Lessons in lighting K-12 and learning spaces

Aug. 11, 2023
Demands of the educational environment are changing, but thoughtful and innovative use of lighting and light art can create visual interest, pique curiosity, and contribute toward productive school days.

The use of lighting in schools is changing and for good reason. “Technology and life-style changes of younger generations have changed the way that learning environments have to function, opening up new design opportunities,” said Alexandra Barker, FAIA, principal of Barker Associates Architecture Office (BAAO), and assistant chairperson of the graduate architecture and urban design program at Pratt Institute. 

Schools today must help capture the increasingly fleeting attention span of students, encourage socialization, inspire curiosity, accommodate the demands of STEM and robotics curriculums, facilitate group learning and more. As classrooms are being created in ways that increase comfort and flexibility, and nurture new learning styles, more thought is also going into the design of the spaces outside the classroom—offering students more places to sit, meet, plan, and collaborate. Lighting is an important consideration in achieving these many, multi-faceted deliverables. The three projects profiled here provide excellent examples of how architects and lighting designers are approaching the new demands of the learning environment with the thoughtful and innovative use of luminaires and light art.

An animated ceiling plane

There is little at first sight of the City Kids Education Center in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn that reminds the visitor of the traditional “school” setting. The 11,000-sq.-ft. space is more like the lobby and public areas of a charming boutique hotel, with some residential touches. That was the intent of project architect Alexandra Barker, principal of BAAO.

City Kids Education Center offers students, ages 2-12, a smooth transition from home to a creative learning destination. Working with an advisory committee of parents, the need to introduce elements of the out-of-doors became the basis for the interior’s core design factor—a central double-height atrium courtyard. Barker brought the feeling of the sky inside by painting the roof-level atrium covering a rich sky-blue hue. Then she used luminaires in an inventive way to further animate the ceiling plane. From this surface, Barker suspended two dozen fixtures with white shades in a variety of organic shapes. During the day, they can represent clouds to the children. On days when it becomes dark in the late afternoon, they can appear as stars to add sparkle to the setting.

In other areas of the building, illumination is provided by circular ceiling fixtures with small, medium, and large dimensions, placed in a semi-random pattern throughout, imitating clouds. Rims are tinted the same color as the ceiling.

Curved niches in the walls accommodate single users or small groups. On the upper level, openings on the perimeter allow children to look down onto the activities in the atrium’s street level.

Constructed during the pandemic, Barker made some COVID-related tweaks to the design of this educational space. “The pandemic prompted some ventilation improvements in the form of electronic and ultraviolet light, HVAC filters, touchless security and check-in points, as well as the addition of operable windows to bring light and air to all classrooms,” she said.

Navigate a new school

Nestled amidst a patchwork of farm fields outside of Madison, Wis., the design of the new Waunakee Community School District Intermediate School expertly melds the agrarian culture of its students with a cutting-edge educational environment and next-level flexibility that will allow the building to repurpose and grow as the needs of the curriculum and community evolve. It did it so well, in fact, that the 156,000-sq. ft. facility has been the recipient of numerous awards, including the 2017 ASID Wisconsin Gold Award.

According to CEO Rich Tennessen of Eppstein Uhen Architects, the building and design decisions, including the lighting, were made to emulate the surrounding farms and agricultural setting. Repetitious patterns are found throughout the building, similar to the rows of crops found in the nearby fields. “Natural daylight and integrated ceiling light were important to give an organic feel to the linear space,” Tennessen said.

Just take a look at how the lighting was designed in the library. Linear luminaires provide the lion’s share of the overhead ambient illumination, but the orientation of the lighting fixtures is not uniform across the ceiling plane. Instead, some of the fixtures run perpendicular to the large window wall in the room, while others, installed on a dropped, dark-toned ceiling surface above the free-standing bookshelves, run parallel. Above the informal reading and conversation space adjacent to the window wall are ceiling-hung fixtures with filigree green shades that differentiate the space from its neighboring areas.

One of the ways the design of this school differs from the typical single classroom approach is its organization into villages. “It’s a large school, but there are small schools within the school. They’re called villages,” explains Chris Michaud, senior design architect, Eppstein Uhen Architects.

Randy Guttenberg, superintendent, Waunakee Community School District, agreed that LEDs should be used throughout the building for functional lighting and wayfinding, helping to guide students to these learning villages. The lighting also highlights collaboration spaces and other specialized areas as part of the wayfinding system.

Sustainability was another aspect of the design that was important to the community. Rooftop solar panels generate power, while high-performance glass minimizes heat gain and glare. Geothermal heating contributes to energy savings. Beyond these energy-savvy systems, the school has an online tool that tracks the energy footprint of the building and students and faculty are able to view it.

Tennessen is pleased with the student reception of the online tool that gauges the pace of the power being generated and used for the building’s mechanical and electrical functions, including the lighting. “They can see for themselves the amount of power being generated and become familiar with the efficiency of its operations,” he said.

Engaging young minds with light art

The Reby Cary Youth Library in Fort Worth, Texas, is an incredible space for kids to expand their minds and imaginations. This, of course, was no accident. When KAI Enterprises were selected to provide the architectural and interior design services for this project, they asked themselves how they could encourage curiosity, reading, creativity, and critical thinking with design.

The answer: full-height windows that flood the interior with an abundance of natural light; kid-height library stacks that are right-sized for pint-sized exploration, and colorful, upholstered seating large enough for families to read together. While each of these amenities is noteworthy, to admire the most prized feature in the space, one needs to look up to the interactive light art installation titled “Only Connect.”

Produced by award-winning artist Creative Machines, under the direction of Joseph O’Donnell, the Reby Cary Youth Library art installation “represents the vast network of neurons connecting the youth and neighbors of the surrounding community,” said O’Donnell. Measuring over 121 ft.-long and 35 ft.-wide, the work interweaves 20,000 glass spheres. “The internal structure is comprised of a series of welded hubs, interconnected by sweeping arcs of rolled stainless tubing,” said Creative Machines design engineer Brandon Toland. “Intricately wrapped stainless steel ‘lace’ covers the entirety of the sculpture, holding thousands of individually hand-placed glass spheres. Each globe glows from the LED behind it.”

Driving the network of LEDs is a sensor housed in a kiosk that responds to motion and color signals such as people waving their hands, or holding illustrations from children’s books, or the color of visitors’ clothing. There are hidden sensors placed throughout the library that also trigger special lighting sequences. Color Kinetics supplied the LEDs and other components.

“The process of learning and forming mental connections is more easily accomplished in an environment that is beautiful, immersive, and enveloping,” said O’Donnell.


This article appeared in the May 2022 issue of Architectural SSL magazine.


About the Author

Vilma Barr

Vilma Barr is a contributing editor to U.S. and international professional journals and trade periodicals published in the U.S. and internationally in the fields of lighting and the built environment. She has served as author, co-author, and editor of design and business books.

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