Is This an Office or a School? Designs Blend as User Needs Overlap.

As parents get back to the routine of taking their kids to school, they may notice some of those buildings are looking a lot more like their own offices.

Designers are putting more emphasis on the outdoors at both property types. Classrooms are getting placed in gardens with benches and spaces for group talks, new rooms have plenty of windows and chairs, and tables can more easily be moved. That’s also happening in workplaces after the pandemic sparked design changes.

It’s not a coincidence that schools and private workplaces more often share design concepts, such as increased sunlight, improved security and adjustable interior areas and outdoor spaces, because many architecture and interior design firms do work for both commercial and educational clients. That includes some of the largest U.S. firms by revenue, including Gensler, HGA and SmithGroup.

Offices and schools have the same goals — they want workers and students to be productive and happy. A recent study by Gensler found that the top reason employees want to go to the office is to get work done, not to socialize or play pickleball.

Teachers and school administrators share that objective by wanting to spur students to do better, said Melissa Turnbaugh, a partner at Houston-based PBK, the 20th-largest U.S. architecture firm by revenue, according to Architectural Record.

“Outdoor areas don’t just look cool, they also help students’ performance and attendance,” Turnbaugh told CoStar News.

Van Ness Elementary School in Washington, D.C., includes a canopy-covered classroom on the roof, located next to raised garden beds that students use as a learning tool. Architects are also designing offices to include more outdoor space. (iStudio Architects)

Unlike a major employer, some schools may not be able to afford to hire an architect for a renovation or new building design. But design changes can be affordable and as simple as adding rocks and a bench, she said.

“It can cost almost nothing,” Turnbaugh said.

Office landlords looking to recruit new tenants, especially at higher rents, have made financial investments in upgrading workspaces. Piedmont Office Realty Trust spent an undisclosed amount this year to renovate the Galleria office park in Atlanta, which included the addition of outdoor space accessible to workers. The work paid off with the leasing of 132,000 square feet to several tenants.

As private sector employers increasingly renovate workplaces to match the needs and habits of workers with the pandemic easing over time, they could learn from designs at public and private schools that are working with strict budget constraints, Turnbaugh said.

Design work for institutions — a category that includes schools — generated the most billing activity for architecture firms in June, more than industrial, office or retail, according to the American Institute of Architects. Institutional work held steady in July, with architects’ billings posting no monthly change.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that with office space demand easing, some schools are being made out of offices. Recently vacated offices provide a quick way for school districts to house students in rapidly growing areas. In Tennessee, for example, the Hamilton County Board of Education in December acquired a former Cigna office building in Chattanooga for a planned elementary school.

What’s more, in one of the largest buildings ever used for an office-to-school conversion, Blackstone sold the 66,448-square-foot Canyon Park Commons office building in Bothell, Washington, to the Northshore School District for $18.3 million. The building, which had been fully occupied by AT&T at the time of the 2019 sale, was redesigned by the Seattle architecture firm Lance Mueller & Associates to house Innovation Lab High School.

During the pandemic, office landlords added outdoor space to provide workers a place to socially distance from coworkers. Those spaces have remained a popular amenity, and many new designs include extensive outdoor areas, such as the PGA Tour headquarters in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida, designed by Foster & Partners.

Now architects are designing schools with more places to learn and relax outdoors, just as office workers have discovered the positive effects of sunshine and outdoor time during the workday.

The Jefferson Early Learning Center’s new campus in Houston, designed by PBK, includes outdoor space with a native Texas grassland habitat. Students can explore these protected natural areas under the guidance of a teacher, Turnbaugh said.

Spending time outside can help both office workers and students, said Melissa Turnbaugh, an architect at PBK in Houston. (PBK)

The calming quality of outdoor space helps a wide of range of students, even those who have been disruptive inside, she said.

“When they get outside, something changes and they start asking questions and become engagedf and curious,” Turnbaugh said.

The District of Columbia Public Schools hired local architecture firm iStudio to design an expansion of Van Ness Elementary School near Washington, D.C.’s Navy Yard neighborhood. The firm added a rooftop curriculum garden next to a canopy-covered classroom, said Rick Schneider, a principal at iStudio Architects.

Children who are exposed to gardens and outdoor learning spaces gain confidence and learn to appreciate their own homes and neighborhoods, Schneider said.

“Our designs provide an immediate benefit to the students, but they also benefit future students and they serve the community as well,” Schneider told CoStar News.

Schools as well as malls and other retail centers have both beefed up security amid the rise in mass shootings. At least 39 shooting incidents have taken place at retail locations since 1966, the most of any property type, according to the Violence Prevention Project Research Center.

There have been at least 16 mass shootings that resulted in deaths at K-12 schools in that time. One of the worst recent incidents happened at a public elementary school last year in Uvalde, Texas, about a 90-minute drive west of San Antonio.

The Uvalde school district is planning to demolish the school where an 18-year-old former student entered the building and fatally shot 19 students and two teachers. The local district hired Fort Worth, Texas-based architecture firm Huckabee to design a new $51 million elementary school that is expected to break ground this year and include nine-foot-tall gates, keyless entry points, a secure waiting space at the front of the campus and motion detectors, all types of security increasingly deployed in offices, too.

While improved security is essential, architects must walk a fine line when creating the designs, said Leslie Ellsworth, an architect at Studio Sogo who has designed facilities for private schools in Atlanta. Ellsworth is not involved with the Uvalde project. 

“You can put huge fences around a school, but you don’t want it to look and feel like a prison,” Ellsworth told CoStar News. “You want it to be welcoming.”

Commercial real estate landlords also hire security consultants to perform similar tasks for their properties and to provide software and security equipment. Companies like Allegion and Securitas Technology provide access control, video surveillance, intrusion detection and remote access management products to both office landlords and schools

Extensive landscaping and plantings provide a visual and mental barrier between a roadway or sidewalk and a school building, she said. Designing hallways that meander through a building instead of proceeding in a straight line also improves security because it prevents shooters from having a clear line of sight. The same security principles can also be applied at offices.

The architecture firm Huckabee was hired to design a new $51 million elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, the site of a mass shooting in 2022. Enhanced security features such as surveillance cameras and access control are used at both schools and offices. (Huckabee)

Ellsworth stressed that “first and foremost, there is not one single thing that can stop an intruder.” But when Studio Sogo designs a school, the firm hires an outside security consultant to go through the design and “poke holes in it and find any areas that be configured in a better way,” she said. Studio Sogo does work for both educational and commercial clients, as well as those who focus on residences.

Private companies and nonprofit organizations should provide a range of different office layouts to meet the various ways people work in the post-pandemic world, said James Woolum, an interior designer at ZGF Architects in Los Angeles.

“There are probably a million and one reasons why people want to come back to the office and it’s hard to meet all of those,” Woolum told CoStar News. “So we want to give people a range of experiences.”

Schools have the same challenge, said Rebecca Baibak, a principal at architecture firm Integrus in Seattle who designs schools. Public schools are required by law to serve all children, regardless of disabilities or learning styles, and architects are designing buildings to help educators address that requirement and improve security as mass shootings increase.

“A lot of people are uncomfortable in large, open spaces,” Baibak told CoStar News. “Some people need quieter spaces and some people need movement around them.”

While some design concepts apply to both offices and schools, architects need to remember that children have much different needs than adults, DLR’s Van Leeuwen said.

The design goal for schools shouldn’t just be about having the most efficient and profitable place to work, which is typically the goal of office spaces, Van Leeuwen said. Schools should have vivid colors to reflect children’s imagination and to inspire and energize young minds. The same is true in recently renovated offices, such as the bright colors used in architecture firm Clockwork’s design for TreviPay in Overland Park, Kansas.

That’s why DLR’s Storm Lake Elementary design includes “soaring ceilings, abundant natural light, connection to outdoors and spirited murals,” according to DLR.

“We think a building’s shape and its materials can really inform that,” Van Leeuwen said.

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