiet and controllable. These spaces allow students to see and be seen, work in groups, and safely access technological resources.

Multi-Purpose Spaces/Maker Spaces

Designed to flex in both size and function, multi-purpose spaces can offer a venue to drive public events, lectures, maker space activities, group activities, teacher meetings, etc. The ability to have presentation marker walls and flexible technology set ups allows the room to support various learning styles, curriculums and resource opportunities.

ISIS Lower School Flexible Classroom

 

Extended Hours

The desire for convenience drives the need for extended hours in the public areas of schools such as media centers, cafeterias, gymnasiums and commons spaces. Properly designed and programmed, these spaces can create a safe hub of activity for guest speakers, music, performance, and late night gatherings. Providing separate entrances for public use and areas that can be utilized for catering help to service after hour patrons. Modern schedules are flexible, and a successful facility can meet this need.

Books vs. Digital

Books are the backbone of a library. However, the expansion of other media types does create a real square footage need for digital access (like distance learning spaces or student testing). Other technology offers an opportunity to store rarely used resources off-site, accessible either through retrieval technology or as an ordering system. While the overall library square footage may not shrink, technology does change the spatial allocation.

Making Magic – Approaching Conceptual Design

Many people seem to think there is some sort of magic that happens when architects develop early project design concepts. It’s a big part of the fun; the first steps in connecting the client to their dreams. Not that it’s a simple exercise, but it actually involves many of the same replicable steps each time.

  • Understand the client’s needs and wants, as well as the real problems and opportunities that need to be explored.
  • Understand the building program elements – the what and how much.
  • Finally, understand the context.  Not just the physical site or location for the proposed project, but a clarity of what will give the project substance and delight for a given client.

 

The first two steps are ones that you likely knew or could guess. But the last one is what will provide a solution which will transcend an Owner’s expectations, making it even more special than they imagined by giving it a meaning unique to them and their specific opportunity. That’s the magical part of the equation. It’s not something to be calculated, but rather it is experienced. These are tangible outcomes of seeking the less tangible understanding of what the building really means for a given Owner, not just what it needs to do for them.

The Johnson Center for Fine Arts at Franklin College offered an outstanding opportunity for a special project, especially with its prominent location along an external campus edge and an internal campus pedestrian mall. Paying attention to these contextual situations to make it work effectively with the site, but paying attention to its purpose will lead to taking advantage of unexpected opportunities that will make it special for all who experience the building.

Art infuses this building, finding its way into planned niches and surprise locations around the building and the exterior plaza. The pyramidal skylights which top the atrium gallery were equipped with hanging points to allow sculpture to float above the atrium floor. Even the donor plaque became an artistic expression in curved dichroic glass, etched and backlit in the central rotunda.

Ultimately, a building and it’s spaces are most successful if they make the users smile while allowing them to do what they need to do more effectively and efficiently. That’s the magic we work to bring to each project.

Alternative Stormwater Options

Stormwater runoff is generated when precipitation from rain and snowmelt events flow over land or impervious surfaces (paved area and building rooftops). The more impervious surface areas are in the project site, the more stormwater runoff will be generated. As the runoff flows over the land or impervious surfaces, it accumulates debris, chemicals, sediment, or other pollutants that could adversely affect water quality if the runoff is discharged untreated. Traditional methods to control stormwater discharge include detention ponds and Best Management Practices (BMPs) structures. Some projects, because of limited project site and cost, require alternative solutions, including:

Underground Detention – This system is located underground and provides water quantity control through temporary detention of stormwater runoff. The underground detention structures are pre-cast or cast-in-place concrete structures or pre-built modular systems. Underground detention is most often used in developments where land availability and land costs predicate against the development of surface stormwater detention. Underground detention is ideal for use under paved areas such as parking lots.

Green Roof – A green roof is vegetation growing on a contained roof space. Green roofs can absorb stormwater, reducing runoff, therefore reducing the need for on-site stormwater management systems. Green roofs can improve a roof’s visual appeal, reduce roof temperatures, and reduce noise pollution.

Rain Garden – A rain garden is a shallow planted depression that allows rain water runoff from surrounding impervious areas to be absorbed and soaked into the ground. Rain gardens can reduce the amount of pollution reaching nearby water bodies, therefore improving the water quality.

Water Quality Swale and Bio-Retention Area – Water quality swales and bio-retention areas are vegetated depressions in the landscape with an infiltration device through which stormwater drains. Water quality swales and bio-retention areas improve the water quality, treating the runoff as it is conveyed.

There are also other alternative stormwater solutions that can be used per project conditions, such as Drywells, Pervious Pavements, Rain Barrels, Sand Filters, and Stormwater Wetlands. Each site is unique and requires specifically designed and calculated solutions.