Building Great K-12 Schools in Economically Challenging Times
In these tough times making good school design decisions has never been more difficult or more important. To find out how some of the nation’s top architects and administrators are coping with these challenges attend Architectural Record’s Schools of the 21st Century Symposium. It will be held Friday, April 9th, at the Hyatt McCormick Place in Chicago, the day before the NSBA Conference. The event is free of charge and is being presented with the support of McGraw-Hill Education and the American Architectural Foundation.

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A Shared Vision
Architects and their clients strive to nurture collaboration and community with learning environments that are adaptable and sustainable
By Joann Gonchar, AIA

When selecting the schools for the case studies that follow, the editors of Schools of the 21st Century aimed to assemble a group of buildings that were thoughtfully designed, conducive to learning, and responsive to the needs of their many constituents. In addition to these qualities, we hoped the collection would be diverse. We worked hard to find schools large and small, in different parts of the country, and representative of distinct educational philosophies and design sensibilities.

And at first blush, these schools couldn’t seem more different. A two-classroom private preschool in San Francisco, with a curriculum that focuses on sensory learning, would seem to have little in common with a 1,700-student high school in Columbia, South Carolina, where educators are working to prepare students for work and college. Nor could a low-rise elementary school surrounded by woods in a suburb of Seattle be more different than a sleek six-story arts high school on a constrained site in gritty Detroit.

However, when we scratched beneath the surface, commonality emerged. Flexible, adaptable, and sustainable were the adjectives that educators and architects used to describe their schools again and again. They said the buildings provided intimate learning environments and fostered a sense of community and collaboration among students and faculty members alike.

Not only did they speak of their buildings in similar terms, but the architects employed some of the same design strategies. For example, the Denver School of Science & Technology, the Alpine prototype schools, and Blythewood High School use a clustered-classroom model despite their differences in both size and educational mission.

Designers and school officials also described the process used to create the schools in remarkably similar ways. Design and programming almost always began with a series of collaborative meetings that included parents, educators, administrators, community members, and students.

Although the shared qualities that surfaced during the course of our investigation were somewhat of a surprise, they were also reassuring. The commonalities are a sign that most districts, regardless of individual circumstances, have similar aspirations for their students and the buildings they will occupy.

Click on the following links to find inspirationional K-12 projects:

Montessori Children’s Center
San Francisco
Mark Horton/Architecture


Blythewood High School
Columbia, South Carolina
Perkins+Will, Boudreaux Group


Detroit School of Arts
Hamilton Anderson Associates


Denver School of Science & Technology


Alpine School District Prototype Middle Schools
Alpine and Lehi, Utah
VCBO Architecture


Benjamin Franklin Elementary School
Kirkland, Washington
Mahlum Architects