25 Years of Designing Schools

LPA is celebrating 25 years of designing transformative K-12 schools, providing an occasion for our architects and designers to evaluate or reflect on what we’ve learned about school design — and how to improve.

“When you hit a 25th anniversary, it’s always a good opportunity to look back as well as forward,” says Jim Kisel, Principal and Director of LPA’s K-12 Practice. “We can assess how the educational market has changed and how student learning has evolved over time.”

In 25 years, there has been a fundamental shift in how schools are designed. We’re proud to have collaborated with educators and administrators to explore new ways to develop effective learning environments, both indoors and outdoors. In the process, we’ve grown to an integrated firm of architects, interior designers, landscape architects and engineers in six offices — including Irvine, San Diego, San Jose, Sacramento, San Antonio and Dallas.

The studios have grown around sustainable principles of user experience, health + wellness, energy and water use; and a research-based process focused on student-centric design. Our projects have won 40 Coalition for Adequate School Housing/California Council AIA awards, reflecting the program innovation and design quality required for the effective planning of tomorrow’s high-performance learning environments.

Through the years, we’ve worked side-by-side with many of the same clients, in some cases for more than two decades. From master planning and design to bond initiatives strategy, we’ve always enjoyed the spirit of collaboration and common goals found in school projects. The changes in schools touch all of us on a very personal level.

A different era

When LPA Chief Executive Officer Wendy Rogers was growing up in Anaheim, California, her classroom had only one window, which was not unusual. Schools were often closed off, cookie cutter, with low expectations for the brick-and-mortar’s role in education.

“Now, school design is elevated,” Rogers says. “If you go into a high school gym or performance space, it will look like something that should be on a college campus.”

Over the years, the core process of creating campuses has gone through a fundamental change. “When LPA started working in education, the design process was siloed, with facilities managers and maintenance directors as the primary point of contact. Designers often did not interact with the educational side; the process was about modernizing infrastructure or adding a certain quantity of classrooms and playgrounds.

Today, LPA’s work starts at the foundation of the education process. LPA’s integrated team is part of a collective effort, developing learning environments focused on the needs of students and teachers.

“We want to understand at the very beginning the district’s educational vision and program goals,” Kisel says. “What do they want to accomplish educationally? Who are the students they’re educating? What will learning look like in the future?”

Putting students at the center of the design conversation might be the biggest change in the industry in 25 years. Districts develop a pedagogy based on the skills their students will need for future success in college or their careers; our job as designers is to translate that pedagogy into the appropriate design.”

“We really design schools from the inside out,” says Kate Mraw, Design Director and Associate Principal in LPA’s San Antonio office. “We work through the lens of the learner.”

Eastvale Stem Academy3

New ideas

To help architects and designers improve connections to research on student needs and behaviors, LPA in 2017 enlisted learning experience strategist Dr. Julie Zoellin Cramer, founder and vice president of Wayfind Education, an education research consulting firm. She had earlier collaborated with LPA on the design for e3 Civic High, which opened in 2013 on the sixth and seventh floors of San Diego’s downtown central library, the nation’s first school within a library.

The school’s name, e3, stands for “engage, educate and empower.” The design took full advantage of the school’s urban surroundings, which serve as a project and community-based laboratory for learning about an array of subjects, including city government, architecture, homelessness, social services, food sustainability and music. Studios are organized in villages clustered around a shared commons and teaming rooms.

“LPA was willing to dive deeper into the concept of what we wanted students to know, be and do,” Cramer says.

Cramer also worked with LPA on the Eastvale STEM Academy in the Corona-Norco Unified School District, under construction at the existing Eleanor Roosevelt High School in Eastvale, California. The eSTEM Academy building, scheduled to open this year, offers two academic pathways: medical science and engineering and design. Flexible classrooms will flow directly to outdoor learning spaces equipped with writable wall surfaces, work tables and open space for experiments and lab work.

“LPA and the district brought together a diverse group of stakeholders from the school and community to ask: How do we want this new high school to best serve students?” Cramer recalls. In parallel with the design and construction process, education leaders developed a project-based learning approach, initially launching the eSTEM program on the main Roosevelt campus. “When the new building opens, students and teachers will hit the ground running,” Cramer says. “The intentional effort spent to align educational strategies with physical design will result in both supportive learning spaces and dollars well spent.”

Samueli Academy1

“We want to understand at the very beginning the district’s educational vision and program goals,” Kisel says. “What do they want to accomplish educationally? Who are the students they’re educating? What will learning look like in the future?”

A better process

Over the years, we’ve committed to a process of engagement and research on every project, in the belief that a better process generates better results. That means going into projects with an open mind, not an agenda, and acting as a facilitator of the community’s vision.

The impact of that process can be found in schools throughout California and Texas. In Austin, Texas, LPA worked with the Austin Independent School District on an engagement effort that resulted in a redesign of the campus. What was once intended as a single-building school with interior circulation evolved into a cluster of buildings surrounding a courtyard with flexible learning environments, designed around mature oak trees.

“It’s about this constant engagement process, where the stakeholders can see the iteration of the project developing,” Mraw says. “At a certain point, it’s no longer LPA’s design. It’s their design and we are simply putting it together.”

A key element of the process is an emphasis on research and data, to ensure educators can make informed decisions. In 2017 LPA launched LPAred, becoming one of the few firms with an-house research team. (“red” stands for research, education and design.) The LPAred initiative is focused on examining how buildings operate and the ultimate impact on users, including extensive post-occupancy evaluations to understand how facilities are performing and what works best for students and teachers.

“We’re asking better questions of clients as a result of doing these evaluations,” Rogers says.

The LPA informed design process can also play a key role in assisting districts with the prioritization of work to be accomplished in their bond campaigns, maximizing the value for their community. In the last 20 years we’ve worked on more than 75 master plans that went to the ballot with a 99 percent success rate.

“That’s what we can do in our position as designers — make the most out of each opportunity and be great stewards of public dollars,” Rogers says.

Better results

In 25 years, it’s inspiring to see how schools have changed. Instructional spaces have expanded beyond old barriers, evolving into flexible, effective learning environments that will accommodate students for years to come. And we see sustainability, human experience and health + wellness becoming core parts of more and more schools.

Over the years, we’ve worked on many projects that are changing lives. One that stands out is the Samueli Academy, a 480-student public charter high school in Santa Ana focusing on low-income and foster youth at risk of not completing high school. The design supports instructors’ efforts to engage the students with real-world projects that reach across multiple disciplines.

On a campus like Samueli, we can see the results as students learn and engage in their environments. Nothing has been more exciting for our architects and designers over the last 25 years than seeing schools evolve and grow, as educators and students shape their own learning environments.

Now we’re ready for the next 25 years, as we join educators in finding new ways to engage students. Mobile technology, place-based learning and curriculum evolutions are changing how campuses are envisioned. We are still learning, as we explore new concepts and better environments to support the needs of the whole child.

“For me, it has been an amazing journey,” Rogers says. “We keep bettering the learning environment for students, one project at a time.”