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The following post was submitted by William Brenner:

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I frequently see the term “flexible space” used in association with what is presented as progressive thinking about school design. I submit that there is no such thing as flexible space, except perhaps in an Einsteinian sense.

The late Bill Brubaker advocated the use of thoughtfully designed (and widely spaced) columnar structural systems that allow the ready relocation of interior partitions, walls, and utilities as building needs change over time.

But that’s flexible building design.

Then there are “flexible walls,” accordion walls being the most common in schools and moveable walls the most common in hotel meeting rooms and convention centers. Accordion walls occasionally work as intended but largely have been a disaster, both in terms of durability and acoustic performance. Moveable walls work better but they’re expensive and rarely used in schools.

Finally, there is “multipurpose space.” Sometimes multipurpose space works well, but there’s no substitute for providing specific spaces for specific needs. That’s why, for instance, we build separate spaces for athletics, food consumption, and performance whenever we can afford to.

So let’s cut to the chase.

I challenge those who advocate providing flexible space in schools to define what they mean, what it looks like, and how it’s different from multipurpose space.

4 Responses to “No Such Thing As Flexible Space”

  1. Lackney Says:

    Bill you’re so clever! Of course there is such as thing as FLEXIBLE SPACE. As I recall from my days in architectural school, the hard liner formalist designers who could care less about that dirty word “function” (they preferred the words “UTILITIAS”) used to argue that we don’t have to worry about function since a 150 SF room has the ability to support up to 70-80% of all human activities. I have no idea where they got this number but it is intriguing.

    In any event, even if this is true for the sake of argument, that still leaves 30% of human activity that can’t take place in a 150 SF room. So there is one way of thinking about a flexible space- the 150 SF space is “flexible” for multiple uses. Now, if we again look at the 150 SF and its formal characteristics, meaning its shape, then an ‘L’-shaped space might have more flex than say a square room. That is another way of thinking about flexibility of a “space”.

    This is all conjecture of course until someone (maybe some has) looks at this question. I might suggest that Space Syntax theory might be able to help us here? Anyone from the Georgia Tech on line?

    Finally, lets face it Bill, our minds are as flexible as we choose to make them. I am now successfully imagining my 150 SF office warping into an infinite thinktank with you siting next to me laughing your head off - a highly flexible Einsteinian space indeed!

    Fejj - The Space Cadet

  2. jdane Says:

    In support of a recent presentation by Prakash Nair, perhaps rather than ‘flexible’ we should consider ‘diverse’ as a more appropriate term when planning classrooms. A classroom (and peripheral spaces) that enables multiple types of learning activities to occur must be considered a more engaging and dynamic environment for learning than the old didactic paradigm of facing the teacher and generally interacting in one direction.

    Is this the same as a flexible space? Can a diverse learning environment still be designed in a rectangular box?

    The focus for classroom design should not be so much about the walls, floor and ceiling, but more about how the environment supports the learning intentions of the teachers and students within. This strategy requires collaboration and consultation with teachers to understand what their pedagogical intentions are. It also assumes that teaching practice is progressively heading towards widespread student-centred methodology. A teacher who only knows how to teach from the front of a classroom may find it difficult to change their practice to a more diverse model.

    Peripheral spaces are critically important to support the idea of a diverse learning environment; giving students the freedom to step outside the classroom to seek relevant information and experiences is a radical departure from the idea of the teacher being in control at all times. Examples may include corridors that are designed to facilitate learning conversations and other activities, gardens as places of exploration, libraries as active centres of discovery etc.

    Classrooms designed for diversity are not necessarily multipurpose however. A classroom is generally designed for a pedagogic purpose, ie. learning. A multipurpose space may be a space that caters for whole-of-school gatherings, a game of basketball, a student art exhibition or a school council meeting. The intention of the space is vastly different to the classroom.

    In deference to the term ‘flexible’ in the context of classroom design, may I suggest the focus be on alignment of the learning intentions within a holistic learning environment, that extends beyond the boundaries of the classroom.

  3. bbrenner Says:

    Thanks to Fejj and jdane for taking — to borrow one of the many immortal lines from Pulp Fiction — the Pepsi Challenge. Personally, I’m partial to the Thomas’s English Muffin school of design, whereby flexible space includes plenty of nooks and crannies.

    Anway, this gives me the chance to compliment Jeff (gee, that’s Fejj with transposed consonants — talk about clever!) on the latest iteration of his 30-some design principles as presented in Chapter 2 of his and Ken Tanner’s new book, Educational Facilities Planning. The principles, now stabilized at 31, have been reworked and refined beautifully. Good work.

  4. Henry Sanoff Says:

    I just returned from Lake Maggiore where I spoke about school design to ministry heads of school construction in developing countries, so it is nice to talk about such frivilous things as flexible space.

    Flexible, multipurpose, diverse etc. is nothing more than an excuse to evade identifying the specific activities that need to occur in such places. No doubt, it is difficult to predict future uses, but flexible neither satisfies the present nor the future. Similarly, multi purpose only has meaning if you can identify those purposes and assure that they are compatible and meet the appopriate spatial requirements. To provide flexibility, it is necessary to define how the environment should flex, such as specific activirties, otherwise it is predictable that the space will be wasted and useless.
    The end.

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