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Building Great K-12 Schools in Economically Challenging Times
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History Lesson
Anyone concerned about greening schools can learn from William Caudill’s 1954 book, Toward Better School Design. It extolled the virtues of daylighting and natural ventilation seeing a resurgence today.
By Charles Linn, FAIA

In 1954 the number of births of American children exceeded four million for the first time. This was just the beginning of the baby boom and the school construction explosion that would follow. The nation’s need for schools was acute, and knowledge so scarce that architectural record devoted not one but two issues to the subject that year. We also published a wonderful book called Toward Better School Design. Its author was a gregarious Texan named William Caudill, who had been running a practice and doing research on school design at Texas A&M since the late 1940s. His firm, Caudill Rowlett Scott (CRS), was well on its way to becoming one of the largest architectural firms in the United States, in part because of its innovative approach to the planning, design, and construction of schools.


Historic buildings like Cincinnati’s Columbian School were not great for daylighting or cross-ventilation.
Photo © Library of Congress

By 1950 architects all over the country had already abandoned the idea that schools must look like grand mansions for learning. This quaint notion was being swept away by one of the core tenets of Modern architecture—that function dictated form, and buildings could be stripped of ostentatious ornamentation without apology. Out went brick palaces, and in came flat-roofed schools with tall expanses of glass. This dovetailed nicely with the need to build quickly and cheaply on vast suburban greenfield sites.

Caudill organized his book into three parts: Education, Environment, and Economy. Many theories of child psychology and education were going mainstream at the time, and architects were eager to contribute to the theorizing. He spent a great many pages discussing ideas for making school buildings stimulate students and make learning interesting. He was well ahead of his time when he wrote, “In all grades provide nooks in classrooms for individual instruction and guidance.” In recent years these ideas have been recast somewhat; now we say that such classrooms “accommodate different learning styles.”




Back to the future: The influence of Caudill’s book (drawing, top) could be seen in America’s schools almost immediately (above). Many pages were devoted to daylighting and cross- ventilation diagrams.
Photos © Classic Stock

Most schools built prior to World War II had daylighting and natural ventilation in common with these new schools. But Caudill’s research took these ideas much farther. His book showed how combinations of windows, overhangs, and skylights could provide generous amounts of daylight without adding more heat or creating glare on desks and chalkboards. Other diagrams showed ways in which strategically located windows and vents could allow classrooms to be naturally ventilated with cool breezes.

The benefits of daylighting and natural ventilation on the quality of classroom spaces seem to have been forgotten in the 1960s, perhaps due to the widespread introduction of air conditioning and fluorescent lighting in schools. Some school architects in this period even reduced their windows to vertical ribbons barely a foot wide, reasoning that views to the outside were distracting. Today, Caudill’s ideas about daylighting and natural ventilation are experiencing a vigorous renaissance. The U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED for Schools program, the American Society of Heating and Refrigeration Engineers’ Advanced Energy Design Guide for K–12 School Buildings, and several publications put out by the Collaborative for High Performance Schools (the ASHRAE and CHPS documents can be downloaded free of charge from their Web sites) all utilize these concepts. Their energy conservation and indoor air quality benefits are indisputable, although some expertise is required to apply these principles without causing other problems.

Caudill’s exploration of Economy, the means by which construction dollars could be made to go as far as possible, has never become irrelevant. McGraw-Hill Construction’s Outlook Report, issued in October of 2008, noted that while the number of square feet of primary and middle schools constructed in 2008 was down only 2 percent over the prior year, the number of square feet built for high schools was up 13 percent. The years ahead will bring great challenges: The number of schoolchildren increases by about 300,000 each year, but unlike the mid-1950s, our economy is not booming.