Designing a recreation center in Pakistan, at 12 years old, taught me an important lesson about the power of architecture.
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■_ The true power of architecture is its ability to transform how we think, feel, and behave.
■_ I first learned this as a 12-year-old, designing a recreation center in Pakistan.
■_ The experience taught me that design should always focus on solving real problems.
by Danish Kurani
When I was 12 years old, I learned the power of architecture firsthand.
The mosque I attended in Georgia held a competition for students: Design a work of architecture that could win the Aga Khan Award for Architecture, a prize for buildings that address societal needs in Muslim contexts.
My classmates jumped in. They designed hospitals, libraries, and cultural centers. I racked my brain. What would really make a difference for people? Then I remembered.
It was the summer before 3rd grade when I visited family in Pakistan. My first day there was an abrupt introduction to Karachi urban life. Cows roaming, trash everywhere, and kids playing in the streets.
My older cousin, Murad, and his friends—a crew of 10- and 11-year-olds—played cricket. A lot of cricket. Every day, they were in the streets with makeshift wickets and tennis balls. Cars and rickshaws dangerously whizzed by, narrowly avoiding them. It was chaos.
As I reflected on this, I knew what to design. Murad’s neighborhood needed a recreation center!
I grabbed a large sheet of 24×36” chart paper, a ruler, and my finest pencils. For the next three days, I would pop in my CD of Encyclopedia Encarta (these were pre-internet days, mind you) and research the local banyan tree species, draw cricket fields to scale, and create a place where Murad and his friends could play safely away from rogue rickshaws.
I lost the competition—to a hospital design for Uganda. I looked at my banyan trees and my community-centered cricket fields, and I was disappointed.
But this feeling and my ideas were not lost. I had realized that I could use architecture to make people’s lives better. The original drawing for the Karachi recreation center is still with me today, and it continues to serve as a reminder of the point of architecture.
How architecture affects your behavior, thoughts, and mood—at every moment
Architecture isn’t just a pretty backdrop to our lives. It’s an active participant that shapes who we become.
■_ Every day, our surroundings affect aspects of our moods, personality, and health.
■_ If we don’t recognize these effects, we’ll always be at the mercy of our spaces.
■_ Each of us holds the power to transform our environment to support well-being.
Libraries make you feel smarter. Gyms make you feel healthier. Airports make you feel nervous—or excited, depending on how long the security line is that day.
All of these experiences add up over time. And what happens? More than just shaping our mood, they shape who we become.
Whether or not we realize it, architecture is quietly changing each of our lives every day. It guides our thoughts, feelings, behaviors, and beliefs. It affects our health, and it changes what we pay attention to. For example:
Hospital patients in darker rooms have been shown to use more painkillers, report more stress, and have higher mortality rates.
This runs counter to how we typically think of physical space.
Normally, we see it as the backdrop to our lives—pretty scenery, but nothing more. But a mountain of research makes it clear: Life could be a whole lot better if we saw architecture’s transformative power for what it really is, and began designing the world to accommodate that power.
How architecture works
Everyone has a stake in bringing better design to the world because it affects every single one of us. At home, at work, and throughout daily life, how your surroundings are laid out can nudge you in one direction or another.
For example, you may have heard by now that grocery stores will stock high-margin foods on shelves closer to your eye level (and your children’s eye level), since people usually buy the first item they see. But did you know that grocery stores are also known to play music over the loudspeaker that is set to a tempo that matches your walking speed with a shopping cart? (Generally, it’s pretty uptempo.)
That’s just one example. The effects are everywhere.
Rooms with lower ceilings have been shown to make you more focused, while rooms with higher ceilings make you more creative. Open-plan offices cause employees to take more sick days. Schools with cleaner air see lower rates of asthma-related absenteeism. Patients disclose more information to their doctor when they feel a greater sense of privacy.
The list goes on.
While we don’t hold the power to change all of these spaces on our own, the good news is that once you realize the power architecture holds, you can start doing something about it.
How to take action
Unless you’re a designer, you probably have control over just a handful of spaces: the various rooms in your home, your work space, and maybe a trusting loved one’s home. In these cases, what’s important for creating an effective design is to start by looking within.
Ask yourself a simple question: What do I need from this space? Consider how you’ll use the space, and be specific about the details. Walk yourself through a typical day in that space, taking note of the problems you solve and the pain points you encounter. Also consider how you’d like to use the space, or how the space could nudge you toward the behaviors you want.
For instance, if you want to redesign your office, think about the kind of work you do in a typical day or week. Knowing what we know about ceiling height, is your office better suited to creative thinking or focused work? If it has a low ceiling, but you need to brainstorm now and then, try finding a roomier space for those tasks—or go for a walk during that time.
These kinds of changes may feel small, but they add up to a space that is perfectly designed to suit your needs. This is how architecture works to change your life.
Even in places where you don’t have as much agency, like your local supermarket, you can use your needs as the north star. You can notice how the market is designed around your best or worst interests. And instead of criss-crossing the aisles, you can feel assured you’re shopping more intentionally.
Action starts with awareness
Some places make us feel smarter or healthier, and some places make us miserable. But every place is exerting at least some influence on us. Architecture is the container for our experiences, and how we fill that container is how we shape our experiences, and therefore our lives.
You won’t always be able to redesign your local library or other public spaces, but awareness is the first step. As you start noticing when design is holding you back, you can start to lean in and take control when you see the opportunity.
The anthropologist David Graeber once said, “The ultimate, hidden truth of the world is that it is something that we make, and could just as easily make differently.”
He’s right. Each of us has a responsibility—to ourselves and others—to start recognize how architecture works on us, and make the world a better place. And the beautiful part is, we all have the power to do it.
How to select an architect—and get the school you’ve always dreamed of
Shopping for an architect to design your school requires a focus on two things: function and comprehensiveness.
■_ Most people searching for an architect are doing so for the first time.
■_ It can be daunting not knowing what to look for when selecting your architect.
■_ Focus on functional design and comprehensiveness above all else.
What was the last thing you bought? A cup of fresh coffee? A tank of gas? A new pair of shoes?
Chances are, it wasn’t something you bought for the first time—you had some idea of what to expect in the buying process. You knew if you were getting what you paid for. Each of us gets years of practice buying these everyday items.
But choosing an architect to design a school or campus is a rare event for most education leaders. Uncertainty is everywhere. How do you know who’s reputable? How do you compare architects? What does an architect even do? These are big questions for such a high-stakes decision.
The good news is, searching for the right architect doesn’t have to be stressful. Armed with some good first principles, you’ll be able to avoid the predatory architects who just want to dazzle you, and focus instead on the ones who can deliver an effective design that supports your students and learning model.
What the best architecture gives you
Here’s a misconception: The only job of our physical surroundings is looking pretty. In fact, a mountain of research (and likely your own experiences) have shown that spaces have a profound effect on our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors on a moment-by-moment basis.
For example, it’s no coincidence that cold, clinical hospital rooms make us anxious and uncomfortable, just as it’s no coincidence that places of worship are designed for us to feel connected to something larger than ourselves.
Architecture affects educational outcomes, too. In one study, students in classrooms with more natural light performed up to 25% better on tests of math and reading than students in darker or artificially lit rooms.
This means architecture is much more than the facade of the building. We define architecture as every component of a building interior and exterior and in its vicinity. It’s the lighting, the acoustics, the furniture, the colors, the layout, the air flow, the textures, the embedded technology, and much more.
Each of these elements either supports or detracts, in real-time, from the purpose of that space. Imagine trying to study in a pitch-black library while intercom static was blasting at full volume. Would you care how nice the stonework was outside?
Great educational architecture blends each separate element to create a fully functional space that guides students and faculty to support goals and needs. The trouble is, not every architect can give you those things.
That’s why, when you shop for an architect, you still need to…
Pick an architect who puts function over form
It’s not enough to find an architect who will “bundle” the various elements of a learning environment and call their offerings “white glove” or “full-service.” Bundles may deceive you.
Many architects you’ll come across are only there to give you input on the structure of your school. Or they’ll give you basic interior design advice. They’ll talk about the style and the aesthetics, and feed you lines about how the colors and textures “support your school’s brand.” Frankly, it’s nonsense.
Many of these designs are pulled straight from trends popularized on Instagram or Pinterest, with little thought given to if the space will be enjoyable to use or help you in any way. (Plus, tastes change. If you design based on today’s trends, will you still like the space 5 or 10 years from now?)
Instead, look for a space built around your needs. The first priority is solving real problems. To make sure your architect can do this, bring this list of questions with you to your next consultation. Pay close attention to how the architect answers each one:
How do you start your design process?
How do you involve stakeholders throughout the design process?
What’s your process for tailoring the design to our needs and learning model?
When you’re designing a space, what elements do you consider and how do you align them to our pedagogy?
In what ways have your past projects helped educators achieve the outcomes they wanted?
How do you know if one of your learning spaces is successful?
If the answers to these questions don’t feel satisfying—because they don’t make clear how your space will work for students and staff, and what specific elements are doing that work—you’ll know you haven’t found the right architect yet.
Get everything you need
So what kind of architect should you look for?
It’s simple. You want to find someone who 1) puts function over form and 2) applies that functional thinking across all the various architectural elements of a learning environment—the layout, air flow, acoustics, lighting, and so on—not just a handful.
Otherwise, you’ll end up with an incomplete space. It will either be fully designed, but only in terms of its visual appeal, or it will be functional but only in certain places. Ideally, you want each element to play some role in supporting students to achieve their goals.
When you’re comparing one designer to the next, and you look at price, consider if it’s truly apples to apples. Are both designers offering to design the total environment (including acoustics, graphics, furniture, lighting, etc.), or is one of the designers only tackling a portion and then you’ll be on your own to find other professionals to take care of those other parts of the space?
To shop for an architect wisely, consider all those details up front. That’s the expert who will design something for you that will support your students as they grow and develop, and ensure each school day moves your organization closer to where it wants to be.
The best learning environments have these 5 things in common
The best learning environments don’t just look pretty. They meet students’ and teachers’ needs and drive better outcomes.
■_ What a student learns is just as important as where the student learns.
■_ The best learning environments meet students’ needs in a variety of ways.
■_ They also support the school’s larger goals around achievement and opportunity.
by Danish Kurani
Think of the best learning environment you can imagine. What comes to mind? Is it colorful with sunlight streaming through the windows? Are the walls papered with student projects? Is it quiet, or is it a space humming with the chatter?
The answer is all of the above and none of the above. The best learning environment is not necessarily a colorful one. Or a bright one. Or one with lots of decoration. There is no single design that is ideal.
What makes a good learning environment depends entirely on what you want to achieve in that space, how you want teaching and learning to work, and what’s around that space. These considerations matter because humans are products of their environment.
For a typical student, time spent at school is second only to time spent at home. That translates to more than 15,000 hours from the day they enter kindergarten to the day they graduate high school. For more than 50 million K-12 students in the US, these hours are a critical part of their overall growth.
That’s why learning environments matter so much. When students are in better surroundings, they’re more likely to become better learners—and vice versa in poorer environments. For instance, classrooms with poor acoustics make students perform up to 20% worse on tests. Meanwhile, creativity jumps more than 25% when students learn under taller ceilings.
If you want your students to rise to the top, follow these five principles for creating a good learning environment.
1. Design for human beings
Everyone has a biological need to move, take breaks, have moments of quiet, and get enough natural light. Without these accommodations, our bodies and minds can’t function at their best.
But when you support students, faculty, and administrators with the fundamental things they need, they can do their best work together.
2. Meet students’ basic needs
Consider Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. You can’t reach self actualization unless the basics—air, food, shelter, water, sleep, clothing, etc.—are taken care of. Still, many schools struggle to fulfill those needs for students.
For example, asthma is a leading cause of absenteeism, responsible for more than 20 million missed school days in the US per year. One study showed that after installing an electromagnetic air cleaner in classrooms, absenteeism dropped from 8.3% to 3.7%. After the air purifier was removed, the rate jumped up to 7.9%.
If students aren’t breathing well, they aren’t learning well. The same goes for hunger, hydration, and cleanliness.
3. Support the school’s pedagogy
Every school has (or should have) a point of view in the form of a particular learning model and pedagogy. This could be project-based learning, inquiry-driven learning, Montessori, or something else.
Over time, you’ve likely adapted these models and added your own twist to them. Each model calls for teachers and students to behave and interact with others in a different way. Your learning environment should make it easy for them—encourage them, in fact—to do that.
4. Nudge people toward their goals
Do you want more intergenerational learning? Or to move students from being passive consumers to active creators? Whatever type of change you want to see, a good learning environment is designed to create it—that is, changing the students and teachers in positive ways.
For example, since learners are more creative when working under a high ceiling, you could create tall spaces to change how creatively students think. These changes are great because they are set-it-and-forget-it: You make them once and can trust they are quietly influencing you in the background.
5. Provide for diverse learners
Most of America’s learning environments were built in the 1950s and 60s, to turn baby boomers into factory workers. Back then, the education system didn’t care that people were different. They wanted everyone to be the same: a productive employee.
But, we know that people have different preferences and work and learn their best in different ways.
Ask yourself: Does my learning environment accommodate these differences so every student is comfortable and feels supported? Does my learning environment allow educators to personalize learning for students?
If your environment can meet these five criteria, each student—and teacher—stands the best shot at reaching their full potential.
Want to be smarter and more creative? Here’s how to design your space.
Smarter design makes for smarter people. You just need to know where to look—and learn—to improve creativity and boost intelligence.
■_ Good ideas don’t always need to strike like a bolt of lightning.
■_ Often, where you do your work can change the nature of your intelligence.
■_ Some places make you more focused, while others improve your creativity.
For as much as pop culture glorifies the geniuses with sky-high IQs and the latest billionaire innovator, it also tends to glorify the madness that comes with that level of intelligence and creativity.
But becoming the next Steve Jobs or Albert Einstein doesn’t have to mean hours of tortured solitude, waiting for inspiration to strike. In fact, all you may need to help improve your creativity and intelligence are a few changes to your environment.
A growing body of research has shown that certain elements of a room—things like ceiling height, the amount of natural light, and the sounds in the room—can all change your cognitive function, for better or worse.
Consider two studies on the effects of room design on learning.
The first study took place in 2006, at the University of Minnesota. Researchers separated people into two groups: one that solved a set of problems in a room with 8-foot ceilings, and another group that solved similar problems in a room with 10-foot ceilings. Their goal was to see how ceiling height affected the way people arrived at potential solutions.
The results were undeniable: People under 8-foot ceilings tended to focus more on details, while those under 10-foot ceilings used more lateral and abstract methods—in other words, more creativity. The phenomenon has come to be known as the “Cathedral Effect.”
The takeaway? If you want to focus on details, hunker down in a lower-slung room. But if you want to lift your thinking, lift your ceiling.
Study number two is a 2002 review of past research that looked at six categories of typical learning environments: indoor air quality, ventilation, and thermal comfort; lighting; acoustics; building age and quality; school size; and class size.
The review found the differences in light source to be key for boosting creativity and intelligence. For instance, at one California school, where educators decided to bring more daylight into their classrooms, students performed up to 20% better in math and 26% better in reading because of the change.
What do these two studies have in common? They show how your surroundings can make you think in radically different ways, even if you don’t change anything else about how you work or study. It’s an insight you can use to choose—and design—a given space to suit the work at hand.
Here’s an example.
A hypothetical scenario
Let’s say you’re chipping away on a big presentation for work or school. You’ve already outlined the first half of the presentation, and your goal today is to finish the first half and start outlining the second half.
What would be the best way to plan out your work?
One way would be to sit down at your computer, wherever it is, and just start hammering away at the document, hoping inspiration strikes at least once to propel you through your day.
Such a strategy may feel effective. You may pat yourself on the back for making it through a grueling day. But, as we’ve seen, not considering your working environment almost guarantees you won’t tap into the right kind of thinking.
Here’s one way that might leave you better off. Start the day by separating your work into creative thinking and focused thinking, and then arrange your surroundings accordingly.
For example, if you’ve outlined the first 10 slides out of 20, you might start the day in your basement, bedroom, or office. These spaces typically have lower ceilings and can promote focused thinking. (And don’t forget to let in plenty of light from the nearest window!)
After you’ve completed those slides, you still multiple blank slides left to outline. Here you might consider moving to the living room, or the front or back porch. These places typically have higher (or no) ceilings, which will help improve creativity. If you find the ambient outdoor noise distracting, try using headphones to listen to something more focusing, or head back indoors.
The goal in customizing your work environment isn’t to discount the value of hard work. But no matter how hard you work, you may struggle in a bad environment. If you want the best results, pick an environment that’s scientifically proven to support you.
Applying the wisdom
The beauty of smarter design is that it can help anyone. You can be an engineer, a graphic designer, an illustrator, an attorney, or many other things. Most professional roles these days require at least some combination of intellectual and creative thought. This means the design of your space and your productivity are always connected.
If you remember only one thing, it’s this: If you want to focus and concentrate, work in a space that feels more intimate and constrained. If you want to improve creativity, find a room with higher ceilings and personal space to think expansively. And remember to supplement those spaces with the right acoustics and natural light.
You are (and always will be) a product of your environment. So when it comes to who you want to be—and how you want to think—choose your environment wisely.