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Seattle Design Guidelines
Pages: 1 2 3 4

Progressive Educational Reform via Building Design Guidelines

By Dale Christopher Lang, PhD

Goals of the Design Guidelines

  1. Create a framework for overall district standards for facility design.
  2. Create a tool for achieving more progressive designs.
  3. Create a more specific framework for developing educational specifications.

Guiding Design Principles

  1. Learner-Centered
  2. Personalizing Environment
  3. Program Adaptability
  4. Community Connection
  5. Aesthetics
  6. Safety
  7. Collaboration
A free copy of the Building Design Checklist, based on the seven guiding principles, is available for download from section two of this article.

Seattle Public Schools recently underwent a revolutionary change in their educational specifying process. Led by facilities Executive Director John Vacchiery and Director Nan Stavnshoj, the district now requires that all new or remodeled middle and high school projects funded by the district follow a student centered “dynamic” rather than a limited “prescribed” methodology in their approach to school design.

Those of us who are involved with educational planning know the heartache of dealing with restrictive design standards that often stymie creative innovation or meaningful change in school architecture that may support rather than hinder educational reform. Maintenance departments working within minimal annual budgets are wary of non-traditional ideas that may be too costly or difficult to sustain. This is understandable but the typical consequence is too often a phonebook size catalog of commandments itemizing the dos and don’ts of local school construction. While some construction standards are necessary to minimize waste, overly prescriptive ones sometimes perpetuate a model that is outdated and often detrimental to genuine reform.

Seattle, with their “School Design Process Manual” [view on line at] has turned the process upside down. In the fall of 2001, Nan and John gathered noted educators, district administrators and local architects to participate in a rare, yearlong, development process resulting in a set of flexible standards that may be autonomously applied at each individual school project. Their goals were threefold: 1) Create a framework for overall district standards for facility design, 2) Create a tool for achieving more progressive designs, and 3) Create a more specific framework for developing educational specifications.

The outcome is a remarkable example of the benefits of critical thinking or progressive learning in practice. All who participated at these meetings became “students” in the true sense of the word, learning some of the values of modern educational. The group began by trying to discover the characteristics of ‘high-achieving” schools from a variety of reference and research sources. Struggling for weeks to synthesize these qualities into seven attributes and then ultimately into seven design guiding principles or themes (see box at left)] relative to school design. Those who participated sought to exemplify these qualities of high achieving schools in the future planning for each new campus. It was like being in design school again, when we assumed that the creative process was born of an altruism that could have a positive impact on the users of our buildings.

High School DiagramStill, making this daunting, mental transition for those at the school planning level can be overwhelming. Those of us who design schools for a living, know how much simpler it is to query teachers as to what characteristics they desire in their new classrooms. Teachers and staff understand the “home improvement” approach to design. By this I mean discussing only visual or surface issues (like room finishes or lighting) without meaningful inquiry that all too often results in a simple redecoration of an outmoded, ineffectual solution.

At the heart of Seattle’s Design Process Manual however, is a rubric or “self evaluation” matrix that administrators and teachers at the school must fully embrace before the 4-step activity design process may begin.

click on diagram for a larger image

Activity Design Process
At the heart of Seattle’s Design Process Manual however, is a rubric or “self evaluation” matrix that administrators and teachers at the school must fully embrace before the 4-step activity design process may begin.
Activity I: Assessment of school alignment with their transformation plan compared with attributes of high achievement schools, design principles and what’s best for kids.
Activity II: Familiarizing the committee with team building, design process framework, research material, district goals and standards.
Activity III: Determination of the vision and beliefs of the school and what they look like as a result of the transformation process.
Activity IV: Envisioning of a typical school day and creation of design concepts based on the committee’s shared vision.

The comprehensive rubric or matrix is comprised of a four-column inventory of everyday school characteristics ranging from “undeveloped” to “transformed” associated with each of the seven guiding principles or themes of educational reform. It’s a tough self-analysis that reveals meaningful student learning progress at its heart. After this self-analysis, the administration and staff together must create a transformation plan and set realistic school goals to improve their student learning effort.

Once a transformation plan is in place, the district then initiates the first step of their school design process. A site committee or “school design team” is formed that includes teachers, program representatives, support staff, PTA representative (parents), students, community members and design professionals. Ideally this committee is a diverse group of 8 to 12 members. Each of the 4 activities may take more than one meeting to complete as general consensus and individual understanding is key to a meaningful design process.

Activities 1 though 3 are intended to bring the committee up to speed with reference to the school’s transformation plan, have a common understanding about ones own community and local school purpose and finally describe how learning activities may look and feel within the future school.

Pages: 1 2 3 4

July 16th, 2006

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