School Architecture and Wellness:
7 Steps to Improve Student Health

What is the relationship between school architecture and student wellness? We know health and environment are tied closely together, but what architectural elements shape students’ physical and mental wellness? Can the educational built environment influence student fitness, disposition, productivity, alertness, attention span, and energy levels?    

As the COVID-19 pandemic temporarily forced us out of shared spaces, we saw a renewed and increased public interest in reexamining the built environment with an eye towards wellness initiatives. This is especially true in schools, where COVID-19 precautions have changed the entire student experience. The good news is the study and practice of wellness related solutions in architectural and engineering is not new. Industry professionals have been examining how architecture impacts physical heath, mental health, and general wellness for decades.

What Is Wellness and Why Is It Important for Architects & Engineers to Consider Student Wellness Initiatives?

As defined by the World Health Organization “wellness is a state of complete physical, mental and social wellbeing, not just the absence of disease.”  Wellness initiatives promote this goal through the daily practice of healthy habits that lead to better physical and mental health outcomes.

Physical Health

According to a recent CDC report only about a quarter of adults in the US get the recommended amount of physical activity. It’s not just adults who are at risk; nearly 20 percent of children suffer from childhood obesity. COVID-19 has only exacerbated the situations, with studies showing that virtual learning is linked to a decrease in physical activity and deteriorating emotional health.

Mental Health

About 19 percent of adult Americans will experience some sort of mental health issue in 2021. These numbers were rising even before COVID-19 contributed to an alarming national increase in adults reporting symptoms of anxiety or depressive disorders. The numbers are rising in children as well, with the CDC estimating that about 1 in 5 children will experience a mental disorder each year. More current numbers on children’s mental health in America show ADHD was the most common diagnosis with a prevalence rate of about 9.4%. Anxiety and depression rates were also high, with diagnosed cases found at 7.1% and 3.2% respectively. These numbers are on the rise as well. The number of children ages 6-17 who have ever been diagnosed with ether depression or anxiety has grown from 5.4% in 2003 to 8% in 2007 and to 8.4% in 2011–2012. This was all before the COVID-19 pandemic had a detrimental impact on student wellness.

How Can School Architecture & Engineering Contribute to Student Wellness? Seven Steps Schools Should Consider:

1. Educational Design that Promotes Physical Activity Always Promotes Wellness

Physical activity is paramount in promoting wellness. This is as much about mental health as it is physical. There is a known cause and effect between physical activity and the release of endorphins, the chemicals produced by the body to relieve stress and pain. Depending on the type of building, the most obvious solution to achieving increased wellness through school architecture would be adding amenities like exercise facilities, creating active corridors and sensory paths, and promoting the use of stairs by making them an engaging central element in a design.

Schools are, of course, certain to have athletic facilities, but not all gyms and fields are created equal. As an architecture firm that specializes in the educational market, LAN has seen the impact athletic facilities can have on student participation and commitment to athletics. Schools that have integrated engaging and fun exercise opportunities like yoga studios, rope courses, spin rooms, and rock-climbing walls into their facilities have seen a complete transformation of their curriculum. In turn, this has boosted student wellness through participation in athletics.

Schools are, of course, certain to have athletic facilities, but not all gyms and fields are created equal. As an architecture firm that specializes in the educational market, LAN has seen the impact athletic facilities can have on student participation and commitment to athletics. Schools that have integrated engaging and fun exercise opportunities like yoga studios, rope courses, spin rooms, and rock-climbing walls into their facilities have seen a complete transformation of their curriculum. In turn, this has boosted student wellness through participation in athletics.

Physical-Activity-and-Student-Health

2. A Connection to Nature is Imperative to Educational Architecture and Wellness

Buildings with an integrated connection to nature can have a positive impact on the wellness of inhabitants. Studies have shown that exposure to the natural environment can actually reduce levels of cortisol, the body’s main stress hormone.  Adding easy access to the outdoors and integrating nature into architectural designs help utilize this inherent calming effect. If you are building from the ground up, you might consider designing around a school courtyard and dedicated outdoor space. Inside, integrating biophilic design principles, creating exciting vistas toward exterior site amenities such as outdoor learning areas & landscape design features, and implementing natural finish materials and wall graphics in your architectural designs can help.

Play Video
Play Video

Buildings with an integrated connection to nature can have a positive impact on the wellness of inhabitants. Studies have shown that exposure to the natural environment can actually reduce levels of cortisol, the body’s main stress hormone.  Adding easy access to the outdoors and integrating nature into architectural designs help utilize this inherent calming effect. If you are building from the ground up, you might consider designing around a school courtyard and dedicated outdoor space. Inside, integrating biophilic design principles, creating exciting vistas toward exterior site amenities such as outdoor learning areas & landscape design features, and implementing natural finish materials and wall graphics in your architectural designs can help. 

3. School Architecture That Promotes Wellness Prioritizes Natural Light

The benefits of natural light are well documented and agreed upon, yet the average school actuality minimizes the use of natural light. Depending on the date of construction, there are several reasons for this, including weatherization being prioritized, lack of advancements in glazing technologies, poor building layout and orientation, and a general lack of understanding of the benefits of daylighting. We all know the physical benefits you get from sunlight such as vitamin D.  So, what are some of the lesser-known benefits of natural light and how does it impact students?

  • Increased exposure to natural light has been shown to improve sleep quality, increase physical activity, and produce higher quality of life ratings.
  • There is a direct correlation between the severity level of seasonal affective disorder and exposure to natural light.
  • A lack of natural light has consequences for mood, cognitive performance, and over-all wellness.
  • When studied in a school setting, it was found that natural light environments improve the motivation to learn.
  • When compared to low daylight environments, students in environments with high levels of natural light have been shown to actually learn faster.
  • Studies have even shown a correlation between bigger window size and a significant improvement in math and reading performance.
05 Ross Street School 11

Architects can promote the use of natural daylight in designs by incorporating daylight harvesting strategies. This includes locating break-out and gathering areas adjacent to large areas of glazing, and optimizing the building’s solar orientation by controlling the intake of daylight through solar shades, light shelves, and translucent wall assemblies.

4. Use Architecture to Promote Wellness by Making Support Services Accessible and Comfortable

To promote wellness in schools, support services should be destigmatized, easily accessible, and comfortable. The physical location of these services should not be tucked away in an administrative section of the building. These services should meet the students where they are. Depending on the age of students at the school, this could mean near learning resource centers or college guidance suites. This also has the added benefit of providing a well-lit comfortable, and relaxing waiting area for students.

5. Customizable and Personal Spaces Through Architecture to Promote Wellness

Think pods tablet

In order to reduce anxiety, it’s important children feel safe, secure, and relaxed. This is never truer than at school, which is like a home away from home for children.  Adults and children alike feel most relaxed when in control, so to promote wellness, it’s important to integrate architectural and interior design features that allow students to make spaces their own. Flexible furniture, break-out spaces, and zoned learning areas can all provide a sense of control that negates the feeling of rigidity recalled by days past where schools consisted of rows of wooden desks and utilitarian corridors yielding narrow expanses of monotone walls and poor artificial light. A sense of privacy and solitude can also be calming. Reading nooks, think pods, and sensory paths can all provide a private enclave for students to study that pulls them away from the hustle and bustle.  

6. For Wellness, Be Mindful of Colors Used

Architects who design a school should always keep student wellness as a priority. The use of colors in the building can have a positive or negative impact on the students’ mentality. Arousing hues such as red, orange, or yellow stimulate attentiveness, and the use of passive hues, such as green and blue may keep students calm. Colors can also have a functional purpose. LAN’s addition and renovations at James Monroe Elementary School included designating specific colors towards different grade levels. The use of yellow and orange were utilized for younger students, and hues of blues and greens were used for older students to provide wayfinding schemes within the building.  

student health colors

7. Ventilation, Airborne Illnesses, And the Covid-19 Factor

The introduction of COVID-19 has shifted the priority of proper ventilation systems in schools to a must have to promote student wellness. Windows that open can of course provide a solution in warm weather, but a proper heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) set up is now essential to the health of your students. To address that issue, our in-house engineering team has put together a separate guide on improving air quality to reduce the spread of COVID-19.  

COVID-19 concerns aside, proper ventilation is still of the utmost importance to student wellness. Certain gasses and dioxides in the air can have a detrimental effect on students’ physical and mental health. We must consider the effects on young children whose brains and lungs are still developing. Poor ventilation can lead to high carbon dioxide levels, and the buildup of volatile organic compounds from indoor air contaminants like cleaners and paints.

A New Standard in HVAC Design

Since the onset of the pandemic, LAN has changed our standard of HVAC design for all projects to include the most up-to-date recommendations from the CDC and ASHRAE, which include higher levels of filtration, air purification technology, and the ability to increase outside air when needed. None of these post-COVID design recommendations are code required (yet), but have been proven to minimize the spread of viruses in buildings.

A New Standard in HVAC Design

Since the onset of the pandemic, LAN has changed our standard of HVAC design for all projects to include the most up-to-date recommendations from the CDC and ASHRAE which include higher levels of filtration, air purification technology, and the ability to increase outside air when needed. None of these post-COVID design recommendations are code required (yet), but have been proven to minimize the spread of viruses in buildings.

How Can My School District Get Started?

Physical and mental health have a measurable impact on student performance. Through architectural design, school districts can promote physical activity and a holistic approach to student mental health and wellness. It’s within our reach to support students’ academic success by implementing impactful school design.

To get started, speak with your architect of record, or contact LAN Associates to speak with an architect who specializes in promoting student wellness through the built environment.

Start Promoting Student Wellness

Need Help With Something Else?

Subscribe To Our Blog