Think about the classrooms of your childhood. Most likely every one was a big square, harshly lit by cheap fluorescent lights. And whether you were learning the multiplication tables or studying the solar system, chances are every classroom in your school was virtually identical.
For years, schools were typically designed in the “factory model:” square classrooms housed in classical, symmetrical buildings. But this prevailing tradition wasn’t good enough for Larry Perkins, who founded Perkins+Will with his partner Phillip Will in 1935 in Chicago. Shortly after they formed the firm, they were hired to design an elementary school in Winnetka, IL.
Mr. Perkins began his research with the classroom – in person. He sat in the small desks next to the students, watched them closely and plotted their actions during the day. He learned how schools really worked. As a result, he, along with architects Eliel and Eero Saarinen designed the first modern elementary school of its kind, Crow Island School.
Rather than square-shaped, the classrooms were L-shaped. Every classroom had lots of natural light with a private exit to its own courtyard that could be used as an outdoor classroom. Every classroom contained display units, plenty of storage, a workroom and private lavatory.
Considered controversial at the time, Crow Island represented a revolutionary change in thought: design buildings for people. Its first award came soon after it opened. The American Institute of Architects (AIA) acknowledged it as the school most advanced in elementary school design in the United States. AIA recognized the school again 25 years later with its Twenty-Five Year Award, referring to it as a landmark in design for education.
Crow Island was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1990. In 1991 the American School and University Journal established the “Crow Island Award” on recommendation by the AIA and educational administrators. The award is presented each year to a school whose facilities exemplify “the marriage of the interior environment to the educational program,” as Crow Island School does.
Perkins+Will has continued its dedication to school design. Our firm has been writing and publishing books on school design trends since the 1950s and has won more AIA Design Awards for school projects than any other architectural firm in the country.
In addition to having several friends working as designers in the K-12 Market Sector, I choose to concentrate my career on school design because I have young children and enjoy the connection to my work. I found I could really relate and have an impact on children’s learning environments.
Following Mr. Perkins’s example, architects in our K-12 Market Sector work closely with educators and continue to conduct detailed research on how schools really work. Two trends we’ve seen include a need for flexible student-centered spaces that allow for hands-on, project-based learning as well as a desire for environmentally friendly, energy-efficient buildings.
Another trend you’ve probably noticed is when local schools districts are faced with increasing enrollment or as charter schools expand, instead of enlarging their buildings, they import trailers or modular classrooms. Intended to house students temporarily for two or three years, many of these trailers languish in schoolyards for years beyond their originally intended lifespans. To put it kindly, these older trailers can be dreadfully dull and uninspiring learning environments.
It was with these trends in mind – combined with our desire to create healthier environments for children – that we designed an idea for a new, net-zero energy modular classroom that we call Sprout Space. Our team designed them from the ground up with students and teachers in mind. They are designed specifically to enhance learning with unique features like exterior marker boards to encourage kids to explore outside the classroom and a butterfly roof shape, which allows more daylight into the classroom and also catches rainwater that is then stored in a cistern. We have established a national fabrication and distribution team and our first prototype is already under construction.
Perkins+Will, while designing award-winning and high-performance schools, felt that it was important to address the issue of the 300,000 existing classroom trailers in this country serving eight million students and is committed to creating the next generation of modular classrooms that are healthy, sustainable and flexible. It is especially satisfying to me, knowing we are building upon and adding to the tradition of Perkins+Will of innovation in school design.
Larry Perkins described the design of Crow Island Elementary School as the “rejection of the original, rigid classroom.” Seventy-two years later, Sprout Space is a rejection of the original, rigid trailer.
The design of Crow Island changed how schools were designed and how they functioned. We hope to be able to accomplish the same thing for modular classrooms with Sprout Space.
– Allen Post, AIA, LEED AP BD+C, Perkins+Will