Student-Led Interior Design

August 27, 2019

Student management became the main goal of a standard school somewhere in the mid-20th century. Get students from place to place in an orderly and efficient manner. Limit distractions and restrict all freedom (hall monitors…bathroom passes…bells). The floor plan supports student management: neatly placed classrooms, easily navigable hallways, not much natural light, few common areas (collaboration is the antithesis of efficiency). One should not find it strange that prisons and schools share architectural firms.

Ultimately, the physical organization, furniture, and fixtures in a school support the academic program. Alpha needs a space and furnishings that support our three promises (love of school, 2x learning, life skills). How do you design a space that does that? You don’t. You let the kids do it.

How do you let kids design a space? You do nothing. Let the kids use the space as it is for a year. Put wheels on the furniture and see where the kids move it. Give them freedom to work wherever. Ask a lot of questions about what they like, don’t like, where they feel focused and what is distracting.

That is exactly what we did at Alpha. From observations and feedback, we made a series of changes:

  1. Learning Lab has three distinct spaces: an anchor classroom; a flex space (for moving around, building things and getting messy); a quiet room (for reading support and small group work). The overall space dedicated to Learning Lab has been doubled in size.
  2. The students in Level 1 like “nooks and crannies.” So, we took down many walls and built new half-walls. We’ll introduce more “modular” furniture (think a room of giant building blocks) and they’ll have their own “phone booth.” The renovation doubles the previous L1 space.
  3. In the early 1970s, several schools were designed with an open floor plan. No walls, just designated spaces for classes to congregate. It didn’t work. We found the same problem in Level 2. It’s hard to have ownership of a room when it is constantly used as a hallway by everyone else in the building. So, we shifted our approach. The old L2 space is now a truer shared space. We removed walls from the locker rooms and meshed them into the main area. We added 10 quiet “phone booths,” flexible furniture and more desk space. We took down the kitchen walls and made that into a space that feels like a Starbucks (tall tables, stools, and comfortable chairs). The new L2 space will be the (now renovated) room formerly known as the Grub Hub. It’s more enclosed, smaller, and rarely used as a hallway. It’s a place where the L2s can feel at home. Moving the L2s to their own space in conjunction with the changes to the main room accomplishes our three goals: improved quiet workspace; collaborative small group space; more space for workshops.

We have increased usable square footage, maximized space for collaboration while simultaneously adding more quiet space. And the kids did it (they don’t know that they designed the space, but we were watching 😉).