Trends in Education - February 2011

By Jessica Chevalier


The design of the educational environment has changed significantly in recent years. New materials have emerged; the old stand-bys are disappearing. Sustainability is a consideration—if not a driving factor—on nearly every project. And the world of style has cracked wide open, as schools compete for students and the dollars that come with them. 

This competition for students is felt most significantly in higher education, and universities are, it seems, rolling out the academic version of glitz and glamour to catch the eye of prospective students. These attractions go far beyond the facilities, of course. In 2006, University of California Berkeley became the first college in the U.S. to open a certified organic cafeteria; and Maharishi University of Management, located in Fairfield, Iowa and founded in 1971 by a yogi, offers organic vegetarian meals as its standard fare. Seton Hill University, in Greensburg, Pennsylvania, will give each student an iPad when they arrive for fall 2011 classes. And George Fox University of Newberg, Oregon will let students choose between a MacBook and an iPad for the new academic year. These sorts of offerings help colleges differentiate themselves from the pack in much the same way that a modern-looking and dynamic student center does.

Though it might seem less important for public K-12 schools to put on a pretty face—their students, for the most part, are admitted based on their residency—there is a significant benefit to creating an environment about which students and their parents feel ownership. For this reason, many K-12 schools are making bolder design statements, choosing looks that set them apart from their peers. 

It takes money to make money, and the business of attracting students is no exception. Regardless of which area of education they work in, none of the designers that we interviewed report feeling any bump from the stimulus package, in spite of the fact that $97.4 billion was pumped into U.S. schools as of September 2010. Much of that money went to creating or saving jobs and none of it was specifically mandated for school construction or renovation. Tracy Herzer of S/L/A/M Collaborative, which has offices in Atlanta, Boston, Glastonbury, Connecticut and Syracuse, New York, reports that the schools that have continued most steadily with projects through the recession are privately-funded universities and independent (or private) K-12 schools. 

Cost, durability and performance remain, not surprisingly, the determining factors in regard to K-12 flooring. The concept of cost, however, is changing, “The higher lifecycle costs of less expensive materials are being traded for materials with higher [up front] costs that either last much longer or are less costly to maintain,” according to Doug Kouba, director of design at Gale Hill Associates, Inc. in St. Louis. This seems to be the case across the board in K-12, the result, perhaps, of both people’s increased concern about sustainability and a growing awareness of value, inspired by the recession. Regardless of the reason, Kouba is pleased to report that “happily, beige VCT is no longer cutting it!” Schools seem to be interested in higher quality, more flexible and easier-to-maintain materials that offer a higher degree of design.

The designers that we interviewed report that sustainability is a consideration within K-12, though to varying degrees. Heather Williams, whose firm James W. Buckley & Associates has five offices in Georgia, reports that while South Georgia is a little behind many areas of the country with regard to trends, an interest in sustainable building and renovation is growing there. Right now, for Williams’ clients, durability is still the major concern in terms of flooring, but the questions about sustainable options are increasing. Buckley & Associates does about 90% of its education work in K-12; all of the firm’s jobs are in Georgia.

On the other end of the spectrum, Kouba reports that in the St. Louis area, “Everyone wants to be sustainable.” One public project that he recently completed, the Ritenour School for Early Childhood Development in St. John, Missouri, earned LEED Gold certification. He describes the project as “…a sensible building—with lots of daylight and great interior and exterior spaces—that we built with economical and sustainable materials that are durable and easy to maintain.” One of those durable and easy to maintain materials was Armstrong’s linoleum. In fact, Kouba uses linoleum flooring for 40% of his education projects; carpet tile accounts for another 30%. He also uses broadloom (10%), ceramic tile (9%), rubber (5%), hardwood (2%), terrazzo (2%), cork (1%) and VCT (1%), though only to match already existing VCT. Kouba’s firm, Gale Hill Associates, does nearly 100% of its school work in the K-12 market. The firm’s projects are located in the St. Louis metropolitan area, central and eastern Missouri and western Illinois. 

Williams believes that school leadership is the most significant factor with regard to the design outcome within a K-12 educational facility. In her practice, Williams has found that some administrations are intent on keeping the palette simple and the maintenance easy. Others want their facilities to be dynamic, so that students enjoy the space and feel a sense of connection to it. One of the principals that Williams has worked with on three different projects buys strongly into the second theory and claims that her students exhibit fewer behavioral problems and commit fewer acts of vandalism because they react more positively to the school itself. In addition, the principal believes that her students’ parents are more involved because they embrace and feel greater ownership of the school building. 

However, Williams feels that school administrations, across the board, have become more willing to take risks in design over the last two years. Previously, school officials seemed to operate under a preconceived notion of what they believed a school should look like. But now they are buying into the idea that the facility needs to have an identity, a brand. In the age of iPads and 3D movies, kids aren’t going to respond to beige on beige. Williams explains, “Advertising and marketing is everywhere kids look. If we don’t treat the school in the same capacity, they don’t want to be there. If we can turn it into something more retail looking, they want to be in the building.”

Regardless of whether a school chooses to go conservative or creative with its look, Dawn Ter Horst, a designer at CSO Architects of Indianapolis, believes in avoiding trends and choosing a look that will last. To achieve this, Ter Horst often sticks with neutrals and school colors. After all, she notes, K-12 schools are generally budgeted to remodel only every 25 years, so a timeless look is much more desirable than a trendy one. And school colors are the one combination that will always be current within an academic institution. CSO Architects does work in Indiana, Ohio, Georgia, North Carolina, Texas, Iowa and Florida. Seventy percent of the company’s education work is in K-12.

In many existing buildings, Williams notes that she can judge, within five years, the age of a school facility because of its once-trendy decor. To avoid this on her own projects, she creates spaces that are bright, fun, cheerful and inviting, often using some version of primary colors in elementary facilities. For sixth grade and up, she goes for a slightly more professional look. In both cases, unlike Ter Horst, she avoids using the school colors in her design, instead choosing colors the complement the establishment’s signature tones. That way, when the schools put up banners and paraphernalia, there is balance—not an excess of one or two colors. 

Regarding flooring materials, Williams primarily sticks with three: carpet tile, VCT and terrazzo. She mainly specifies carpet tile for administrative offices, music rooms and media centers. Occasionally, a school will request carpet for classrooms if they have had good luck with it in the past. In K-12 facilities, the carpet is often used for up to 20 years. 

Williams also likes VCT because of its low up-front cost and because, even if the material has no maintenance but basic cleaning for a period of time, it can be restored to its near-original beauty with a little work. In other words, it can handle being ignored. 

According to Williams, terrazzo is slightly more costly in other parts of the country than it is in south Georgia, where the material is roughly six times more expensive than VCT, a difference of $9.00 and $1.50 a square foot. Williams notes that while the material is costly up front, it has a long lifespan and needs only to be cleaned and occasionally buffed. Some of Williams’ schools insist on ceramic tile for their corridors and lobbies, but Williams feels that the material is too cold and loud for this application, preferring terrazzo. 

Many U.S. schools in need of remodeling are grappling with budget issues in the current economy. However, Ter Horst notes that administration is often willing to take more of a risk with their budgets for the pay off of greater durability and less maintenance. For this reason, Ter Horst generally specifies one product within the “safe” price range and another more expensive product with a greater lifespan. For the school district in Columbus, Indiana, she chose VCT as the affordable option and Armstrong’s Medintone sheet vinyl as the alternative. The school went with Medintone, which is more expensive but requires significantly less maintenance than VCT. 

In addition, Ter Horst notes that even if a school can’t afford LEED certification, many still follow the principles of LEED to create a sustainable facility, and they simply forego the formal (and expensive) paperwork. CSO Architects, the firm that Ter Horst works for, is located in Indianapolis and does work in Indiana, Ohio, Georgia, North Carolina, Texas, Iowa and Florida. Seventy percent of the company’s education work is in K-12.

Higher education is all about customization, to increase differentiation between one school and another. Gaelynn Pippin, founder and president of Edge Design in Chicago, calls this the “Peacock Effect,” where a school flares its design feathers to attract the attention of interested parties and to gain further support from current students or supporters. Pippin goes on to explain, “If a student or parent has pride in the school they belong to, this reflects positively in the number of students enrolled…as well as promotes longevity and increased morale and community involvement to help secure and procure necessary funds for renovation and growth.”

In practice, this amounts to an increase in the use of brighter, more saturated colors, “louder” looks, and design that is more in line with current trends. For example, in many higher education projects, Herzer chooses a sophisticated, neutral base (something she considers timeless), then adds accent colors as punches in strategic locations—locations that can easily be repainted or reupholstered as tastes change in coming years. 

Pippin notes that there is also a demand for an overall design story or concept that somehow relates to the school’s progress, goals, values or origins. “It seems long gone are the days where the primary rule of design was derived from the belief that form follows function. Now it seems that form strengthens function aesthetically in the increasing demand for overall comfort and customization of a space,” she explains. 

Technological advancements in flooring have ensured that organizations no longer have to choose between the practical and the pretty option. “Technology and more flexible product development have made it possible to customize a design that not only meets the needs and demands of that school but also provides a design which is difficult for competitors to mimic or copy,” explains Pippin. She points to Tandus Flooring’s Powerbond six-foot goods as an example of a material that works well to achieve this goal; with Powerbond, it is easy to create inlays that resemble works of art. Pippin specifies Powerbond for approximately 30% of her higher education projects. She points out that increased desire for customization in educational facilities shouldn’t come as a surprise, considering that the most popular technological tools of our time—iPods and iPads, Facebook and digital video recording (dvr) television—are all centered on the idea of personalization and customization. These days, people and organizations are always looking for unique means of establishing an identity and expressing that identity to those around them. 

The design of higher education spaces is often built on loftier goals as well, like trying to support a particular learning style. Herzer of S/L/A/M explains, “Higher education design has to be cutting edge, founded on the latest research and progressive ideas. Design has to understand the latest thinking on learning and support that idea.” As an example, Herzer points to a new lecture hall that she recently designed to accommodate team-based learning for the Duke School of Medicine. Like a standard lecture hall, Herzer’s features tiers. However, her tiers are alternated by fixed tables. The front tier can turn their chairs around and face the row behind them for cooperative learning projects. 

In Herzer’s experience, sustainability is a major concern on every project, one of the top three concerns along with acoustics and aesthetics. In fact, for many universities and colleges, it’s standard protocol at this point. Cornell University in New York has a mission called Cornell Sustainable Campus that seeks to support the three pillars of sustainability—environment, society and economy—with its business practices and facility choices. According to the mission’s website, “The Cornell Sustainable Campus effort involves applying the Cornell Mission inward to the facilities and the culture of the Cornell campuses, to conserve resources and reduce environmental impacts in an economically sustainable manner.”

Still, there is a need to continue to educate clients, even higher education clients, about this fast-evolving field. According to Pippin, “The more we [designers] are able to educate clients on the benefits of sustainable design and how this plays a role in the lifecycle cost and performance of a product, as well as increased attendance due to indoor air quality, the more inquiries we will receive about sustainable materials.” 

Both Pippin and Herzer firmly endorse carpet as a good solution for higher education design. In Herzer’s opinion, “There is really no space where carpet is not a good solution anymore. Carpeting has improved its characteristics to the point that it can be used in almost any space.” Advancements in mold and moisture resistance, backings, and the overall durability of the fibers have made carpet a much more functional material for use outside the home—especially paired with the material’s ability to improve acoustics, provide a soft surface underfoot and reduce allergens. Broadloom and carpet tile account for about 55% of the flooring Herzer specifies for higher education applications. According to Herzer, the success of carpet in commercial applications is dependent on whether a school is willing to invest in the machinery to clean it properly.  Carpet tile, in fact, is the most commonly used flooring material in higher education projects for both Herzer and Pippin. Herzer specifies it for 45% of university and college projects; Pippin specifies it for 35%. 

Linoleum is another type of flooring that is undergoing a renaissance in higher education use, due primarily to its green characteristics. Herzer uses linoleum for 20% of her flooring projects—more than any other hard surface product. She also appreciates the high-end look of the material in comparison to VCT. In addition, for university projects, Herzer uses ceramic (5%), VCT (5%), hardwood (4%), rubber (4%), sheet vinyl (1%) and six-foot goods (1%). Besides Powerbond and carpet tile, Pippin specifies VCT for 10% of projects and divides the remaining 25% between rubber for jogging tracks and locker rooms, ceramic tile for restrooms and accent pieces, hardwood for gymnasiums, sheet vinyl for vending areas and accent pieces, and epoxy for restrooms and kitchen areas.

The consensus is that the days of old-school education facility design have passed. K-12 and higher education institutions are seeking a competitive edge, a chance to flare their feathers, so flooring materials that offer the greatest options for creativity color- and design-wise are likely to win out. And those materials that offer sustainability as a part of their package as well will likely dominate the education market. 


Copyright 2011 Floor Focus