James R. Jones’ daughter went to middle school in a slapdash modular classroom. “It was oppressive,” Jones says. “It had poor acoustics and one window for daylighting.” The deadening scene compelled Jones, the director of the doctoral program for Design Research and the Center for High Performance Environments at the Virginia Tech School of Architecture + Design, to design a better classroom. His idea was to create an environment that not only kept students engaged, but also served as an interactive learning tool that could help tie together institutional educational goals with students’ immediate surroundings.
His ideas were collected in “Guidelines for the Design of Sustainable Learning Laboratories that Teach Through Architecture,” a project on which the AIA awarded a 2008 Upjohn Research Initiative Grant. The grant, which provides material support of up to $30,000 for “applied research projects that enhance the value of design and professional practice knowledge,” has given his proposal the credibility to be positioned as an alternative to conventional modular classrooms, Jones says.
Jones’ idea is based on making the architecture of a classroom a tangible part of the learning experience. Schools often approach design in a passive manner, as if the buildings in which they educate are simply vessels to contain young minds and bodies in the most efficient utilitarian fashion. Even schools that incorporate forward-thinking design elements that employ sustainability principles—think rainwater cisterns—often fail to turn these assets into actionable learning opportunities. “This missed opportunity undervalues the role of architecture and its systems in the learning process,” Jones says.
Rather than perpetuate this division, Jones proposes tying together architecture and pedagogy through a conceptual framework of “buildings that teach.” This means not just incorporating technological and sustainability enhancements like photovoltaic panels, but also the sensors and monitors needed to record the energy used (and saved). In turn, these readings of energy inputs and outputs become supporting facts that teachers use within the classroom to complement their lessons.
The “Guidelines” examine the application of this new model of participatory architecture for fifth and sixth graders in accordance with expectations set forward in the Commonwealth of Virginia Department of Education’s Standards of Learning (SOL). A close look at these standards reveals 15 SOL objectives that could be met through designing interactive exhibits or by utilizing elements of the surrounding architecture.
“At the time [of the project], the idea was geared toward SOL,” Jones says. “Now, though, the idea is geared towards STEM curricula across different states”—referring to national trends in fostering educational awareness in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM).
Although confident in the way his work breaks down the theoretical boundaries between learning and architecture, Jones acknowledges the financial woes that many school districts face. He is quick to point out that schools are “budget-driven, so that any initial costs that would be higher than typical modular space are hard for them to grasp.” The ballpark cost of his model is around $160,000 at its most basic. “There will be a graded cost structure depending on the amenities included,” he says. Compare that to an approximate $45,000 outlay for an 800-square-foot modular unit.
Yet, as Jones tells local county boards in Virginia, there are potential dividends that mitigate those higher initial front-loaded costs. The increase of daylighting through open design plans or the incorporation of electricity-saving systems will most certainly lower maintenance and energy costs over time. But beyond the bottom line, the greatest dividend may be in the edification of the students who use architecture as a learning lens.