Earlier this year I was honored to serve as a juror for the American Institute of Architects’ annual Education Facility Design Awards program, one of the top awards for the learning environment design community. Presented by the Committee on Architecture for Education, the awards put the spotlight on design excellence for educational, culture and recreational architecture around the country, providing recognition for designers doing great work.
For me, it was an opportunity to learn how our peers are evolving design with the student in mind—and to look at how our own work stacks up. A total of 130 projects were entered, representing a wide variety of programming, scale and ambition.
Reviewing the entries forced me—and the other jurors—to evaluate a broad array of work and ultimately award design excellence. A huge task! The AIACAE is different than some architecture awards in that it puts the spotlight on the connection between innovation and program, which is, after all, the foundation of any groundbreaking project. The goal is to evolve the conversation and elevate exemplary work that provides better places for students to learn.
When the right program tackles all the challenges with the right architecture, you know you have something fantastic. For me, innovation is defined by how the architecture solves real issues—how it manages the sun, how it addresses the program, how it advances what’s happening inside the building and affects people. The architecture is fundamentally trying to address how students and teachers can be more successful.
To me, the biggest element in the design is the story that’s going to come out of the school when we go back in and do a post-occupancy evaluation in five years. Are teachers teaching differently? What are the impacts from the university or district’s decision to take a chance and hire a really great architect to do something different? How does one client’s risk become the next client’s status quo?
As my fellow jurors and I discussed the issues, it became apparent that collectively we could see the successful exploration of five themes to achieve design excellence: connection, agility, process, engagement and sustainability. As we talked, these were the five recognizable themes that we kept returning to that, as a jury, were really important to us.
These five themes are critical to education today. Any architect needs to be sharing projects that incorporate these core ideas if they’re going to evolve and move beyond the current standards. Every jury will be different. For us, these elements determine if a project is truly innovative and excellent. As jurors, we were called upon to identify the work that provided the answers to tough questions. Were the goals of affordability and social impact achieved? Did the project address its context and meet client needs? Did the project incorporate sustainability and leading-edge energy reduction strategies? Was it innovative?
On one subject in particular, I was disappointed. Applicants were asked to provide the Energy Use Intensity (EUI) of their project. As a profession, we are all trying to understand the performance of our work through the EUI as a common metric. Clearly there is more work to do. There were some pretty wild interpretations of EUI in the entries, and more than one simply said EUI was “not applicable.” How is EUI not applicable? EUI needs to become as essential as discussing the square footage or cost per square foot, ensuring our clients understand the value that a lower EUI means to their operational expense. We need to do the analysis. We need to have the data. It is applicable; very applicable.
As an architect who has spent a large part of my career focused on K-12 design, I was also saddened there weren’t more contenders this year doing innovative work for this age group. This is such an exciting time to be working in education and we’re evolving a typology that is often viewed as more formulaic or even commoditized. Honoring projects that achieve excellence provides us all the opportunity to use them as evidence and change the existing standards to impact more students.
From my perspective, going through all the entries, I saw huge opportunity, more than anything. Designers are responding to a shift toward innovative programming throughout education, in K-12 and Higher Education. There is a broader approach to design, looking for new ways for faculty and students to connect and interact, creating those happenstance moments that make education special. Architects are working harder to examine how educators and students are using spaces, responding to changes and asking tough questions.
That’s why education is so exciting right now. People are having these conversations. Administrators are making decisions to create and build a great sense of connection and new learning opportunities, in terms of how they put together schools.
When I looked at all the AIA submissions, the ones that really stood out to me were the projects that were clearly executing their goals. That’s when you know you’ve achieved excellence. You’ve established a rigor to your own process, working toward what you’re setting out to do as a designer. When you can articulate that succinctly and beautifully, you have created something remarkable.
Wendy Rogers is the Chief Executive Officer and Chief Talent Officer for LPA.
This story originally appeared in the latest edition of Catalyst, a quarterly publication that takes a deep dive into the new ideas, industry leaders and cutting-edge initiatives changing lives by design.