The Power of Designing from the Student Out


“We believe that each school that we’re fortunate enough to design represents a moral responsibility to create something unique and remarkable for its students.”

This is how SHP’s president, Lauren Della Bella, expresses the blank slate approach her team applies to every education project. The architecture, design and engineering firm refers to as “Neutral & Boundless,” meaning it brings no preconceived notions to a project; instead, it sees in each one inexhaustible possibilities.


SHP has designed private and public schools devoted to virtually every curriculum and pedagogy, from the classical to the up-and-coming: Montessori, Reggio Emilia, PBL, service-based, Learner in Me, Expeditionary Learning, religious, Waldorf, magnet, work-integrated learning/career tech and more. Its schools sit in both conservative and progressive communities and in urban, suburban and rural geographies. Some are fortunate enough to have their projects fully funded; others have required vast public support.


Fitting the puzzle together is, therefore, part of the reward for SHP. This means there’s no such thing as a “kit-of-parts” approach to an SHP design—which, according to Della Bella, is entirely the point. “No two communities, students or teachers are the same,” she says.


This is especially true as more schools shift to student-centered educational philosophies. Whether long-established (e.g., Montessori), increasingly popular (e.g., PBL and Expeditionary Learning) or innovative new hybrid models, schools across the U.S. are embracing learning and teaching styles that are increasingly individualized. Yet Della Bella and her colleagues have been shocked on more than one occasion when administrators and board members recount presentations from other architectural firms that never talk about the students or do so only in passing.


“You have to start with the student at the center of everything, of every choice that you make,” said David Powell, senior project manager at SHP. “You have to ask them what they think and give them the opportunity to participate and to take control of their education. And when given such an opportunity, students continually prove that they’re capable of rising to that occasion.”


The right architecture and design partner is crucial when building a facility that serves student-centered educational philosophies–after all, space can, and should, be designed to advance learning in all its forms. Grasping, embracing and delivering on the link between pedagogy and space includes taking student voice and vision into account; fostering students’ lifelong love of learning; offering opportunities for affordance and agency; acknowledging the expectation of classrooms as workplaces; and above all, simply helping students flourish.


Read more about SHP’s approach to the link between pedagogy and space in Student-Centered Design: The Power of Designing from the Inside Out

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