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Competition Yields Insights
Thoughtful "Redesign Your School" entries show what kids want in their schools.
by Barbara J. Saffir



The idea that school buildings are often intimidating was a common theme, and Alice Cao's imaginative drawing of a school in a tree full of flowers even featured a welcome sign. Oscar Lucero built a model around an aquarium and photographed it as his entry. It was complete with lighting and model cars.
Photos © The American Architectural Foundation

Ban boxy, boring schools that resemble prisons. Choose daylight over fluorescent lighting. Connect with the community. Go green. Those are some key messages high school students delivered in the first annual "Redesign Your School" contest sponsored by the American Architectural Foundation (AAF) and Target.

"Aesthetics really affect the mood and what you even think about a place," said Tyler Rush, the grand prize winner from Austin, Texas, who created the "Light + Nature School." A great school design, he said, "has the potential to make student performance better than it is."

Some experts agree. That's one reason they sponsored the national design competition, which is part of the AAF's "Great Schools by Design" program to create innovative 21st-century learning spaces and encourage students, educators, parents, designers, and the media to share ideas.

Ronald E. Bogle, the AAF's president and CEO, said the goal was not only to recognize the work of individuals, but to "add student voices" to the national dialogue on school design and to "harvest their ideas."

"This is a process we hope not only enriches students but enhances the design process," said Bogle, who is also a former school board member. Karen Casanova, senior specialist for community relations for Target, says the company hopes the contest will "spark an outcry for better" school design. "We're passionate about education," she said. "We're passionate about design. This program unites the two."



Free-flowing, organic forms characterized some entry winners, in particular those from Aaron Tobey (upper left). Drawings by Alixis Clark (lower left) and Tannie Duong (lower right) emphasized their desire for a strong connection between learning environments and the out-of-doors. Pacharin Saefrung's entry (upper right) was notable for its joyful expression of all the things school should be.
Photos © The American Architectural Foundation

Their competition is the largest national design contest for high school students. It attracted a diverse mix of ninth through 12th graders, boys and girls from all over America. More than 5,000 initially registered online for the competition, which ran from March 1 to June 30. Then 250 submitted projects. They competed for a top prize of a $10,000 college scholarship and seven $5,000 scholarships along with a trip to Washington, D.C., for the November 5 awards presentation. Twenty other finalists won $100 Target department store gift cards.

"The finalists truly shook up our assumptions about what mattered most to students," said juror Daniel S. Friedman, FAIA, dean of College of Architecture and Urban Planning at the University of Washington in Seattle. "For example, an overwhelming number of entries proposed the integration of school and community programs; most incorporated sustainable technology."



Irina Papuc's design for a green school draws its inspiration from forms found in nature. The sophisticated design considers such issues as natural ventilation, security, photovoltaics and solar heating, and water conservation.
Photos © The American Architectural Foundation

The prize-winning projects and their presentations varied as much as the contestants. Two kids crafted colorful hand-drawn sketches with no architectural plans, while others submitted videos and professionally detailed designs. Some were super detailed with items such as an HVAC plan and color samples (beige "cornmeal" and pale-green "aloe vera").

All incorporated nature or green principles either literally or figuratively: from glass tables that doubled as fish ponds to outdoor lunch patios to waterless urinals to efficient classroom shapes based on a honeycomb's "hexagonal tessellation."

Several students created radial designs and curvy classrooms or corridors. Rectangles were rare. Others fashioned college-like campuses.

"There were a lot of kids who said 'I want a campus,' " said juror Carol Rusche Bentel, FAIA, of Bentel and Bentel in Locust Valley, N.Y.

Her fellow juror Kerry Leonard, a principal of Chicago-based OWP/P architects, said: "What the students have told us is that they want places of learning where they feel welcome; they want personalized spaces and they want social spaces."

The winners were judged on creativity and their presentations. They could submit almost any type of work that fit into an 11-inch by 17-inch envelope, including sketches, computer-assisted drawings, videos, model photos or PowerPoint presentations.

In addition to their visual designs, they had to write up to 1,000 words explaining their ideas. They also had to address at least one of the AAF's eight "Principles of School Design." These are to design schools to support a variety of learning styles; enhance learning by integrating technology; support a small, neighborhood school culture; create schools as centers of community; engage the public in the planning process; make healthy, comfortable, and flexible learning spaces; and to consider nontraditional options for school facilities and classrooms.

The contest was divided into four geographical regions. Regional juries initially chose semifinalists. Then they sent those names to the final jury in Washington, D.C., in September. The six male and four female jurors (eight architects and two educators) selected one winner from each of the four regions and four others regardless of location. The grand prize winner was chosen from the eight finalists after an interview.

All the contestants said they wanted to improve their schools. As one student put it in his video: "It all comes down to one thing: learning. That's what it's all about."

Juror Cynthia Weese, FAIA, of Chicago's Weese Langley Weese, said a well-designed school is essential because it's "a critical place" for America's youngsters. As she put it: "It's their introduction to the world."

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