Flexible & Adaptable: Building the Schools of Tomorrow

Today’s schools have come a long way from the one-room schoolhouses of the 19th century—but even though we’ve made impressive progress over the years, the fact remains that many districts around the country are still teaching students in buildings that our parents and grandparents attended. Many schools in use today were built nearly a century ago with the goal of maximizing classroom space and housing as many students as possible; while these utilitarian spaces technically fill the basic need of giving students a place to learn, they are ill-suited to accommodate the curriculums and technologies of the present day.

When we think about the schools our grandparents (and even our parents) attended and how much technology and society has advanced since then, it begs the question: How can we prepare and build educational facilities that can flex and adapt to the innovations still to come? While we have no way to predict just how education will continue to change in the coming decades, we can ensure that new and renovated educational facilities can withstand the uncertainty of the future with thoughtful, intentional planning. Here are a few ways we aim to make our schools more adaptable and resilient.

Flexible & multi-functional

A school that can survive the ever-shifting landscape needs to be, above all, flexible. This is a concept that has surged in popularity in the last several years, especially in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, which completely disrupted how education was delivered for more than a year.

“Within SHP, we talk a lot more about flexibility now than we did when I first started designing schools,” said Brandi Ash, VP at SHP. “Decades ago, architects were building schools that were essentially concrete boxes; by their very nature, they weren’t flexible at all. We’ve changed our approach to building schools as far as the structural systems we can incorporate”—including things like operable partitions and extended learning areas that can adapt to and accommodate different programming requirements. There are also ways to prioritize flexibility within individual rooms in addition to the floorplate, she notes; design elements like moveable furniture on casters and different seating options can give students and teachers more freedom to learn or teach how they want.

It’s all about variety—creating several different types of spaces,” adds Carrie Malatesta, VP of Interior Design at SHP. “Even though we don’t know what the future of education looks like right now, we can prepare for it by creating classrooms and other spaces that can accommodate a variety of functions. Maybe a classroom can be a makerspace for part of the day, but can also be used for science classes because of the utilities and furniture we’ve included.”

Future-proofed for new technology

It’s no surprise that education is largely influenced and shaped by societal shifts—including new technological innovations and trends. Schools under construction or renovation today are optimized to support technologies that are now ubiquitous, like Wi-Fi and other wireless tech, interactive SmartBoards, and even newer innovations like virtual reality.

But technology also comes into play when it comes to ensuring school security and safety. For students and teachers in 2023, things like video surveillance, badging systems and automatically locking doors are commonplace, and there are plenty of other technologies like touchless entries that are quickly becoming more popular. We can expect most entryways in the future to be equipped with some sort of electrified hardware; preparing those doors, and all other aspects of the school, for the technologies of the future will be essential to making a truly “future-proof” educational facility.

Built with the community in mind

A truly flexible, adaptable school needs to meet the needs of students, teachers and administrators, but a school that can withstand the changes and challenges of the future should also serve the surrounding community, too. Just like how spaces should be multi-functional to accommodate different classes and learning experiences, they should be able to accommodate different members of the community (e.g., auditoriums and flexible learning areas being used for local organizations and events).

The new school we designed and built for Fairborn Intermediate is filling this role. The previous school building was decades old and, in some areas, literally crumbling; the new facility, “is already becoming a place for community connection,” said Carrie Malatesta. “We’ve seen that the district has been using their new buildings in a way that they hadn’t previously, and holding more community events.”  And a building that can serve a broader constituency is one that will have more staying power.

The future of education is uncertain and ever-changing—but with proper planning and a thirst for creative problem-solving, our schools can rise to the challenge and meet the needs of students, teachers and the community at large now and in the years to come.