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March of 2021 marks the one-year anniversary of the shelter-in-place mandates that were enacted as a response to the emerging COVID-19 virus. It is remarkable that 12 months into pandemic we continue to grapple with its affects to our society, our economy and our way of life. It may prove to be amongst the most life altering moments of this lifetime, and we can all agree it has had a tremendous effect on each and every one of us.

As education architects, we have also witnessed the pandemic’s profound effect on the learning and teaching environment. California schools have been in varying models of distance and in-person learning since last Spring. In many instances, it has been more than a year since students and educators have been in a traditional classroom setting together. As essential facilities for the health and welfare of our youth, it is imperative that schools remain safe havens for learning and social interaction now and in the future. Therefore, it is also imperative that we adapt new ways to design school facilities that better promote health and wellness.

We are also very much aware of the limitations that school districts face with facilities design and construction—funding being the primary constraint. For many public school districts, the desire to seek additional funds, leverage assets and increase value remain at the forefront of their minds. Therefore, the possibility of expanding space and creating larger, more socially distant solutions is fairly unrealistic because the funding simply does not exist.

Recently, Studio W Architects conducted research of nearly two dozen statewide public K-12 construction projects on behalf of the North State Builders Association in an effort to identify average construction costs. Across the board, when applying the filters of escalation and contingencies to arrive at an “apples-to-apples” comparison, the research revealed the average cost of new construction is trending toward $600 per square foot. Surprisingly, construction escalation has not stalled. In fact, it continues to rise, manufacturing has slowed and labor remains elusive, particularly for public works projects.

That said, Studio W Architects and our educational clients remain steadfast that we must design facilities for the 50- to 100-year horizon. While it is difficult to perceive a landscape very different than the one we live in now with the pandemic, we all recognize that this too will be resolved and society will return to some sense of normalcy. As with trends or gimmicks, we should not give into the temptation to design in alignment with them because they are not long lasting and will quickly be out of style or ineffective. This becomes particularly relevant when we consider the lifespan of an education project, which can range from 18 to 36 months. Something that may be popular or a concern at the beginning of a project may no longer be relevant by the time the project reaches the construction stage, but it can be costly and cumbersome to make a change at that point. The best practice is to remain vigilant in providing solutions that are flexible, adaptive and durable for many generations of students, teachers and administrators.

We are, however, realizing patterns in the fabric of educational design that are emerging as good concepts for the present and the future. Much like the events of the 9/11 tragedy changed the world of air travel, it is possible the pandemic could change the following elements of educational design as permanent solutions:

  • HVAC Systems – We know that the Cares Act II has already positioned a grant for California public schools to receive funding for improved air flow and filtering in educational environments. While the California Building Code Title 24 and sustainable practices like LEED mandate certain requirements for indoor air quality, we are seeing a collective desire to increase the exchanges of air and more and more demand for operable windows and mechanized fans. Improved air quality for schools is good design practice and should be incorporated in all cases. Perhaps the pandemic has illuminated this realization and caused school districts to consider infrastructure improvements to upgrade their systems. In Huntington Beach City School District, for example, where many of the projects do not have conditioning systems, we are striving to install passive window and air movement solutions that achieve similar scrubbing results.
  • Plumbing Systems – Not unlike the HVAC systems, the plumbing systems and the environments they support (restroom, drinking and washing facilities) are “low hanging fruit” for improvements in cleanability and maintainability, particularly as it relates to surfaces and touch points. We are already seeing many sink bubblers and drinking fountains being replaced with hydration stations. This enables an individual to fill a drinking bottle without the aid of their hand or mouth. Subsequently, restroom design is trending toward providing more privacy and improved accessories to limit high-touch surfaces. Our Monterey Peninsula Unified School District’s Crumpton Elementary School project features a variety of different restroom configurations for staff, student and public use, including hydration stations.


  • Nurse’s Stations – In at least more than one instance, we have already received requests from our education clients to design a nurse’s station that has both an entry through the administration building and an entry from the outside. Title 5 requirements for the California Department of Education require a nurse’s station be separated from the administration, have a dedicated restroom and have visibility to the secretary or front office area. However, should a student or faculty member require isolation from the rest of the school’s population, or “quarantine,” it is better to have the option to access the nurse’s station through an entry on the exterior of the building rather the only option being to enter through the interior of the main administration area. All our new administration facilities at Paradise Unified School District, including Paradise High School, Ridgeview High School, Paradise Ridge Elementary School and Cedarwood Elementary School, are designed with this double access configuration.


  • Shared Spaces – Studio W Architects is a champion of the concept that “learning happens everywhere,” which is now more true than ever before. Whether it be an entry vestibule, a hallway, a corridor or the spaces in and around the transient spaces of an educational building, we design elements that promote group and individualized learning and socialization. This includes furniture, power and data, and is meant to keep students on campus longer and for engaging reasons. The need to socially distance may remain prevalent in society for some time or may return for whatever reason in the future, and if the classrooms fundamentally aren’t any larger, the spaces that enable “distance” learning to remain on campus may prove to be highly valuable resources. Our Los Rios Community College District’s Folsom Lake College Rancho Cordova Center Phase 2 project features a variety of different furniture and “cubby” options for learning and socialization in the lobby and corridor spaces.


  • Outdoor Spaces – Outdoor learning environments intrinsically give us the ability to socially distance because of their size and are less likely to be harbingers of a virus or disease due to natural ventilation. Programming outdoor environments for learning and socialization, not just athletics, gives us a better opportunity to flex into these spaces when distancing might be required and learning needs to literally happen everywhere. Our Serendipity School project is a wonderful example of deeply programmed outdoor learning and play environments in an otherwise challenged site area.


  • Classrooms– I attended a memorable workshop at the Coalition for Adequate School Housing’s (CASH) Annual Conference many years ago about the “Implications of Online Learning.” It suggested, among other things, that schools of the future had to be so compelling that learners would choose to go there over learning in a home environment online. Who would have thought that a pandemic would be the real catalyst for this kind of thinking. Luckily, many can honestly admit that online learning has its flaws. Despite the technological advances, the desire to have students in a physical classroom is stronger than ever before and we will see if plexiglass and staggered workstations remain. In any case, we need to be cognizant of the classroom design to support cleanability, flexibility and agility. Not necessarily 21st Century learning (now almost a quarter of the way into the 21st Century!), but next generation learning where multiple modes of in-person and distance instruction can occur. Our South Sutter Charter School Learning Resource Center is a good example of how learning resource facilities may augment traditional classrooms in the future.


No matter what the future holds, I hope we can all look at this as a time for reflection and an opportunity to elevate our design thinking. I am pleased to see the investment that is occurring in schools across this state and across this nation as a commitment to “brick and mortar” environments that will outlast and overcome the worst of times. Our ability as human beings to come together in moments of need and identify what is essential is a hallmark of our nurturing behavior. We all recognize that school environments are part of that essential fabric of our humanity, and I am proud that Studio W Architects is leading the way in designing the next generation of great (and very healthy) school environments!

Blog post authored by Brian Whitmore, President & CEO