“Go where he would, in city or country, he encountered the district school-house, standing in disgraceful contrast with every other structure designed for public or domestic use. Its location, construction, furniture and arrangements, seemed intended to hinder, and not promote, to defeat and not perfect, the work which was to be carried on within and without its walls…to make an edifice good for school purposes, it should be built for children at school, and their teachers.” — Henry Barnard, commissioner of public schools in Rhode Island, who authored School Architecture in 1848.

Barnard's work expresses concern for the health and happiness of the child with respect to heating, ventilation, sanitary requirements, age-appropriate facilities, different accommodations for different studies, and aesthetics.

In the same way, Planning Secondary School Buildings, published in 1949, identified three characteristics that apply today:

  • Human values

    A classroom should conform to the highest standards in the recognition of human values: aesthetics, psychology, community and national spirit, comfort and happiness, physically handicapped, pupils' individual and personal rights, conservation of energy, and rooms constructed on the basis of living.

  • Function

    The classrooms should conform to the most enlightening ideas of the intended use, design, construction and decoration, and equipment should further the school program with modern techniques and equipment, flexibility, adequate instructional material and by recognition of the social aspect.

  • Mechanistic

    Acoustics, automatic controls, aesthetics, adaptability to group, comfort, flexibility, heating, lighting, safety, sanitation, ventilation, etc.

Moving forward to recently, a delegation of education planners and architects traveled to China and learned of a search for a healthy environment through room configuration, sightlines, acoustics and daylighting. Chalkboards were raised, slanted to avoid glare from the windows and lighted to maximize viewing. Single-loaded corridors allowed shaded natural daylight and fresh air with cross ventilation into both sides of the classroom. The design standards dictate the ratio of window area to floor area, the location of windows, the width and height of the window wall, and the distance between the ceiling and window top rail for proper light distribution and no direct sunlight.

Whether 19th or 21st century, the search for the ideal classroom continues. Proven constants remain: fresh air; ventilation; heat; sanitation; acoustics; natural light; sightlines; appearance; human values. By using the criteria of health and safety, performance, comfort and aesthetics, we create an “ideal” humanized physical classroom environment that testifies to the value we place on educating our children.

Rydeen, FAIA, is an architect/facility planning specialist and former president of Armstrong, Torseth, Skold & Rydeen, Inc. (ATS&R), Minneapolis.