West Michigan's new education buildings: student-inspired technology, aesthetic, and sustainability

Architects, educators, and building contractors are collaborating to create learning spaces that incorporate all the benefits new technologies have to offer while addressing children’s holistic needs: physical, emotional, and intellectual.
Residents of Greater Grand Rapids often face ballot proposals to fund education buildings. Some may doubt that new buildings foster academic success. However, as proven by votes cast, the majority believe in and support these proposals.

They understand that times have changed. Today’s students cut their teeth on technologies that their parents had never imagined. On the bright side, students and teachers have access to more information, educational opportunities, and global connections than ever before. On the dark side, the technology age has spawned new dilemmas: obesity, cyberbullying, behavioral issues, and school shootings, to name a few.

To address both sides of the new now, architects, educators, and building contractors are collaborating to create learning spaces that incorporate all the benefits new technologies have to offer while addressing children’s holistic needs: physical, emotional, and intellectual.

Teresa Weatherall Neal, superintendent of Grand Rapids Public Schools (GRPS), is leading the charge for world class educational facilities in Grand Rapids.

Teresa Weatherall Neal“We have known, based on research, that design does directly impact learning. It allows for collaboration, things that I didn’t focus on in education years ago when it was 30 chairs in a row, six or seven rows,” says Neal. “The world requires so much more from our children. The space where they learn does make a huge difference.”

GRPS Executive Director of Facilities and Operations Ken Klomparens oversees the design and construction of new buildings and renovations. He also serves on Neal’s cabinet. He lists four elements he demands from design when GRPS builds new, or renovates existing, school buildings: comfort and well-being, security, technology, and specifics to support a building’s specialized curriculum. For example, Innovation Central High School, which offers the Academy for Health Sciences & Technology program, houses a Cherry Health medical and dental clinic in partnership with Spectrum Health.

“When we can offer young people real-life experience…we help them be successful when they leave us,” Neal says. “Whether it’s a four-year college, technical school, or employment, our goal is to connect them to the next phase of their life. That’s what school is about.”

“And, we are really trying to build buildings that are flexible, that will continue to perform for 50 or 60 years,” adds Klomparens.

Jenison shines daylight on school design

Another district designing well into the future, Jenison Public Schools, is constructing a building to house that district’s new Early Childhood Center, as well as its kindergarten through eighth grade Spanish Immersion Program.

Workers assemble roof structures for the new Jenison Public School's Early Childhood Learning Center and Spanish Immersion Program.

“Architecturally, what has changed the last ten or 15 years is the design of more project-based spaces and community spaces rather than corridors,” says Matt Slagle, director of K-12 education for TowerPinkster Architects | Engineers. “It’s a real big change from the Henry Ford model, the production-based design that we grew up with."

Slagle worked with Tom TenBrink, superintendent of Jenison Public Schools, to design a facility that provided a soothing learning environment where kids experienced the latest tech, space for collaboration, natural light, wiggle-room, healthy food, exercise, and decreased risks for bullying and negative behaviors.

“We had a need for two buildings but only had money for one,” TenBrink says. “For economy of scale, we put two buildings together. On one end, it’s the Early Childhood Center. The other end is the two-story Spanish Immersion Program. The two programs share common space, the gym, cafeteria, ‘specials’ rooms, and a choir room. We are saving a lot of district dollars and meeting the needs of our growing community.”

Both Slagle and TenBrink are huge fans of natural lighting. Slagle cites a study that found learning rates were 26 percent higher in reading and 20 percent higher in math in classrooms with the most natural light. These students also scored 25 percent higher on standardized tests.

Architectural renderings demonstrate widespread use of natural light.

“When you design a building for academic excellence, children can excel,” TenBrink says. “In the 80s and 90s, schools boarded up windows. Now windows have about the same energy efficiency as a brick wall. We are putting beautiful picture windows and side windows in every classroom.”

Open spaces close doors on bullying

From the classroom, interior windows look out onto the community spaces that have taken the place of the traditional corridor. Here, teachers can keep an eye on small groups of students collaborating on projects. The community spaces’ curved design gives teachers an instant view of the entire space when they step outside the classroom door.

“Passive supervision is a big thing,” Slagle says. “Group restrooms are designed so [their main entrances] don’t need doors. The teacher’s toilet room is at the back of students’ restroom. A teacher could walk in anytime—the students wouldn’t even hear a door open. This instinctively leads to better behavior.”

Instead of fluorescent lighting, which has been linked to behavioral problems, adjustable LED lighting enhances the sunlight.

“Teachers can or turn off the multi-zoned, LED lighting on sunny days or dim it to make their lessons on the large-screen live board more visible,” says Scott Jernberg, senior project manager with Triangle Associates, construction manager for the project.

Workers build spaces that are open, allowing for better supervision and less bullying.

“They can also control the color spectrum, opting for a cool blue light to calm students down or warm reddish light to make them feel more comfortable.”

These options can especially come in handy in special education classrooms. To make sure all students have equal access to instruction, teachers have small mics connected to an assisted listening sound system.

“Jenison didn’t want a student in the back to not hear the teacher in the front. With the assisted listening sound system, speakers are placed above the ceiling throughout the whole classroom. The students in front don’t see or hear better,” Jernburg says.

“Teachers and tech have blossomed.”

Moving’s on the up

More options for inspiring good behavior, lightweight swivel chairs, and wobble stools let kids fidget while they learn. All furnishings are lightweight, moveable, and configurable to individual, small-, or large-group activities. And, when wiggling in their seats or moving about in the classroom aren’t enough, the fire-lane right outside the door doubles as an exercise track.

“Our Early Childhood Center principal is very excited about his students running laps around the building,” TenBrink says. “It serves two purposes. It will also be a community-wide track for the neighborhood.”

A full kitchen will allow the school’s cook to prepare locally sourced, nutritious meals from scratch. Outside, space has been made for a new food garden. Children will benefit from produce they grow themselves.

From a construction standpoint, Jernburg oversaw the project’s budget. In addition to looking at materials, he also considered future operations costs. For less money than carpeting, which would need to be replaced, polished, sealed concrete floors will last the lifespan of the district—and reduce allergens.

“This facility will be a strong, visible, and safe building for the next 50 years,” he says. “It’s lock-downable. The entrance is secure—we have interactive cameras and security systems, all computerized. Parents have a sense of well-being and the children have a safe, warm learning environment.”

The design allows for materials and technologies that help make the new school building sustainable.

The architects and builders working on GRPS, Jenison, and other area school buildings not only ensure that the buildings will keep pace with educational and security technologies today and well into the future, but also employ new technologies throughout the design/build process. For one, new technologies allow school districts to build to LEED standards—the low-e glass used in the new Jenison building can let the sunshine in without increasing heating costs. GRPS hopes to attain a zero-energy footprint goal for new buildings in the future.

“We weave sustainability into our facilities, from pre-K through 12,” Klomparens says. “Whether a student learns something, like recycling, and it becomes a passion or it just saves money, it’s woven in so they and their parents see how living sustainably affects them on a daily basis.”

New technologies are also streamlining the construction process.

“At Jenison, instead of taking 20 months to build wrap this up, we will finish the build in 14 months,” Jernburg says. “This will lower costs and keep high quality. Technology streamlines our processes to give the school district every advantage for the kids.”

It took a village

Both Superintendent Neal and Superintendent TenBrink appreciate communities that understand its children’s high-tech educational needs and is willing to meet them with their tax dollars.

“We are blessed that our community continues to support our schools the way they have by passing the bond issue,” TenBrink says.

“What we are doing really does take a village,” concludes Neal. “Our community understands that there will be a great return on their investment.”

“Constructing the future” is a new 12-part series from Rapid Growth that will explore issues facing, and related to, West Michigan’s construction industry and the numerous organizations, trends, and innovations seeking to create positive advances in our community. The series is sponsored by Triangle Associates, a West Michigan-based construction company that provides construction management, design/build services, general contracting, integrated project delivery, and more to projects locally and across the country.

Photos by Adam Bird of Bird + Bird Studio.
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