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AIA Committee on Architecture for Education: Creating Equitable, Adaptable and Resilient Educational Environments

AIA Committee on Architecture for Education: Creating Equitable, Adaptable and Resilient Educational Environments

Engaging educational environments are vital to help learners reach their full potential. These facilities also play a critical role in serving as anchors for our larger communities. The design of educational facilities can and should foster equitable communities acting as a catalyst for change. 


Buzz Yudell, FAIA & Carissa Oyedele, AIA LEED AP BD+C  participated in a panel with Dr. Robert Dillon, Sustainable Education Solutions on Creating Equitable, Adaptable and Resilient Educational Environments for the AIA Committee on Architecture for Education. The Q & A from the webinar is available below:

Q: How important is to have diversity among the design team? Are your offices diverse?   How can the industry raise up BIPOC leaders so they are leading these conversations?


Diversity in the team adds a valuable range of perceptions and creative ideas. However to be meaningful, all team members must feel encouraged and welcomed to actively participate.  You may need to experiment with ways to develop team norms that ensure everyone is valued, participates and is listened to.

Our office is quite diverse relative to the profession:  49% minority and 43 % women.  However, it is always a work in progress and we look for ways to keep diversifying and accelerating diversity at the leadership levels.  

Mentoring, training and coaching are critical to developing confidence and expertise for all leaders.

Creating  opportunities for BIPOC  and emerging leaders to be out front with clients, civic and professional organizations is an important part of the process.

Q: How do you make sure the quiet voices have as much weight as the loud ones?

A: Buzz

This can be challenging and requires initiatives on several fronts.  Coaching and training are essential.  Providing  safe environments to practice presentation skills and build confidence is important.  

Developing office and team norms and behaviors that ensure all voices are heard and valued. all of these behaviors need to be modelled and lived at the leadership level.

A: Carissa

You can also employ certain tools to make the quiet ones feel more comfortable:

  • You can call out people specifically to participate
  • Go around the table so everyone has a chance to talk
  • Facilitate activities where everyone has to get up out of their seat to write or mark on boards- this can be beneficial to some who want to remain anonymous


Q: Can you elaborate more on designing for resiliency? Is this just a matter of community engagement, or is there a component more related to the building systems and assemblies?

A: Buzz

It is a multi-dimensional process.  Early planning to optimize for flexibility and adaptability are critical.

The earliest possible multi-disciplinary discussions about building systems, assemblies and their integration and performance is important. Testing and modeling for life-cycle,  operations and maintenance should all involve consultants and relevant clients reps.

A: Carissa

Resiliency can most definitely mean systems as well. Often we are seeing clients wanting to prepare for natural disasters, school shootings, and now pandemics. We can build in safety measures and redundancy, such as with renewable energy and captured water, so that the Universities and Colleges can be prepared when any of these situations hit.


Q: We all could spend days listening to your research, understanding the more poetic features and how individuals are able to engage these spaces and places created.  With community healing, that you mentioned, as a strong endeavor you engage with your users.  Can you describe how you all judge your outcomes as successful and the degree of success has been attained?

A:  Buzz

We do a range of post occupancy evaluations from relatively informal visits, observations and discussions to more structured surveys and interviews. ( it depends on client needs and culture ).  It’s great when we can partner with our clients in the post occupancy research but not all clients have time.   I like adding informal and serendipitous conversations when we visit our projects.   And specifically trying to get a cross section of users.  Some of our judgement of success comes from structured feedback on metrics about health,  social interactions, level of collaboration, sustainability, access etc. Most comes from a collection of conversations and observations over time.   We try to collect and document this information but it’s always a challenge. We would always like to do more.  The most rewarding results are the individual and group stories we hear.

At our new building for the School of Social Work and Public Health at Washington University in St. Louis, a young faculty told me that her work was among very disadvantaged and traumatized families in the community.  She said that  this was extremely stressful and that after the new building was completed she made a point of spending some informal time in the building at the beginning and end of the day whenever possible;  she described how the warmth, sense of community, connection to nature and relaxed environment had been truly healing for her on a day to day basis.  We were both on the edge of tears by the end of the conversation. It was a wonderful reminder of why we get up in the morning.


Q: What resources did you use to get buy in for your clients to include gender neutral restrooms in the design? Specifically in the K-12 world.

A: Buzz

My experience here is mainly in higher-ed.  We have been fortunate that most of our clients are far along in these discussions.   The most typical approach has been a both-and rather than either-or;  having male, female and gender neutral restrooms allows everyone to be heard and accommodated at a pretty minor marginal cost.

Re K-12, most of our work here has been in California which has required at least one restroom to be “all-gender” since 2016.  Some school districts have already opted to go well beyond the minimum requirement.   

In general, in these kinds of sensitive discussions,  it’s helpful if you can find ways to turn the heat down in the conversations.   Benchmarking and bringing facts and precedents to the table can be valuable.

As in Universal Design, pointing out the advantages for everyone can be helpful.   When people realized that accessible design benefits parents with little kids, older folks etc. they grew to accept and even like the approach.  Adding an “all-gender” restroom can be beneficial to a wide range of users.


Q: How are you balancing the concepts of Universal Design with the safety measures in terms of COVID that we now know that need to be in place?  I am a school administrator and the physical adjustments to our building have been staggering.

A: Dr. Dillon

We are recognizing and naming that some of the temporary COVID solutions aren’t optimal, and that we are hoping to pivot back to leaning more deeply into Universal Design elements as we go forward. I believe that naming the temporary nature of things helps everyone maintain the mindset that a more optimal space is possible in the future. We are also using this time to document the limitations of our space, so that we can co-design future solutions. It has been great working with school and district partners that are also preparing for the future while taking care of safety.



Q: To the Question Dr. Dillon Posted of "how do you avoid designing the community OUT of the school?" How do you recommend that idea be approached to large school districts where Design Guidelines, Ed Specs, and Rigid Programs in the name of 'Equity' end up creating a 'smallest common denominator sameness' in all schools of the district?

A: Dr. Dillon

We really work hard in my partnerships to make sure that equity doesn’t mean equal, but it is about serving the needs of the students, staff, and community at each location. We often list the things that make an individual school unique so that we can judge design decisions against those things. We also work to build a small amount of the budget that is hyperlocal and allows each school to design for their community as well. It is also important to match design guidelines against instructional vision to see if they still match.



Q: In high population density cities like NYC, what high value ideas can be translated to the public system, where so many schools are in 100 year old buildings where budget limitation are so prevalent?

A: Dr. Dillon

I find that older, urban schools have some great bones. This can include wide hallways and big windows. If either of these features are present, I’m looking to really think big in these areas because so many students and staff pass through them. Window treatments, hallway paint, reduced hallway clutter can all send powerful messages. We often find that these buildings contain tons of legacy materials. It is essential to free the space of unneeded things as it is impossible to see the future iteration of the building with all that clutter and noise. Finally, signage is inexpensive and makes a huge impact on message, tone, and energy.


Q: How does a design professional best communicate the close relationship between curriculum development and teaching methods with the physical spaces?

A: Dr. Dillon

I often speak about how we spend so much time on what kids should learn and how they should learn (all of which is so important), but we don’t spend as much on the conversations about where kids learn. If we can enter into partnership around all three of those conversations, we have the best opportunities to sync our design and make lasting change. It is always ideal to walk the building with a lens of instruction. I hope we can get back in more buildings soon.