HMFH Architects

The Shape of Learning

Winston Churchill once said, “we shape our buildings and afterwards our buildings shape us,” and recent research has proven just how true that statement is—and how much a building’s design impacts us as individuals. Our brains are highly tuned to the relationships of the buildings we look at and the spaces we inhabit, and that in turn can shape how we learn.

Colin Ellard, a University of Waterloo professor who identifies as a “psychogeographer,” measured people’s physiological response as they viewed different buildings and found that simple and monotonous facades are a turn-off and can be disturbing.

People respond positively to complex and interesting buildings and environments that provide an understandable variety, and the responses are strong.

So, what does this have to do with school architecture? A lot.

We know that learning improves with social and emotional engagement. We know that stress caused by crowding, confusion, disorientation, or lack of comfort can diminish a student’s ability to learn.We know that students do best when they’re engaged with their teachers and with the subject matter. And we know that students engage best when they feel safe, comfortable and welcome. Over the years we’ve learned to address these environmental responses into our design process for learning environments.

50 years ago, when we designed our first new high school, we understood that architecture provokes an emotional response, but we didn’t know what we now do about how the brain responds to buildings and how that response impacts learning. Our design of Charlestown High School is an early example of the “school within a school” concept of flexible and smaller learning communities to foster engagement and ownership, based on some innovative thinking within the Boston School Department.

But the client was focused on “hardening” the building’s exterior as a response to neighborhood violence and vandalism at that time, which presented a design challenge to make the building welcoming in spite of its solidity and windowless ground level.

On the interior, the colorful graphics, surprising amount of daylight, and interesting views out to the harbor contribute to students’ feeling of comfort and familiarity in the large, five-level school.

Today when we design a school, our priorities have shifted and we want our buildings to show their students, even before they get inside, that they are in a safe, familiar and welcoming place where they can explore, take risks and learn.

At the Woodland Elementary School, in Milford, Mass., every classroom has a bay window and each one is designed or colored differently. We combined the bays in various ways to create both interesting patterns on the façade and inviting alcoves in the classrooms.  And if you look closely, the windows appear to fold back, much like an opening book.

Project Manager Matt LaRue explains how the exterior color and variation helps to orient the students in the large school.

The slice of color keeps little kids from feeling lost. They’re able to look up at the facade and find their classroom. You recognize the yellow bay, see where your classroom is, and feel a sense of orientation and engagement with the school.

In Winthrop, Massachusetts, our design of a new middle/high school acts as a showcase for student achievement and community pride. At each of the school’s entrances, important program pieces pop out of the building volume, both to draw attention to the entrance and to highlight programs important to the community such as the fine and performing arts.


As we design today and look to the future, we see schools physically expressing their purpose: as welcoming institutions of knowledge and community.