gb&d: You worked on the TowerPinkster office in Grand Rapids, [Michigan], which achieved LEED Platinum certification. Since most of your experience is in academic structures, what was it like shifting from one to the other?
Matt Slagle: In reality, schools are ten types of buildings. They include classrooms, gyms, pools, corridors, cafeterias, stadiums, and auditoriums. It is like a puzzle with different pieces, where the mechanical systems, sightlines, lighting, and acoustics all have to work.
gb&d: What led you to education design?
Slagle: It was originally by happenstance. I did my graduate studies in Colorado, including work in a firm that had a lot of business in K-12 schools. When we moved back to Michigan, I knew I wanted to stay in school and higher [education] architecture.
gb&d: School districts are a complicated mix of stakeholders. How do you satisfy students, teachers, taxpayers, and elected officials?
Slagle: Every constituency has a different set of needs, so we take all of them into consideration. For students, it’s about learning and a social experience. Teachers want something that facilitates learning but also maintains order. I also find teachers are oriented to cost-efficiencies. Taxpayers are willing to invest in good schools if the money is well spent, which requires us to surround ourselves with and adopt their values. Elected officials and community leaders all want safety and security.
gb&d: One of your clients credited you for deftly managing the challenge of finding consensus among the different constituencies in their district. How did you do that?
Slagle: By being a good listener. Architects cannot go into a project with preconceived ideas. These are not Matt Slagle’s projects. They are what the school district wants and needs.
gb&d: But you still have to sell new ideas to people.
Slagle: True. One thing we do is benchmarking tours, when we take a bus full of stakeholders—the district superintendent, principals, coaches, band directors, anyone of influence—to visit other schools where something new and interesting was done.
gb&d: Schools are ultimately scored on how well they educate. How does design affect learning?
Slagle: The best book on the subject is The Language of School Design [by Prakash Nair and Randall Fielding, 2009]. Understand that learning is very different today compared to 100 years ago. We know that students in classrooms with sufficient daylighting learn 20 percent faster in math, so we can design with 3-D modeling to measure light penetration. Ventilation and fresh air are also a big deal.
gb&d: What about cash-strapped school districts?
Slagle: At least half of the projects we work on, since the economic downturn, have been renovations and additions. It depends on the variables in the buildings themselves and the districts.
gb&d: You are certified for “crime prevention through design,” which, of course, is a big concern right now. How do you accomplish that?
Slagle: It’s a layer of thought on everything. Most importantly, a school’s entry must be controlled. After the bell rings, the only public entry must be past staff members. We also ask, “Where would police go if there were a shooting?” We eliminate places for criminals to hide. Night lighting provides a great deterrence to mischief as well.
gb&d: How has your own experience as the father of a special-needs child informed your approach to education?
Slagle: My daughter in third grade has spina bifida. Cognitively, she’s at the top of her class. But she wears ankle braces, and that affects her mobility and makes it a challenge to get in and out of spaces. I think a lot about mobility independence.
gb&d: How will we design schools in the future?
Slagle: We don’t know. We can’t know. We have to create spaces today that are as flexible to change as possible.