Design Matters: A Look at How We Gather

Spring 2023

By Alex Curtis, Carrie Grimes

This article appeared as "Design Matters" in the Spring 2023 issue of Independent School.

In our schools, we become accustomed to the places and spaces that our students, staff, and faculty regularly inhabit throughout the school day. The swarms of students and backpacks we find along the low levels of a split staircase adjacent to vacant benches; the staff members who prefer to cluster around the front desk of the admission suite rather than the employee lounge; the predictable flow of foot traffic one way down a particular hallway after third period each day. 

Why are staff gathered there and not elsewhere? Why are students taking the long way rather than the shortcut? What is the common thread interconnecting these choices about where we gather in our schools and how we navigate our campuses? Design.

In their book The 99% Invisible City: A Field Guide to the Hidden World of Everyday Design, authors Roman Mars and Kurt Kohlstedt invite us to reconsider the seemingly ordinary designs all around us—and the ways in which design and unnoticed architecture shape our daily lives and patterns of behavior. Through the lens of design, the authors purport that every element of design represents a series of choices, intended to solve a problem.  

A few years ago, we might not have realized just how important the physical footprint of our school was to us. But in 2020, in a very real and stark way, we were collectively reminded that our school campuses are not merely places for learning, but for significant acts of gathering—gatherings stitch together an essential tapestry of community. 

A wide-ranging body of research on the built environment over the past 50 years is unambiguous: the physical spaces of school campuses communicate messages and generate opportunities that influence students’ feelings of well-being, belongingness, and connection to a broader community, all of which enhance learning outcomes. The design of the built environment of a school has the capacity to bring people together—fostering exploration, collaboration, and growth—or, conversely, to disintegrate community ties by amplifying a sense of disconnectedness, anxiety, and territoriality.

Yet, many of our campuses and facilities are still tethered to outdated blueprints that lack intentionality around the cultivation of community. Our schools are often slow to update campus designs, and built environments from as recent as a decade ago may be anachronistic to the needs, wants, and problems schools are currently navigating. Common roadblocks include limited resources (time, space, funds), lack of will (“the science lab has always been there”), and conflicting priorities of leadership teams and departments. 

This leads us to wonder: How can the physical spaces on our campuses help solve the problems our students, staff, and faculty experience as they journey through the school year? How can schools leverage the theory of school design and the built environment to begin the work of auditing and reimagining their campuses? What can schools start doing now to better see the connections, problems, and possible solutions for their built environment and its outcomes?

Redefine the Role of Design

To start, we must reconceptualize design as an intentional way to solve a problem or to address a need within the system. Buildings, classrooms, lobbies, offices, meeting rooms and exterior spaces on our campuses all exist in a certain way, for better or for worse; each space is characterized by particular attributes for the people who use it, and each space should have a clear purpose and need that it fulfills, or a problem that it solves. If a need is not being met by a space, or the purpose of the space is unclear, that space will likely languish or be co-opted for an alternative use. 

By thinking of design in this way—as an enterprise in solving community-based issues—leadership teams have an important opportunity to gaze inward and grapple with questions around organizational identity and the melding of a school’s social, intellectual, creative, and moral objectives. It’s also an opportunity to engage in the work of prioritizing programmatic needs in alignment with strategic planning efforts. Which programs have the most pressing needs that design can help solve?

Needs that are real, and not manufactured, should always come first. Schools run a risk when they pursue design as a method of programmatic creation or donor placation; without a significant commitment of time, people, and funds put toward the new program, or a champion to bring it to life, the new space has a higher probability of failure. As Winston Churchill famously said in a speech to the House of Commons in 1943, “We shape our buildings, and afterwards our buildings shape us.” 

Engage in Fieldwork

Conducting a needs assessment and evaluation of a campus’s current built environment may sound daunting, but much of the data is at our fingertips.

Make time to wander around campus, observe students, staff, and faculty across the different facilities and spaces, and notice how and where people gather. Observe the idiosyncratic ways in which students engage with the built environment. Do they forgo chairs and benches to perch on low walls and staircases? Is the lobby floor the preferred depot for backpacks, while lockers sit empty? What areas of campus do students gravitate toward, and how long do they linger in certain spaces? How do they interact and behave with one another in those environments? What characterizes unexpected gathering areas? Are there certain elements (light, proximity to certain resources, flooring) that are common in popular gathering spaces? What doors and passageways are most popular for students to use when they are traversing campus? Similarly, where do staff and faculty gather, eat, and organically collide with one another? Or, are employees inhabiting more siloed zones across campus? 

Don’t be afraid to ask questions, too. Sit down with students and colleagues and seek their feedback:
  • Are there kinds of spaces you feel are missing in your experience of our school? 
  • What physical qualities of a space make it attractive to you?
  • Are there social activities in that space that make it more attractive to you? 
  • How frequently do you go there and how much time do you typically spend there?
  • What feelings do you associate with spending time in this space?
  • Is there a specific time of day you tend to go more consistently to certain spaces?
  • What do you do in those spaces? 
  • Who is there? Is it mostly the same people, or does it vary?
Different age groups of students will present varying needs and behaviors in relation to the built environment.
For example, for primary school students, safety is a constant prevailing need; therefore spaces, hallways, restrooms and recreational areas will likely be designed with those needs at the center. Middle and upper schoolers, who have greater autonomy on campus, will interact very differently with the spaces available to them. 

Regardless of students’ age, observing patterns of behavior provides an opportunity to reflect upon a school community’s unique needs. What are the core values and ways of being that your community seeks to embody—and is the school facility supporting these ideals in the best way possible? If so, what are concrete examples of where and how this is happening? If not, what can be learned from that information, and what needs/problems are you identifying in the system?  

Use this data as clues for the possibilities and preferences for enhancing community engagement on campus. Be willing to take chances on unconventional uses of spaces, if the environment is enabling connection or solving a problem.

Don’t Close the Door

How do you decide whether to enter a space? Psychologists posit that even the simplest decisions we make have three stages: priming (collecting evidence), decision (cognitive assessment), and choice (behavior). During the priming stage, we are affected by situational factors such as aesthetics, design, color, lighting, and the people and processes affiliated with the environment. 

When students decide whether to enter spaces on our campuses, thresholds matter. Opaque doors, one-way points of entry/egress, and an overall inability to read the room prior to choosing to enter all serve as significant barriers to making the decision to enter a space. Even spaces explicitly identified as lounges or designated for socializing and play are less likely to be used if they are not conspicuous and accessible. Glass walls and doors can serve as a welcoming signal, communicating openness, light, and clarity. Having no doors, whenever possible, is ideal. You can also avoid making students commit to a space by providing flexible egress—if they can move through a space to the other side and find an exit there, they are much more likely to engage with the space. At a minimum, a fully propped door will increase the probability of engagement with the space. 

The death-knell for social spaces for adults and adolescents in schools is placement at the end of a hallway with an opaque door. Human beings in general find social settings intimidating; entering a space that is unpredictable is worrying. Students may do so in groups but rarely solo. We’ve observed that those who had the courage to enter on their own rarely lingered. Even the most optimally outfitted faculty lounges have typically been forsaken when they feature opaque doors and one-way access.

Consider the Trepidation Factor

In addition to reflecting upon how, why, and where members of your campus community congregate, it’s critical to be deliberate about choosing where to situate key offices and access points and think about how that can decrease students’ anxiety and increase engagement with school services and personnel. 

For example, when a college counseling office—a destination that might be affiliated with anxiety—is located in a place that students have to seek out and approach purposefully, it’s more likely that they’ll avoid it or be less inclined to frequent it. 

When Choate Rosemary Hall (CT) was designing a new student activities space, there was an opportunity to situate the college counseling office near or in that space. Despite every college counselor’s extraordinary efforts to minimize the challenges associated with the college process, the very nature of the applications to be written, the choices to be made, and the unknown future mean that it is often a stressful chapter in a student’s life. The choice to place these college counseling offices in a bustling thoroughfare along the hallway between the dining hall and the student center made the department more accessible; students can more easily engage with college counselors as part of the ordinary flow of their usual activities.

In addition, all the deans at Choate have casual work areas centrally arrayed outside of their private offices to increase their informal interactions with students and help normalize them. These design decisions promote an environment that suggests to students that the adults in the community are available to them, while still promoting their independence. 

By considering the ways in which students travel through spaces, and how those spaces can support each other and the productive engagement of students and adults, the built environment better serves the community.

Skip the Sign

A well-designed building or space should explain itself. Think about your campus, and the signs that are posted—are they truly necessary? Apart from essential wayfinding signs for visitors, what messages are your campus signs communicating? A simple audit of signs posted around campus may reveal that many signs generate a kind of background noise within the built environment, providing unnecessary information, while other signs communicate unwelcoming messages to students. 

Research reveals that while regulatory signage in community spaces is intended to enforce rules and impact behavior, these signs are very difficult to enforce and are typically ineffectual. In particular, when community gathering spaces such as libraries, auditoriums, lounges, and gymnasiums are covered in regulatory signs (“Do Not Enter,” “No Food or Drinks Allowed,” “No Talking,” “No Loitering,” “Adults Only”) the signage can be confusing, counterproductive in promoting comfort and confidence, and largely ignored. 

If signs exist to signal directions, norms, and behavioral expectations within a community, what are other ways your school might communicate that information? In the case of wayfinding, how many signs are truly needed? If a visitor seeks directions, the resulting conversation with a community member should be seen as a positive outcome.

Embrace Contradictions

Whether a campus is 500 acres or eight classrooms, having an integrated vision and an understanding of the relationships between spaces and the human beings who inhabit them is key. Developing a more thoughtful master campus plan is perhaps the most important investment we can make to build community.

Look closely at your community and prioritize your master plan principles—what do you want your campus to look and feel like for the next generation of students? Consider all of the possible uses of spaces and recognize that smart design requires thinking ahead—allocating your campus to its best possible uses so you don’t put something where something else would more effectively solve a problem. 

Start by working within the context and present limitations of your school’s resources and built environment; this forces you to think carefully about how intentional design choices may contribute to problem-solving. Then, do some dreaming. If you had all of the funds needed over the next 25 years, how might you reorganize the built environment of your school? If you could build the campus from scratch, what would you do differently, and how would these changes reflect the needs of your community? 

In his landmark book Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture, pioneering American architect Robert Venturi argued that paradoxical principles are at the heart of innovative design: “When circumstances defy order, order should bend or break; anomalies and uncertainties give validity to architecture.” 

It’s important to remember that at the heart, our campuses are a reflection of who we are as a school, and that peering through the lens of design can empower our communities to seek to become the best versions of themselves.
Alex Curtis

Dr. Alex Curtis is head of school at Choate Rosemary Hall in Wallingford, Connecticut, and earned his Ph.D. in architectural history at Princeton University. He teaches architectural history at Choate.

Carrie Grimes

Dr. Carrie Grimes is a professor at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College of Education and Human Development and is the director of the Independent School Leadership master's program.