It would be overly dramatic to say that art and design are under attack within the realm of public architecture, but it is certainly the case that we are routinely confronted with very tight budgets, very long wish lists and very restrictive criteria by which our projects are evaluated.

Compounding the challenge, the pressures on the elected officials and volunteers tasked with shepherding these projects—regular normal people like you and me—to be prudent with their fellow taxpayers’ dollars are enormous.

A great teacher can educate students in the worst environment imaginable and committed parents and engaged students overcome seemingly insurmountable hurdles, achieving incredible results with scarce resources beyond determination and desire.

Nonetheless, it is demonstrably true that unique, engaging environments engender better learning and stronger students. The role that the learning environment can play should not be underestimated. There is truth to the Reggio Emilia concept of the environment as the “third teacher” and it is borne out by extensive research and data.

Personal Perspective: A Childhood on the Move

But first, some anecdotal evidence. As a child I moved, on average, once every two years until I graduated from high school. I attended seven different schools and have the usual mix of clear and muddy memories of artificially lit concrete block boxes, the occasional failed open classroom and lots of carpet and ceiling tile.

One place, however, stands out in my memories of school, a place filled with quiet corners, vibrant meeting places and high-up perches. It is humble in stature and materials but rich with intention, with carefully scaled places catering to a diversity of activities, learning styles and methods. My memories date back four decades, but while the school has always made every effort to remain current and meaningful, much of its environment today remains very similar to the one I experienced all those years ago.

Here is some of what I remember: a tree out front with branches close enough to reach, but far enough apart to offer a challenge, in which I explored my new favorite activity of reading books; a dark cave-like nook nestled in full (cardboard and papier-mâché) spartan garb to celebrate the ancient Greeks during our annual Olympics; a stream with a bridge and tadpoles in it which we watched grow legs and become frogs and a workshop where I built my first construction project at the age of six—a boot locker for my GI Joe and all his gear.

There were origami cranes and a real rowboat and assemblies in front of a massive fireplace and pottery and juniper berries that tasted sweet and piney at the same time.

While I can’t prove that these sense memories made the difference between a good and a great education, I can confirm that I and my classmates were reading whole (small) books within weeks of starting school and I can still identify nearly all the gods, demi-gods, heroes and rascals in the Greek Pantheon. And that school is still one of the most highly rated private schools in Greater Boston.

Measurable Results: A Positive Trend Between Quality Design and School Performance

Personal stories aside, the data on the value of high-quality early childhood education is extensive and conclusive: there is a growing body of evidence to support the link between facility quality and student achievement.

Specifically speaking, research shows a number of factors, features and conditions can have a measurable impact on student achievement. These include:

  • The age of the building
  • Air quality
  • Building temperature
  • Lighting
  • Sound control and acoustics
  • Classroom arrangements
  • Outdoor space
  • Large-group spaces
  • Adequate entrances/exits.

One well-known study conducted in 2011 and 2012 by the University of Salford in Manchester, England found that these factors affected students’ academic progress by as much as 25%. Furthermore, they found that there was a 73% variation in class performance that could be explained by building environmental factors.

Whether considering an adult recollecting positively on how unique spaces fostered a joy of reading, or citing peer-reviewed data that plots a positive correlation between design and performance, the conclusion is clear. Architecture has the capacity to help and to hinder, underscoring the ongoing importance of thoughtfully-planned and well-executed designs.

Additional Sources:

  • Earthman, 2004; Earthman & Lemasters, 1996, 1998; Lemasters, 1997; Higgins, Hall, Wall, Woolner, & McCaughey, 2005; Schneider, 2002
  • Bowers and Burkett, 1998; Chan, 1979; Earthman & Lemasters, 1996; McGuffey & Brown, 1978; O’Neill, 2000; Phillips, 1997; Plumley 1978
  • Maxwell, 1999; McGuffey & Brown, 1978; Plumley 1978
  • Cash, 1993; Earthman, 2004; Hines, 1996; Lanham, 1999
  • Heschong Mahone Group, 1999; Kuller & Lindsten, 1992; Mayron, Ott, Nations, & Mayron, 1974; Wurtman, 1975
  • Evans and Maxwell, 1997 ; Haines, Stansfeld, Job, Berglund & Head, 2001; Hygge, Evans, & Bullinger, 2002; Maxwell & Evans, 2000
  • Tanner, 2000
  • Tanner, 2006