The Park Academy: Education Design Turned Inside Out

For an AIA Austin design competition held earlier this summer, I joined a few team members to take on the topic of what learning environments might look like in a post-pandemic world. How could the design of these spaces support in-person education and help address the need for reduced class sizes, social distancing, and enhanced cleanliness, as well as ensure the health, safety, and well-being of students and teachers?

This was an exploratory exercise to encourage out-of-the-box thinking. There were no worries about budget or schedule — not even the limitation of technology as it exists today. Faced with the potential for unbounded creativity, we began researching, brainstorming, sketching, and evaluating to come up with something we found inspirational and a little unexpected.

Learning Landscapes at the Park Academy

Our post-pandemic education experience — the Park Academy — was envisioned within a park setting to capitalize on the biophilic benefits and adaptability of the natural environment. Other key design considerations were enhancing hands-on learning and physical activity, as well as creating community connections.

The central hub of the Park Academy is a common area housing farm-to-table food service, a media library, and administrative offices. Adjacent to the common area is a large outdoor gathering space for sports and recreation, an amphitheater, and community garden. The flexible indoor/outdoor spaces accommodate speakers and presentations, large and small group functions, individual reflection, and STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art, and math) maker spaces.

From the community garden, paths lead to “learning pods,” which serve as adaptable, glass-walled classrooms. Seating is configured out toward the park areas with the goal of inspiring creativity, contemplation, and an awareness of place. Instead of hallways between classrooms, students and staff enjoy meandering pathways through greenery inviting exploration, learning opportunities, and a deeper connection to nature.

Our team envisioned the learning pods as flexible classrooms with sliding operable walls on each end. Built on a track system, the rooms slide together to form one large classroom or slide apart to form separate, smaller classrooms. When apart, the classrooms have a natural outdoor breezeway between them. The operable sides can open to promote airflow from natural ventilation or remain closed on days with inclement weather. Adding to the health aspects, interior spaces feature materials specified for their benefits to indoor air quality and their ability to be cleaned and disinfected easily.

Diagram 1: Learning pods configured together
Diagram 2: Learning pods configured apart

The topic of post-pandemic education was at the forefront of our minds as we anticipated what returning to school would look like, thus we saw an opportunity to re-imagine traditional program elements. Health and wellness, community, adaptability, and flexibility became driving forces for our design. There are tangible aspects of the Park Academy that promote this, such as cross-ventilation and modularity as well as a heightened emphasis on movement and nutrition. Perhaps the most influential factor is the notion of an inherent sense of well-being evoked through connections to nature and community.

Sarah Shearer
Design Professional

A community garden is directly accessible from the Park Academy’s Garden Market (cafeteria). Students and staff care for the community garden and chicken coop as part of an active, outdoor learning experience. Children learn about food production, caring for animals, and composting. The fresh food grown and harvested on-site would not only contribute to healthy meals for the students, but also would provide eggs and produce to be donated to local community organizations.

To ensure safety and security of the students and staff, the administrative offices are located on the top levels of the structures with views out across the Park Academy. Natural barriers help contribute to a secure perimeter as well as fencing designed to mirror the forms of the surrounding trees.

Math, science, art, and civics… these are all subjects in which the natural world can provide insight. This is one of the reasons why we set out to imagine an educational environment where what we learn about and where we learn are one and the same.

Dayton Rush
Landscape Architect

For us, this was an exercise in bringing the talents of different design disciplines together to address some of the issues we’re facing in the world today as it relates to one of the key spaces we occupy as a society. We wanted to develop a concept that focuses on well-being and all the positives that can be achieved when our minds are challenged with not being able to fall back on the status quo. How can learning environments further evolve for the better? We’ll keep thinking and designing on it!