Schools are not only working spaces, but also living spaces

Research in focus January and Feburary 2016

“We do not learn for life, but for school”. As early as 2 000 years ago, Roman author Seneca (c.4 BC to 65 AC) criticised the schools of philosophers of his time. He demanded that teaching must not be an end in itself, but should prepare young people to take responsibility for their own lives. Today, our existence is determined by life-long learning. Everyone is encouraged to keep up to date and to continuously improve their knowledge, skills and competences. The school as an institution is equally affected by this demand, just like each individual in our society. Pupils, teachers and buildings are facing constantly changing requirements due to new learning and teaching methods. Without a doubt, many things have changed in the last few years in cities and municipalities: numerous new schools and day care facilities for children were created, either in new buildings, in remodelled buildings or in buildings that were retrofitted using the latest state-of-the-art technology.

Schools are places to live and learn

In the scope of its EUR four billion investment programme "Future of Education and Care" the federal government funded the demand-responsive construction and improvement of all-day provisions in all of the 16 federal states (in the last decade). The federal state of Baden-Württemberg alone has spent EUR 400 million for the construction of school buildings. In spite of this concerted action on the political, scientific, and societal levels the question remains: Can we cope with the challenge to provide educational buildings that meet the dramatically different requirements in the education sector and save young people's joy of teaching and learning? Or does the German educational system fail to meet its full potential? Schools are much more than just work spaces: They are environments which influence teaching and learning individuals alike with regard to concentration, motivation and productive learning. But which conditions have to be fulfilled to provide optimal learning environments for pupils? Actually, parameters of building physics like acoustics and speech intelligibility, indoor-air quality, the quality of lighting and indoor comfort were found to be decisive for ensuring well-being and good health, concentration and productivity. "Regarding the design of integral learning environments, the application of basic principles of building physics in combination with intelligent technologies provides the key for targeted solutions", Prof. Philip Leistner, director of the Fraunhofer Institute for Building Physics IBP is convinced. In 2009, he had launched the initiative "Zukunftsraum Schule – Schulgebäude nachhaltig gestalten" (Creating sustainable school buildings for the future) which provides an interdisciplinary forum for stakeholders to discuss aspects of sustainable school design. "Whether it is a new building or retrofitting, the optimum combination of building development and school organization contributes to finding an inter¬disciplinary, integral solution", affirms the scientist.

Schools that generate energy

Energy-efficient schools are exemplary for the economical use of energy and resources. In connection with the efficiency-house plus standard, schools function as a model for society. This standard requires that these buildings generate more energy than they use (in the annual balance). Since[BS1]  January 2015, directives of the German Federal Government had promoted the construction and the retrofit of such educational buildings. The funding programme covered the greatest possible range of school buildings, from children's day-care centres to universities, from adult education centres to laboratory buildings. By funding model projects of plus-energy educational buildings (only German),the research initiative "Future of Buildings" (Zukunft Bau) by the Federal Institute for Research on Building, Urban Affairs and Spatial Development supported builders, architects and expert planners in implementing high-efficiency buildings. Fraunhofer IBP takes a leading role in supporting such demonstration projects, also providing accompanying research. The research project on energy-efficient schools entitled " Energieeffiziente Schule (EnEff:Schule)", which was funded at that time by the Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy (BMWi) in the scope of the funding scheme " Energieoptimiertes Bauen (EnOB)" (EnOB – research for energy-optimised building) aimed to bring together and describe any activities relating to the energy-efficient retrofit of school buildings.

"What is special and quite unique about these projects is the opportunity to include young people and demonstrate what is technically feasible today, what the costs are and how much energy and carbon dioxide can be saved. This experience motivates building users - among them pupils, teachers, and technical staff - to become energy-conscious users. In addition, this new kind of learning 'inside an object of study' holds an enormous replication potential", Hans Erhorn, formerly Head of IBP's Department for Energy Efficiency and Indoor Climate, describes his experience.

Improved learning due to improved acoustics

Likewise, investments made to enhance the acoustic quality of the indoor environment pay off in several ways. For instance, a high-quality acoustic environment ensures a high level of speech intelligibility, which is a prerequisite for effective learning. On the other hand, good acoustics prevent unnecessary noise and disturbances in classrooms or gyms and indoor swimming pools. In view of the municipalities' tight budgets questions concerning costs and benefits of acoustic comfort arise. Thanks to foresighted and well-founded planning the costs for an adequate acoustic building quality will definitely remain within the planned budget. For most new buildings, the relevant share is merely 1 percent of the total building cost. Despite this relatively small expenditure for e.g. sound-absorbing measures at the ceiling, aesthetically ambitious solutions can be realised. Sound-proofing of light-weight walls, for instance, costs only about 10 €/m² more than the basic version. Door drop-down seals cost only between EUR 30 and 100 per item. Yet precisely such measures are often cancelled due to pressure on costs. Cooperative planning involving all parties from the very beginning, realistic estimated costs and responsible supervision at building-site interfaces can help to get the often considerable (even more than 80 percent) cost overrun of school buildings under control.

Can a room be a teacher?

There is a Swedish proverb that says every pupil has not one, but three teachers: the classmates, the teacher and the classroom. Is there a direct connection between the built environment and educational approaches? Can the space stimulate pedagogical concepts? Or vice versa: can pedagogical concepts be influenced and inspired by existing spaces? What we do know for certain is that the built environment does have an impact on human beings. But what interactions are there between people and spaces, between contemporary multi-functional spaces compared to a time-honoured grammar school, and to what extent do they have an influence on learning? The platform "Zukunftsraum Schule – Schulgebäude nachhaltig gestalten" (Creating sustainable school buildings for the future) also addresses the effects the built environment has on human beings.

Diversity in the classroom is nothing new, but never before was heterogeneity so obvious. The share of children from immigrant families increases mainly in the large cities. In rural areas, however, schools of different types have to be merged due to lack of pupils. How can teachers constructively deal with the diverse educational qualifications, interests and potentials of the pupils, their heterogeneous cultural and linguistic backgrounds? The new diversity in the classroom needs patience, a lot of sensitivity and a spirit of openness with respect to all the relevant actors.

Appropriate learning environments

Innovative forms like learning studios support both personalised and cooperative learning. A learning studio is a learning environment designed for individual and cooperative learning, taking place in a single room or in a suit of several rooms. Encouraging self-governed learning, this learning environment enables pupils to do creative work, to organize information retrieval or to carry out media-based research.

However, these modern pedagogical concepts require larger areas in conjunction with more and different spaces. Moreover, the architectural and functional structures of exercise areas such as school gyms, outdoor facilities and swimming pools need to correspond to education plans and to meet the expectations of pupils, teachers and the school's administration. However, the requirements on sustainable future schools go even further. In view of health problems, lacking social competence, escalating aggressiveness and kids struggling against motor weaknesses and coordinative deficits, the concept of schools that promote physical activity is of increasing importance. Variable common spaces, meeting and working rooms can improve this situation. Meeting places and public areas must provide diversified opportunities for children to actively grow up. Standard solutions are practically not available; instead, it is necessary to find customised solutions that are specifically adapted to the individual needs. Reconciling these diverse demands will continue to be a concern also in future, and joint efforts from all parties involved in school development are needed to implement successful solutions.

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