Designing Educational Spaces

What’s the difference between learning algebra and selling accessories? Apparently it’s less than we think. The physical spaces required for both share striking similarities.

When Burlington High School in Vermont had to relocate from its old campus into a former Macy’s Department Store, educators discovered that the retail outlet’s space, fixtures and signage — originally created to bring ambiance and style to a consumer destination — matched surprisingly well with the need for a visually stimulating classroom environment.

Burlington High School meeting at an abandoned Macy's Department Store
Burlington High School meeting inside of a Macy’s Department Store (Image: Burlington School District)

The architecture, furnishings and décor of an educational environment can have a subtle yet profound effect on a student’s ability to learn and thrive. In a pair of articles, ArchDaily offers a concise rundown of school design elements and their effect on a child’s well-being, as wells interior design’s overall behavioral and psychological impact on people in general.

My takeaways from a quick dive into these concepts? First, the psychology of developing nurturing learning spaces is still as much art as science; and second, it works best as a holistic concept that ties together all of the visual elements of art, architecture and engineering.

Looking for ideas? LPA Design Studios produced a nifty little promotional video describing its award-winning Menchaca Elementary School project. Personally, I liked their “learning stairs” concept the best.

Finally and for what it’s worth, the Burlington HS project has a rather strange mirror version in The School House, a 14,000 foot mansion built out of an abandoned elementary school in Pennsylvania. And as of this writing, it’s for sale.