Business Journal - State School Architecture
Architect Marlene Imirzian doesn't understand why so many Arizona schools are built the way they are. "I noticed it as soon as I moved to the Valley: The older schools here had a sensitivity to light and ventilation, but a lot of the newer ones were boxes -- blank warehouse boxes," said the owner of Marlene Imirzian & Associates of Phoenix. The Michigan native moved here in 1990 and still is lamenting what she perceives as a widespread lack of emphasis on architectural design in kindergarten through 12th-grade settings. Only now she has a more personal investment: her son.
"About five years ago, I really started inquiring ... when I had a child," she said. What she discovered was unsettling. Some districts were mandating windowless, cement squares with one point of ingress and egress. The aesthetics were awful, but safety was even a greater concern, she said. "The assumptions were that it would save money," Imirzian said. "You couldn't sell an office building like that, but we expect our children to spend eight hours a day in place like that." Imirzian is not alone in her dismal assessment of school design in Arizona.
"I will say it's pathetic. Arizona is just awful," said Barbara Worth, associate executive director of the Council of Educational Facilities Planners International Foundation & Charitable Trust. The longstanding nonprofit is working with schools worldwide to encourage best practices in K-12 school design. Ironically, many local architects and school facilities professionals are unaware the international organization exists, but it is based in Scottsdale.
"Our main vision is that every student should have a healthy, high-performing, sustainable and safe place to learn ... and that (the school) engages the community," Worth said. Some of the most enthusiastic participants in the foundation are from the Pacific Rim and Europe, where well-designed schools are the hallmark of many communities. "Places like the U.K., Norway and Israel ... they're way ahead of us," Worth said. Excellence in school design remains the exception in the U.S., and it's particularly rare in this state.
"The (Arizona) School Facilities Board really limits the possibilities," Worth said. At issue is that for many years, school districts were unable to issue bonds to pay for new school construction. Although state law loosened those restrictions in the early 1990s, most districts are hamstrung by tight finances and competing concerns, such as teacher pay, classroom size, population growth, maintenance costs and escalating construction costs. Add to that a state budget faced with a massive shortfall, and the challenge of building any school -- let alone a well-designed one -- is daunting.
Still, Phoenix architect Melissa Farling of Jones Studio Inc., an expert on the neuropsychological impacts of the built environment, said design considerations can't be overlooked when budgeting for education. "We know that light increases math and reading scores, (but) is it the color of light? Fullspectrum light? The view? We're trying to understand these things," Farling said. Newer organizations such as the Academy of Neuroscience for Architecture, of which she is a member, hope to prove someday that architecture impacts behavior, for better or worse. The evidence is strong, however, that good light and other elements contribute to student success.
"We know acoustics are important to learning, and scale is important to it," she said. Speculation among neuroscientists and environmental architects is that a kindergarten student requires a very different size or type of room than a fifth- or sixth-grader. The effect of place in neuroscience is a discipline still in its infancy.
"It's an interesting new twist," Farling said. For now, pressing budget issues may put architectural design in the background. Yet, some Arizona school districts are finding ways to build architecturally rich schools designed specifically for student comfort and achievement, as well as aesthetic satisfaction. Money and other support come in different packages.
"It helps if you can build a trust with the taxpayers in your district," said Pat Prince, division manager of construction and facilities services for the Phoenix Union High School District. "They passed bonds for us in 1985, 1988, 1995 and 2003." The district's new Betty Fairfax High School in Laveen is one of the results of the 2003 bond measure. Opened in fall 2007, the $56.3 million school engaged a wide spectrum of stakeholders from the outset -- "everyone from the superintendent to the custodian, from librarians to cafeteria workers," Prince said.
Teachers and incoming students were surveyed about what they thought were essential stateof-the-art design and technology elements. Architect DLR Group and general contractor Adolfson & Peterson Construction worked with the district to build a school with design longevity, incorporating all stakeholders' desires. "It was a complete collaborative effort," said Bill Taylor, principal with DLR Group, a national firm with a legacy of building K-12 schools in the Valley.
Another local K-12 architecture firm is Orcutt/Winslow, which designed Verrado High School in Buckeye in tandem with Adolfson & Peterson. The 220,000-square-foot facility, part of the Agua Fria Union High School District, is a registered LEED project, expected to achieve a silver award.
LEED stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, a point system created by the U.S. Green Building Council to rate the energy efficiency and sustainable performance of a building.
David Schmidt, an associate at Orcutt/Winslow, acknowledged that LEED certification requires additional upfront costs, "but it will save money down the road. This district believes in it, and has passed school bonds to be able to afford to do it." Schmidt hopes the model and lessons learned from the Verrado design will serve as a blueprint to help save money for more cash-strapped districts that want to build better schools for students and the environment.
And speaking of the future, Schmidt said the next big trend beyond building green schools will be to create "project spaces" that facilitate collaborative thinking.
Council on Educational Facilities Planners International: www.cefpi.org
Academy of Neuroscience for Architecture: www.anfarch.org