The Habitable School

Designing a learning environment is not about creating the perfect school building. It is about creating a habitable environment.

Probably not how this piece of furniture was meant to be used

It is easy to believe that it should be possible to design and construct the perfect school building that does not need changing that sits there blissfully letting people inside it get on with their lives. In truth, this is far from how it works. People sometimes use their buildings in unexpected ways. It is the interaction between people and buildings that make them work, and education buildings are good examples

Christian Kühn, Dean of the Institute for Architecture and Design, Technical University of Vienna, Austria, summed it up nicely at the launch of the OECD’s Designing for Education publication in September. “Architects should not strive to design the perfect school,” he said.

The point being that education buildings need to allow for change, and need to allow people to change them. In this way the teachers and students become part of the design team, and the design process extends into the life of the building itself.

Such buildings work well because they in effect hand over control to those who use them. In the end people make their own learning environments. For evidence of this, consider what happens when students are given projects to do in groups or individually. They are likely to go and find somewhere to sit and discuss. Such a place needs to be comfortable and perhaps not too noisy, and it may need wi-fi. These places are not just in school buildings, they are all around us. People, like other animal life are very versatile and can inhabit anywhere so long as it meets some of these basic needs of comfort and protection.

It is often the more intangible qualities that make such environments work, yet these are hard to identify. Very often such intangibles relate to very human needs articulated by words like inspiring and stimulating. The functionalist approach where meticulous analysis of pedagogical theories leads to the creation of precise building forms designed around organisational patterns is perhaps to the detriment of learning, if such buildings do not enable people to inhabit them.

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