As students head back to school this fall, we are reminded of the challenges that many will face as part of their educational experience. The challenges for many will be aggravated by old, outdated facilities designed for a different era, and designed without consideration for the health and wellbeing of its users. On average, a student will spend over 13,000 hours in school, from grades K-12. The school environments where they spend such a significant part of their lives can have a substantial impact on their cognitive ability, health and wellbeing.
Traditionally, due to explosive fast growth, the Cypress-Fairbanks Independent School District, a large suburban district outside of Houston, Texas, had designed prototype schools in multi-campus sites, many times with each school totally isolated from the other. Given a slight slowdown due to the recession, the district decided to rethink the way they designed and built schools, and asked its cadre of architects to design schools driven by the desired learning outcomes and protocols, but that were also healthy and sustainable, meeting the requirements of the Texas CHPS program. Armed with the research on the impact of healthy and sustainable, interactive design on learning, and challenged to design a healthier, happier place for students, we embraced the task to design their new multi-campus site.
The new Cypress Park High School, is the first school to open in the new educational village setting. This educational village will eventually include an elementary school, middle school, shared cafeteria/dining/community space, and a public, community health clinic. Inspired by research that supports that green spaces in school environments can have a range of health benefits for students as well as improvement in cognitive development (Susan Hanson, Clark University, Worcester, Mass., 2015) the new educational village focuses on the careful development of the green space that is shared by all the schools, and is the focus of the overall village design. This green space creates an inviting outdoor setting for students, staff and community, and expands the learning environment through the use of glazing and vistas from all classrooms. This space was carefully designed to maximize greenery, in order to provide for enhanced opportunities for free play, exploration and discovery. These green spaces are also designed to shield traffic noise and stress while increasing opportunities for exercise.
The design of the new high school embraces the state’s new mandate for a more rigorous secondary curriculum as outlined by the new Foundation High School program, that includes the selection of endorsements such as STEM, Business and Industry, Public Services, Arts and Humanities, and Multi-Disciplinary for all students entering the ninth grade. This underlying theme helped with the organization of the school, as endorsements were stacked in the three story facility creating connections for students as they travel through the school on any given day. This also allowed the design team to create diverse interactive settings throughout the building, allowing for casual collisions to occur during the school day. These diverse settings were further enhanced by the sustainable and healthy features of the building, such as the three story natural light shafts that introduce natural light in the heart of the learning community wing, bringing warmth and calm to the learning environment.
Other such sustainable features include the enhanced acoustical ceiling and wall treatment of all shared spaces, allowing for conversation, collaboration and discovery to thrive. Also, understanding that our wellbeing and ability to learn is activated by moments of surprise and delight, the curved design of the learning communities allows for pockets of excitement to pop throughout the travel from one end of the building to the other. These pockets are further enhanced by natural light, and the introduction of interactivity, both through the use of interactive energy management displays and active learning furniture.
In learning environments, surprise, wonder and excitement can take students’ focus away from the challenges and baggage they may bring or carry from home. This sense of excitement can lead to a healthier, more balanced and clear outlook on learning and in the end, improve students’ cognitive ability. The new Cypress Parks High School and Educational Village provide the setting for learning to thrive, wonder to rule and health to conquer.