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CAE Awards Recognize Transparency, Teachable Sustainability in School Architecture

By Charles Linn, FAIA

There aren’t many places where spending a few extra dollars per square foot upfront can have a more positive, lasting influence than in school buildings. Most people spend a good portion of their formative lives in such places, and while the quality of one’s education can depend quite a lot on textbooks and teachers, poorly designed instructional environments can overshadow them. Regrettably, “cells and bells” tends to be the term school architects fall back on when asked to describe most of the U.S.’s formulaically-derived school buildings. In recent years, members of the AIA Committee on Architecture for Education (CAE) have helped initiate a national conversation on the many ways architecture can be used to enhance educational environments, adding architecture-based phrases like “small learning communities” to the vocabularies of PTA presidents and school board superintendents alike.

The CAE’s most potent weapon in raising the bar may well be its annual design awards, which will culminate with a session Friday, May 13th, at the AIA National Convention in New Orleans. Peter Lippman, Assoc. AIA, educational resource planner at JCJArchitecture and chairman of the 2011 jury, says there is plenty of evidence that the awards are influencing firms and clients alike. “We certainly notice that year after year the entries get better and better.”

This year’s 13 award recipients run the gamut, from a center for low-income children and families located in Pasadena, Calif., to a university graduate fellows building in Charlottesville, Va. Despite the variety, Lippman and fellow jury member Thomas Hille, AIA, principal at Tabulate Rasa Architecture + Design, note that all of the projects incorporated design ideas which had begun emerging a few years ago, but have become more complex recently. “In particular, we are seeing emphasis on transparency, sustainability, integrating the community, and the desire to make every space an opportunity for learning moments to occur,” says Hille.

This year, Hille says, transparency has meant more than just putting windows between classrooms and corridors. “All of these projects have connections between the interior and exterior. Now it is being used so learning isn’t just an isolated experience, but an opportunity to potentially help get others excited or motivated to do more things. Transparency allows that to happen.”

While sustainability is de rigueur, the jurors also saw architects and educators collaborating to make the integration of green design features into the pedagogy more meaningful. “A flat-screen monitor displaying energy consumption that’s going to be gone from a child’s learning in two days is just a one-trick pony,” says Lippman.

Sustainable Urban Science Center, Germantown Friends School--Philadelphia

Hille cites to the Germantown Friends School’s Sustainable Urban Science Center (which earned a CAE Award of Excellence) as an example of a building where sustainability takes on deeper dimensions. “The engineering aspects of sustainability are a given,” Hille says. “What I liked about this building is that there was really a lot of architectural expression there. Just at the level of transparency, indoor-outdoor connections, it is very nicely done.”

The project’s architect, David Ade, AIA, a principal of SMP Architects, adds, “The facility was designed to engage students in a laboratory for learning on a variety of levels. On the surface level, the visible integration of sustainable strategies sends a message that this building is different from a general classroom facility.”  Features such as above-ground cisterns and green roofs are kept front and center to preserve their design identity.

“At this level, students interact with the facility as part of their study and research,” says Ade. “Opportunities include water level gauges on the exterior of the cisterns, pavement markings for the number and spacing of the geo-exchange wells, and a weather station integrated with the photovoltaic panels.  The students use this type of measurable information in conjunction with the building monitoring system to understand how seasonal, weekly, and diurnal cycles impact the efficiency and performance [of] their science building.”


TELUS Centre for Performance and Learning, Royal Conservatory--Toronto

The Royal Conservatory’s TELUS Centre, by Toronto-based Kuwabara Payne McKenna Blumberg Architects (KPMB), wowed the jury. The project is composed of 43 teaching and practice studios, the renovation of the 1898 Ihnatowycz Hall building, a 150-seat Conservatory Hall, and the 1135-seat Koerner Hall. KPMB principal Marianne McKenna, Intl. Assoc. AIA, designed the project.

“[This project] was a little difficult to assess because it is more sophisticated and expensive than any high school,” Hille says. “But much can be learned from it. It was really remarkable in the way that it integrated a lot of different kinds of learning activities. There’s a performance space, practice spaces, social spaces, and it’s open to the community. It really acts like a connector through the city.”

“We emphasized the interconnection of spaces,” says McKenna, “with vertical movement choreographed for views and animation within the building. Digital innovation was integrated in both academic spaces and in learning and broadcast capabilities so that knowledge is shared across the broadest of platforms. The idea is that the academic environment should be viable, flexible, and lively, but still respect historical context. Shared community spaces should draw in both faculty and students from across disciplines.”

“I think the jury liked the openness and the transparency,” she continues, “and the mix of heritage fabric and contemporary architecture, the ambition and the beauty of Koerner Hall, which is a performance venue for both students of the Royal Conservatory and for world-class stage performers.”

The Saguaro Building at Mesa Community College--Mesa, Ariz.

The awards jury was struck by the fact that this building daringly mashes together two program types that could easily be considered perfect strangers: a life science laboratory and a black box theater.

“I have a feeling that the two programs that were collocated in that building as a matter of exigencies. That happens all the time in community colleges,” says Hille. “But they were able to create some really beautiful interstitial spaces for socialization. In that climate, if you can provide shade for these outside spaces, as they did, they are really usable. The layers of screening, the transparency, are beautifully done.”

“The unique mix of program elements is really hard to resist, and when you add in the special science components like the bat roosts, terrariums, and a snake wrangling pit, it’s a pretty compelling design problem,” says the project’s architect, SmithGroup principal Mark Kranz, AIA. “I think it’s also hard to not fall in love with a campus that has such reverence for their unique desert setting.”

A little messy

McKenna says that students want, “more innovation in the classroom in terms of immersive learning environments. They want access to long distance learning and shared knowledge. But architects will have to respond in both cases with bold and innovative architecture to house those ambitions.”

For his part, Hille says that architects should do their best to maintain a healthy sense of design imperfection in learning environments. “I think the good side of that is that schools are less architecture spelled with a capital ‘A’. It is a bit like housing. It’s very messy. They’re everyday environments. They’re not temples, and you can’t keep them perfect,” he says. “Stefan Behnisch once told me, ‘If you go into a school and it’s not a little messy, then there’s something wrong with it.’”  



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The 2011 CAE Design Awards

The Saguaro Building at Mesa Community College in Mesa, Ariz., designed by SmithGroup—Award of Excellence.

The Royal Conservatory TELUS Centre in Toronto, designed by Kuwabara Payne McKenna Blumberg Architects—Award of Excellence.

The Germantown Friends School Sustainable Urban Science Center in Philadelphia, designed by SMP Architects—Award of Excellence.

The Marysville Getchell High School Campus in Marysville, Wash., designed by DLR Group—Award of Merit.

The James I Swenson Civil Engineering Building in Duluth, Minn., designed Ross Barney Architects—Award of Merit.

The Park Shops in Raleigh, designed by Pearce Brinkley Cease + Lee—Award of Merit.

The Learning Spring School in New York City, designed by Platt Byard Dovell White Architects—Award of Merit.

The Springfield Literacy Center in Springfield, Pa., designed by Burt Hill, a Stantec Company—Award of Merit.

The Center for Graduate Fellows in Charlottesville, Va., designed VMDO Architects—Award of Merit.

Gary Comer College Prep in Chicago, designed by John Ronan Architects—Award of Merit.

The Mothers’ Club Family Learning Center in Pasadena, Calif., designed Harley Ellis Devereaux—Citation.

The Foster School of Business PACCAR Hall in Seattle, designed by of LMN Architects—Citation.

The St. Albans School’s Marriott Hall in Washington, DC, designed SOM—Citation.


Visit the Committee on Architecture for Education Knowledge Community Web site on AIA KnowledgeNet.

Visit the AIA Convention Web site.

Do you know the Architect’s Knowledge Resource?

The AIA’s resource knowledge base can connect you to the 2009 CAE Educational Facility Design Awards.

See what else the Architect’s Knowledge Resource has to offer for your practice.


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