Empathic School Design Is Creating Healthier, More Resilient Communities » Dallas Innovates
For much of 2020, the bells did not ring. School was out, virtual learning was in. As districts look to a new normal, architects with bigger thinking are building schools that can make a difference. According to Leonardo González Sangri from HKS, shaping the future of education is about justice, community, adaptability, health – and openness.
This is what the education director of the HKS has to say.
What opportunities and challenges do you see in the educational architecture for the coming year?
First and foremost, I see an opportunity to create equity in access to opportunities. How can school architecture influence equitable access to wealth? What messages are sent to students because of the space we are building for them? What mesSage is sent because we include it in the design process? For us, this means tackling design problems with an open mind, without a ready-made idea. To listen carefully and let the conversation uncover the solution. Architecture that addresses the real needs of the community in support of institutional goals can provide space for transformation.
The challenges ahead in education are, as in most industries and areas, major challengesand go far beyond architecture. To answer the question directly, the greatest challenge in educational architecture today is resilience. The current emergency has reached its climaxd the need for additional consideration in the design of educational institutions that revolve around adaptability, flexibility, and most importantly, health and health security. The pandemic has also shed light on the importance of life cycle analysis in understanding building systems and their health implications, to focus on long-term benefits in balance with the initial cost of capital.
The challenge is to design buildings that can meet high, measurable standards of performance and then measure them to ensure that they do so continuously. Healthy material choices, more efficient / higher rated building systems (HVAC, plumbing, etc.) and strategies to improve indoor conditions should be assessed along with desired health and wellbeing outcomes and become part of the stated goals of building performance. We have the technology to monitor the results, so the architecture needs to evolve to use the technology to serve the users.
In terms of opportunities, the current pandemic can be seen as a tremendous opportunity, and ultimately used to improve everything – including education and the way we design buildings for education. As the pillars of our communities, educational institutions are in the unique position of being agents of transformational change.
Additionally, I see an opportunity to shape for emotional health and wellbeing. In the past decade, we have learned of the alarming prevalence of anxiety, depression, and stress among students of all ages. We know from research that there are ways to use design to create spaces that help reduce these conditions and increase user satisfaction. For us, this means that all users – across the spectrum – are carefully considered in a truly inclusive environment to encourage learning for all.
Ultimately, I see an opportunity to involve our customers deeper and more meaningfully to help them find solutions that could be possible with a broader mind. As architects and designers, we are trained to solve problems. We have the ability to make connections between seemingly unrelated terms to uncover values. We work consistently to understand all of our customers’ challenges and constraints, to question assumptions and to question the status quo so that we can deliver solutions that were unimaginable.
Has the pandemic affected the way you design schools?
The pandemic is changing the way we approach design, but it’s not yet fully played out. As I mentioned in the opportunities above, our process has shifted in many ways to encourage inclusivity and people-centered design.
Our design process has been enhanced using tools we developed for Infusione it with empathic decisions. A good example is the persona mapping tool. As a human, it is sometimes difficult to remain objective or to avoid projecting our own experiences onto our design decisions. By developing project personalities, we can create a framework that informs our decision-making process with relevant information about the users of the project. This enables our design teams to have meaningful conversations with our customers about their assumptions and make decisions based on research. Recently, our team at UCSD reevaluated the acceptance of a cafeteria need for a student life project. By basing their work on research that uncovered a different need, the design solution became a marketplace that dramatically improved the project without increasing the project budget.
Additionally, we use the AIA Framework for Design Excellence to identify ways our clients’ goals can go beyond the project itself to build healthier and more resilient communities. Through this process, we define design results that make the project an important contribution to its own ecosystem. As a company, we look for ways to reflect on our work and its impact in our communities and their ability to recover from crisis. Recently our research group developed the Community Bloc Framework for healthy and pandemic resistant communities. Based on findings from city studies and infection prevention, we investigate how the ability can be designed to change an environment from health times to times to cope with a health crisis in order to promote human health, the environment and taxes.
Which functions will be most important in schools of the future?
Resilience, sustainability, health and technology.
Resilience design is paramount today and in the future. As we move into a challenging future, our built environment can play an important role in building resilience to support our communities. Our schools of the future can play a greater role in the success of our communities by leveraging interdependent programs or features that accommodate intergenerational and inclusive environments. By carefully designing for flexibility and adaptability, with relevance to the location and taking into account human needs, our buildings can help us cope with crises and build community. This adaptability will manifest itself in a rapid change of use of rooms, a flexible design and more agile infrastructures.
Another recurring theme is health, both from the perspective of our physical and mental health and from the perspective of our health security. These issues are becoming primary concerns of educational institutions as we all work to return to normal and learn to live with fear of pandemics.
Holistic sustainability goes hand in hand with resilience. The concept of holistic sustainability is embedded in our ethos, which includes ecological, social and economic sustainability. Real sustainability arises at the intersection of all three. We develop a rigorous approach that sees all three as the basis for uncovering values that go beyond the project location itself and meaningfully expand the community.
After all, technology will inevitably play a key role on many fronts. Depending on how it was developed, it can become a transforming force in how we understand the building blocks of a school. How and where we learn is heavily influenced by technology. Will it make the classroom redundant? Will the evolution of AI reshape the way we measure student performance and thus the way we teach? Are we going to apply a technology model that will enable us to achieve real equity in education? Will we meet the access challenges facing our underserved communities today?
What current and upcoming projects are you looking forward to?
At K-12, we’re excited to announce the upcoming opening of our Lake Highlands High School renovation at Richardson ISD. This project is a great example of a user-centric approach where we have used the district’s inclusive design process to uncover tremendous value for LHHS students and faculties. What began as a supplement to the classroom to connect two existing buildings became a new school center: a flexible space that meets the school’s needs for cafeteria, library and informal learning opportunities – and at the same time a connection between those filled with natural light and visual light Buildings create physical access to nature. Through creative thinking we were able to deliver the entire project, including the additional classrooms originally programmed, with no additional money requested from the board. By studying the needs of the school in depth, we have found a solution that is transformative for student health.
In higher education, we look forward to the opening of our North Torrey Pines residential and study community at the University of California in San Diego soon. Here we have used our human-centered design process to deliver a solution that is deeply rooted in research. The building recently underwent an analysis to assess resilience and adaptability as the university reviewed its back-to-school plans. Our client was pleasantly surprised at how well the project’s design features moved in support of his plans, especially given that it was designed long before the pandemic.
A version of this story was first published in the Fall 2020 issue of the Dallas-Fort Worth Real Estate Review.
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