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As a part of my work as a school designer, I’m able to visit and walk through many flavors of schools. My role is to help leaders and design teams to resee their buildings, help them to notice what has moved to the background, and ask questions that promote actionable solutions surrounding the design of their space. One of the questions that I often pose is “what makes your building healthy for students and teachers?”. The purpose of the question is to guide those working with me into a new way of seeing the space. It helps to peel back the space blindness that can come from experiencing the same space over and over without intention.

Most leaders and design teams begin conversations about healthy buildings with the expected answers. They talk about air quality and especially the importance of fresh air. This response has only gone up in the last year when we have all been seeking air free of virus and filled with the oxygen that we need to relax, destress, and feel healthy. The second most frequent answer is about the lighting. Teachers and students feel the oppressive nature of fluorescent lighting in their spaces. They name the hum and glow as something that steals their health. They long for natural lighting including more windows and the ability to open drapes and blinds while still being able to use technology. These areas of optimal air and light are foundational to healthy schools, but they aren’t the only levers of change available.

As I work with educators to consider ways to optimize their spaces and develop solutions with the limited budgets, it is often my role to nudge schools to consider these five additional areas that can also have a big impact on whether learning is happening in a healthy building.

Ideas are welcome
It seems like this would be a hallmark of all schools, but it is only the healthy buildings that have a culture that is rich in ideas. You hear it from the first interactions. People want to share what they have been thinking about, what they have been trying, and what has worked. In other places, you can ask to see fresh ideas in action or the latest success story and the response is confusion. For a building to be healthy, it needs to be idea-rich and all of the people that work and grow in the building must be spending some of their time thinking about designing the next iteration of the work.

Teachers are better at their craft because the space invigorates, inspires and supports
Walk into any school and ask the teachers and then the students, “what about the space inspires you and fills you with energy?”. When there is a void in the answers, you are entering a space that isn’t as healthy as it can be. Not every ceiling tile and paint color will fill us with a fresh commitment to the mission of the school, but too often, nothing about the space inspires. This can be exhausting as it requires the educators to generate all of the positive energy needed for learning progress. School buildings are either energy vampires or aid in the efforts to surround teaching and learning with inspiration needed. Healthy buildings have a series of elements throughout the building that, by design, allow us to be our best on a daily basis.

In words and symbols, the building promotes mental and physical health
Walk a school after hours, and it speaks volumes about whether it is a healthy building. It is definitely important to talk to teachers, listen to students, and observe the flow of the teaching and learning, but after hours another aspect of the building emerges; its messaging. Healthy buildings have words and symbols that amplify the messages that teachers and students receive throughout the day. This includes the simple things like burned out lights, stained ceiling tiles, and the dirt and grime that doesn’t come from daily use. But it also includes things like the posters on the walls. The symbolism of torn corners, faded colors, and out of date notifications can create a counternarrative to messages about health and excellence, so having everything in sync is essential. If we work on all of the nonverbal messages that spaces can send, we can have a roaring amplification of our work to support health and well being.

Visual optimization is a clear priority
Distraction is everywhere in our lives. It is stealing our focus and attention, and it is keeping us from being healthy. Schools have a tradition of mirroring society with clutter. This can happen with stacks of paper in the office, busy and unkept bulletin boards, storage in hallways, lost and found piles, and posters and colors throughout the building that resemble a carnival as opposed to a place supported by learning science. Don’t mistake this design priority with an effort for sterile and stark, but we can’t be healthy in visual chaos. It means turning down distraction and developing a coherent color palette so everyone can feel less stress, and can feel the calm that can come from healthy spaces. There is enough distraction from the digital world that we can’t allow our spaces to visually succumb to the inertia of the visual noise that keeps us from being healthy and productive.

Nothing is complete, and everything is in beta
Design is conditional, and the conditions are changing. No matter how healthy our building is or has been, it is essential that we work together to maintain the elements needed for optimizing the building. It is great to celebrate the completion of the new project, a rethink of a space, or a proper purging of a storage closet, but it can’t be a checkmark that moves building design back to the bottom of the list. Intentional design, the kind that promotes and provides healthy teaching and learning environments, requires an ongoing conversation and an attitude that anything and everything has a next generation of improvement in it.

In addition to the five areas above, healthy spaces lack wasted spaces. Schools should continue to identify the microenvironments in their schools that aren’t optimally serving students and staff and begin the conversation about what changes could make a positive contribution. All of this work begins with slowing down, noticing spaces in a new way, and building a commitment to intentional design.

About Dr. Robert Dillon

Dr. Robert Dillon has served as a thought leader in education over the last twenty-five years as a teacher, principal, and director of innovation. Dr. Dillon has a passion to change the educational landscape by building excellent engaging schools for all students. Dr. Dillon has had the opportunity to speak and lead learning throughout the world as well as share his thoughts and ideas in a variety of publications. He is the author of six books on intentional design in learning. The latest book, The Space: A Guide for Leaders will be released in February and available wherever you get your books.