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How a Texas Elementary School Came to Look Like a Tech Hub

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The exterior of Richard J. Lee Elementary. Photo by Greg Folkins.
The exterior of Richard J. Lee Elementary. Photo by Greg Folkins.

Immediately inside the newly built Richard J. Lee Elementary school in the small suburban city of Coppell, Texas, is a first-floor, unenclosed library that makes up the core of the building. There are white bookshelves on wheels, workspaces where both furniture and walls are moveable and adjustable, and small pods for reading. Though the floors are grey, the school's bright accent walls make the space feel vibrant, and natural light from both the large entryway windows and daylight tubes in the second-story ceiling illuminate the area.

The library's facilities, which take up about an eighth of the school's floorspace, allow students to walk around freely and check out their own books (or rent them electronically) using tablets or other mobile devices. Each of the fourth and fifth grade students have their own iPads, and for every 22 kids, there are 18 other devices, like MacBook Airs, available. Once a student has grabbed a book, a number of places are nearby to sit and read, including a "book bar." It looks like a coffee bar, but it's sized to fit its small patrons.

"We're not worried if a book walks off," explained Amy Holzle, an architect with the Canada-based firm Stantec who helped design Richard J. Lee. "We wanted the kids to break out and read together and study together. The library isn't a quiet place anymore—it's a hub that the kids interact with."

A set of stairs near one of the library's corners leads to a second floor filled with open loft-like workspaces where students spend most of their time. Glass guardrails allow students to peer over into the library from the second story. The workspaces are encircled by a series of small classrooms along the perimeter of the second floor wall. Each of these classrooms has secluded glass space for one-on-one teaching; each space has two doors that serve as a pathway into the adjacent classroom. Between larger areas of the building, such as the cafeteria and the gym, accordion-style mechanical walls can create more open spaces and allow for dynamic interaction between the school's grade groups.

This $21 million elementary school building, LEED Gold-certified and funded by municipal bonds, uses a combination of geothermal, solar, and wind energy to produce enough renewable energy that the school is now, as of January, able to sustain itself. Those energy-saving technologies, along with a host of eco-friendly learning tools, will compliment the school's Challenge Based Learning (CBL) program, the school curriculum developed by Apple Inc. and the New Media Consortium that is specifically designed to model the 21st century workplace.

In other words, the school has eschewed traditional classrooms and little brown desks in a row in order to instruct in a learning environment similar to a tech office but tailor-made for grade-schoolers.

It isn't the first school in the country to claim net-zero status: Richardsville Elementary in Warren County, Kentucky, opened as a net-zero school in 2010. But the combination of net-zero structure and workplace-inspired learning places Richard J. Lee at the forefront of a growing movement within education design.

Open-plan schools first became a building fad in the 1970s, when they seemed to offer cost savings and efficiency in the face of an energy crisis. But they were often poor learning environments. Instead of being enclosed by walls, rooms were divided by bookcases; different grades and classes could be heard from one teaching space to the next, and echoing lectures were confusing and disruptive during lessons. "Imagine a typical elementary school and then take out as many walls as possible," said Christian Long, co-founder of design studio Wonder, By Design. "The idea was that if you shrink the hallways and walls, it'd be cheaper….They did so because they were trying to be efficient and because of the energy crisis at that time." The building's acoustics were one of the largest concerns for teachers in these open classrooms, said Long, and the main reason these open-plan schools failed.

Richard J. Lee has perforated ceilings and panels to catch ricocheting noises, recycled rubber flooring to absorb pounding footsteps and scooting chairs, and dropped ceilings that create an acoustic barrier, all so that students won't be distracted by each other's noise. "Truthfully, that's what shocks a lot of people when they enter the school," said Richard J. Lee's principal Chantel Kastrounis, who often leads parents and school boards from other districts on tours of the school. "You would expect an open building to be louder. That's the beauty of the building design, the drop ceilings and what they've done with the roof and the materials—there's a lot of sound absorption." In terms of being LEED certified for sound design, however, Richard J. Lee Elementary didn't meet the requirements for enhanced acoustical performance.

Noise aside, open space work and learning environments pose other potential problems. A 2011 study conducted by the National Research Centre for the Working Environment in Copenhagen, Denmark concluded that open-plan office occupants have significantly higher rates of sickness absence than their cubicle-dwelling counterparts. And while larger spaces are shown to foster more social interaction and idea-sharing, they also cause a greater amount of anxiety and a feeling of being crowded due to a lack of psychological privacy and control over personal information. In other words, it can be difficult to learn and work in a space where everyone, including students outside of an individual's grade level, can see and know intimate details about another pupil just by walking through the area.

Since the first attempt at open-plan schools, educational culture has changed as much as design. In the 1970s, school faculty had little professional discussion about collaboration, different types of learning, or group projects, according to Long. Today, Kastrounis says, her teachers are trained to be accommodating when it comes to sharing the school's rooms. "We don't schedule spaces," says Kastrounis. "The building is designed to be flexible. The furniture is on wheels, the whiteboards are on wheels. If you inhabit the building that is designed to be flexible, you yourself have to be flexible."

The flexibility is also a way to serve the growing community: The district's mean elementary school capacity, excluding Richard J. Lee, is currently 500 students per school. Though currently at 550 students (already 100 more than Kastrounis had expected at the beginning of the school year), Richard J. Lee's large space could easily support a max capacity of 750 students, a size comparable to one of the district's middle schools, in the next few years.

Teachers and grades are organized by a "vertical house" system: each house has a kindergarten class, a first grade class, a second grade class and so on. Each teacher has access to the materials from all of the grades and can exchange students with other teachers in the house depending on the lesson.

The vertical house system forces the students to think about their identity in relation to the building and their older and younger peers. "The learners asked their houses, 'How do we operate within Richard J. Lee? How do we walk up and down the stairs? How do we reserve technology? How do we use the furniture?'" said Kastrounis. "The kids came up with those essential questions. The children came up with what their challenge was." Because the students are allowed to create their own rules, Kastrounis said, they develop a sense of ownership within the building.

In the center of the larger work areas are small glass-walled rooms with flat screen TVs, a child-sized version of a conference room. Rather than having a one-size-fits-all mentality with tables or chairs, there are different chairs for each type of student, some of which will allow a young child to rock vigorously back and forth while working on a project. Seats and desks are adjusted to task or for growing bodies, and can be rolled around to wherever the students see fit. "Young people need the opportunity to move their bodies and be healthy and shift and pivot," said Long. "It's essential to help them think through problems and it certainly helps creativity and collaboration."

In an effort to conserve power, work spaces and classrooms use daylight tubes that capture low angle sun rays and filter out infrared rays, which also reduces the building's cooling load by shielding heat from the space so that the school doesn't invest more energy to cool it. For the school's bathrooms, a rainwater-collection system is used for flushing toilet water. Students are also instructed to gauge how much water they drink from the water fountain. Houses that waste less water are rewarded for their conservation.

Most schools can't afford to reconfigure their existing spaces to create an environment like Richard J. Lee's. LEED Certification is a large, sometimes expensive, time-consuming process. Along with the school needing a certain percentage of its interior construction and equipment made from recycled materials, additional factors like air quality, water efficiency, and design innovation are all rated and factored into 100 possible base points.

"For existing schools, it's harder," says Holzle. "You can't just put solar panels on them. It depends on how the electrical systems were designed and how much natural daylight can offset electric lights." In most cases, a school would need to do a gut renovation and then rebuild from its shell to add in daylight tubes, new insulation, and other materials that can help with the building's cooling load. Otherwise, the effort is cost-prohibitive and unnecessary—it's easier just to build a new school.

Still, Kastrounis has had hundreds of visitors, including superintendents from other districts, since Richard J. Lee's opening, and Stantec hasn't hesitated to use the school for promotional purposes. Based on a few of the firm's Texas designs, Horry County in South Carolina has hired Stantec for open plan elementary school and middle school projects. Late last year, Katy Independent School District, in a suburb of Houston, approved 10 schools to be renovated by the firm. The style, of course, isn't unique to Stantec: another firm, Cannon Design, prominently features an open-plan elementary school in Savoy, Ill., as one of its projects. HMFH's Concord, N.H., elementary schools won two awards for education design for their open and collaborative learning spaces. Like Richard J. Lee, these new open-plan schools are built to address the demands of a tech-driven world and to create a space substantial enough to handle a growing enrollment. As communities across the United States look to conserve on funding and energy, more of these buildings may pop up as an all-in-one solution, complete with adaptable walls and furniture for any circumstance.

—Photo of the ceiling panels by John Forasiepi
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