Question: How is designing an educational facility now different than it was five years ago? Which changes are continuing to develop as time goes on?
Aaron: Education has changed its focus from teaching to learning, whereby the emphasis is less on lectures and more on group activities and hands-on project work. Therefore, design of the physical environment needs to encourage interaction among and between students and faculty.
Question: As a firm, Perkins Eastman breaks away from formulaic solutions, yet the education system in the United States follows a standardized approach. Does this have any effect the design process?
Aaron: It is true that it is somewhat harder to affect massive change in some of the larger public systems, and private schools are sometimes more receptive. However, change is happening. Fortunately, in this building type the users are educated people who have dedicated their careers to learning. By engaging them in the process, change is facilitated. Our design process entails including the educators.
Question: When an education project is complete, whom do you get feedback from: the students, the faculty, or the people who commissioned the work?
Aaron: We try to get feedback from various viewpoints. The students are relatively transient, and their views represent the very important aspect of those that are being served in these buildings. These students have choices in where they go to be educated, so that the physical environment needs to attract them and retain them. The faculty is the group that will use the building over several years. Their perspective very much helps us in understanding how the buildings can best facilitate their jobs to serve the needs of the students. The commissioning agents help us from a technical perspective and we learn lessons about technical operations. They share with us information and metrics of other facilities and other building types. So, all these views need to be taken into account and learned from.
Question: What kinds of things are you hearing and how do you incorporate it into future projects?
Aaron: We have come to understand that the places students learn in these buildings are not only the formal classrooms. In fact, just as much if not more learning happens in the interactions that occur outside the classroom. Therefore, we spend as much time designing the hallways, stairways, lounge areas, and food areas as we do the structured teaching environments.
Question: A core principle at Perkins Eastman is that sustainable design is also smart design. Is this a given in the industry today, or does the concept sometimes take convincing?
Aaron: It does not take convincing. Designing buildings that work well to sustain, and hopefully improve, our environment is our responsibility as architects. Taking basic steps in environmental sensitivity does not cost more. Focusing on environmental stewardship is a good change for our industry, however perhaps our overemphasis of using it as a marketing advantage has also scared many to think it is inherently more expensive. We need to point out to our clients how easy it is to do the right thing, and it doesn't always require expensive bells and whistles.
Question: How can we enhance the human experience in schools?
Aaron: Pay attention to the details. The physical environment should reinforce the learning methodology as well as be a learning tool in itself. Like any successful architecture, school design needs to offer a variety of spatial proportions and use of light, direct and indirect. Schools are occupied by a diverse user group and therefore need to also reflect that diversity. Schools need to be welcoming safe havens that also provoke investigation and learning.
Question: Tell us something unusual about yourself.
Aaron: I have practiced architecture in the design of education environments for approximately thirty years, all from New York City. Two months ago, I relocated to Mumbai. Here in India, there is a cultural emphasis and passion for education. It also has a huge need for an improvement and expansion of its educational infrastructure. I am looking forward to being a contributing part of that evolution.