Performance Driven, Poetically Crafted Architecture

Design for Independent Schools

November 4, 2019

Independent schools are a design category of their own. A departure from the mindset of public schools, independent schools exist in a competitive market and must define their particular niche and differentiators. Schools need to both define and communicate their distinct programs and educational philosophies to stand out. The educational environment is an expression of the school – the design should support and signify the program.

Independent schools are also innovators. The aspirations are as high as the expectations – for students, educators and, by nature of this mentality, the architects as well. In order to rise to this challenge, our independent school design philosophy is guided by the following overarching tenets:

Engage the School Community

Independent school communities are engaged and involved. When designing for an independent school, it’s important to engage educators, students, parents and alumni in a dialogue about the shared values and culture that make your school a special place. This includes a discussion of what is working and what can be improved upon. It is also critical to identify the aspirations for the future. This knowledge, understanding and dialogue is essential to further exploration and innovation in the design process.

Education and Design are Situational

The existence of independent schools is a recognition of the inherent limitations of a universalist approach to education. This is equally true for the design of schools. Design that merely adopts the latest universal trends marginalizes a school rather than distinguishing it. Independent school environments should represent their situation, the unique educational philosophies, values and traditions that distinguish a school and make it a special place. Our innovative design solutions integrate best practices but are inspired by the school’s situation. Like parents seeking the best experience for their child, we too are inspired by what makes a school special.

Foster Ownership

Experience indicates there is a correlation between how successful a design is and the extent to which the school community assumes ownership for that design. Our open, collaborative and interactive process combined with design inspired by the particulars of the school’s situation fosters “buy-in” and agreement across the broader school community. By having the involvement of stakeholders in this way, each person – parents, teachers, students and administration staff alike – will feel more responsible for and invested in the project. This approach also stimulates financing as stakeholders who feel included and heard are more likely to contribute to fundraising efforts.

Pictured are three projects that illustrate innovative design responses to each school’s unique situations. Pictured first is a lobby renovation, which was created to improve security and accessibility. Through discussions with the school community, an expanded project vision was developed featuring a more welcoming street presence, student-centered social spaces and a celebration of the school’s traditions.

The second photo depicts a peace circle. While not a program element, the peace circle was conceived as a formal expression of the principle of conflict resolution, a key element in the school’s education philosophy.

Third is a science forum developed in collaboration with the students and the science faculty. The forum is designed to unify the science program, augment the classrooms with presentation facilities and stimulate curiosity in the sciences among a broader spectrum of students.

Working for independent schools requires collaboration, thoughtful dialogue, disruptive thinking, creativity and personal investment. For SNHA, all of these factors come into the design process through a collaborative, dialogue-driven approach to design that reflects and supports the ethos specific of the school.