Q&A With James Biehle

James Biehle is president of Inside/Out Architecture in Kirkwood, MO, which specializes in the planning and design of school science facilities. He is the 1999 chair of the AIA Committee on Architecture for Education, and is a regular speaker at the National Science Teachers Association national convention.

The NSTA recently published NSTA Guide to School Science Facilities which Biehle co-authored with LaMoine Motz and Sandra West. He also wrote the facilities planning portions of NSTA Pathways to the Science Standards.

Biehle has been responsible for the planning, design and/or construction of educational facilities in the United States and the Middle East totaling over $10 billion. Eric Butterfield interviewed him for the November/December 1999 issue of School Construction News.

You recommend that the science program be coordinated with the math program. How might that affect design?

Certainly anything in science has a lot to do with mathematics, and mathematics is the basis of science. It seems to me that a logical adjacency between the science department and math department is appropriate. I’ve seen a school that was designed – it was a big high school in Utah, I believe – as a kind of house school, and they tried to break the big high school down into smaller pieces. What they did was create a house for maybe 500 kids with a math section, a science section, a history section and so forth, all in that same area. Then they added a math/science/technology house with lots of science labs, math and computer spaces, all immediately adjacent to a large, open space that they could use for functions of any one of these departments.

The math spaces, which are basically just classrooms, should be near the science labs, which are obviously more specifically designed for science.

What is the most important thing that a school district does in trying to assess which architect is best for their district?

If you go solely on the basis of all the schools that a particular architectural firm has done, then you don’t know whether that particular architectural firm has designed good new science facilities or whether personalitywise they can work with the people in the school district. There are a number of almost equally valid issues that he school district ought to look at.

When they’re doing a science facility, obviously, they want to be looking at someone with experience with recent science facilities because so many science facilities built right now are just copies of designs that came out in the 30s and 40s and 50s – they aren’t really responding to the changes in the way science is taught.

A lot of schools are similar, but no two schools are exactly alike in terms of their requirements. No two schools even within a school district teach science exactly alike. If the architect is willing to work with the school and say, “I want to find out what’s specific to your needs as a school,” then that’s probably as important as anything.

How important is it that planning funds are available early so that the design phase can in essence parallel the financing process?

The problem with not having the funds available is that the school district – and this happens a lot – tries to talk the architect into providing free services with the carrot at the end of the stick that says “If we pass a bond issue and build this school, you’ll be our architect.”

Some architects are willing to take that risk and provide full professional services for them. But I’m not sure that they can insure those services under their professional liability insurance, and they run the risk that if the bond issue doesn’t pass, they don;t get paid. I’m a strong believer that architects provide a professional service much the way lawyers and doctors do, and we ought to get paid for that service when we perform the service. We’re not in the position of an ambulance-chasing lawyer who goes on a contingency fee basis and has the ability to control whether or not he’s successful in a lawsuit. An architect who operates on a contingency fee basis with a school district really has no control over whether the bond issue gets passed. He’s taking a big risk there, and I think that’s a mistake.

I also think that you get what you pay for. It’s real important that the school district have some planning money, because otherwise, how can they really be sure that what they budgeted for design and construction is adequate? They don’t have to spend a lot of money up front for that kind of information, by comparison to what they’d spend on an entire architectural fee.

What is most important in K-5 facility designs so they’re flexible and multiuse yet still viable for science projects?

Kids of that age are small. You have to design a space for the small kids. And there actually tends to be a break in size. If I had my options, I would design a K-2 facility, then a grades 3-5 facility, just because of the size of the kids.

Elementary Science Classroom

Elementary Science Classroom

You need flat tables, you need countertops around the room with sinks. But you don’t need the number of sinks that you would need in a chem lab, for example. The kinds of hands-on activities that kids do at the K-5 level are pretty basic. I know a lot of teachers who keep their stuff for those levels in shoe boxes

One school that I’m working with, when they went to computers in their library, the science teacher grabbed the card catalogs because the drawers were ideal for the kinds of

Recycled Card Catalog for Science Storage

Recycled Card Catalog for Science Storage

stuff she was using for K-5. Also, classes tend to be smaller at the elementary level.

For middle school and high school, do the materials for work surfaces change?

Particularly when you get up to high school, the work surfaces need to be resistant to chemicals and vandalism. We usually specify an epoxy resin material for countertops and tables once we get to the high school level. I like to specify that at the middle school level as well because the kids tend to be big and

Large Epoxy Resin Sink and Countertop

Large Epoxy Resin Sink and Countertop

they tend to look for ways to amuse themselves which might not necessarily be productive. And if you had a Formica countertop, it might not stand up as well as the resin tops.

Formica or something similar to that, a plastic laminate, will work well certainly for K through 5 and, depending on the kinds of activities the teacher would do, might work for grades 6 and 7.

Physics teachers would sometimes rather have a wooden countertop and table, in which case butcher block works pretty well. But that’s a personal preference among teachers, I think.

As far as middle schools and the house concept, how do you help save cost when using that configuration, since the science facilities are spread out and you’re replicating the water and those types of things?

Well, that’s more critical at the high school level than it is in the middle school level because in the middle school classroom, four sinks in a room would be a lot. You need more power these days for computers and the new kinds of hot plates, although those don’t draw a whole lot of power any more either. So it’s not as big a deal having middle school science rooms separated in a house concept as it would be at the high school level, where both the chemistry facility and biology facility are going to need a lot of sinks. They’re going to need gas, and in those instances you cluster the science in the middle of the school and cluster the houses around them. And you can do that in a middle school also, but it’s not as critical.

You mentioned power requirements. How have power requirements changed with computers in the classrooms and, in particular, flexible spaces where you have computers on wheels?

The older classrooms that were built back in the 50s had maybe one duplex electrical receptacle per wall. In some instances I’ve seen one per classroom. Obviously, that doesn’t work very well.

To retrofit these areas, a number of schools ran wiremold around the perimeter, but they didn’t provide any additional circuit breakers. If you’ve got 20 or 30 outlets around the room and you plug in 20 or 30 computers and turn them all on, the fuse blows. So if you’re designing a new school, you obviously need to design for today’s power requirements. And if you’re renovating an older facility, you need to look at the power that’s available and provide more circuits.

That has changed so rapidly in the last few years that anything I tell you today will probably be outdated by the time you print it. When we started writing the book ”NSTA Guide to School Science Facilities” we thought that the smart thing was to put computers on carts and let them roll around the room so we could dock them at the perimeter walls when they weren’t needed specifically for a lab activity, and the kids could plug into the Internet at the perimeter. We figured that the maximum number of computers we ought to have on one 20-amp circuit was three. Well, the power requirements have gone way down, particularly for laptops. And an awful lot of school science programs are going to laptop computers now.

We used to figure that we ought to allow 15 square feet in the classroom for a computer and cart and a kid sitting down in a chair at the computer. Now, with schools going to laptops, you can throw out that extra space requirement because the laptop doesn’t take up any more space than a three-ring binder does on the countertop.

Now, how do you get power around the room? At the perimeter, we’re using, not to drop names, but a manufacturer called Wiremold that makes a raceway system that we run around the perimeter of the room above the backsplash of the countertop. Usually, we’re running three cells: one for power, one for data wiring and one for cable TV. You can plug in a TV camera, like a flexcam, anywhere in the room and display the image in a projection screen using a video data projector.

With all these new media in there, the lighting requirements have changed substantially as well, haven’t they?

Yeah, that’s another evolving issue. Through trial and error we’ve discovered that probably the best overall classroom lighting is a parabolic fixture. We’ve discovered that the indirects, which everybody seems to like for classroom use, don’t work very well when you’re using an LCD or video data projector because the projection screens are designed to pick up and magnify light that falls on them. With an indirect light fixture, light bounces around the room so the screens pick up all the light that’s bouncing off the walls and ceiling and so forth, and it washes out the projector image.

So we’ve been staying with recessed parabolic light fixtures. We tend to go with a three-tube fixture that you can switch so that one, two or three tubes are on at one time, which allows you dimming capability throughout the room. When we tried to do the same kind of switching with indirects, about all we could turn on without washing out the image on the screen is one tube in the very last row of lights away from the projection screen.

The different configurations for science labs give you a variety of choices for placing the teacher’s space. Could you explain what those are and what configurations may work better?

The teaching of science is going away from the “sage on the stage” approach

A flexible science lab/classroom

A flexible science lab/classroom

where the teacher stands at the front of the room and lectures, and the kids sit in rows and take notes. More and more time in the science program is spent working on investigations which the kids do either by themselves or in groups of two or four, and the teacher acts more as a facilitator than as the former guru standing in front of the classroom. There’s still some lecture that takes place and we usually have a wall in the lab classroom area that has the projection screen and the marker board and so forth that is considered the front of the room.

I steer people away from the old concept of a fixed demonstration table that has gas and water, where the teacher pours some chemical into another chemical and you get a big puff of smoke and everyone says “ohh” and “aah.”

We’re building demonstration tables that don’t have any utilities in them. They are basically cabinets with a countertop on wheels that teachers can roll around the room and use anywhere they want in the space. And if they need to do demonstrations with utilities, they can just go to one of the student lab stations and do the demonstration there.

In our concept of a flexible science lab, you’ve got an area for lecture and an area for the lab time, and both of them are as flexible as they can possibly be. Some teachers like to arrange the tables for the lecture area into an oval and have more of a Socratic dialog kind of teaching experience where the kids can quiz each other and help each other.

I think science is moving toward extreme flexibility, the idea that you don’t nail anything down to the floor and insist that it have in it gas and electric, water and a sink – at least not out in the middle of the space. That’s kind of hard not to do in chemistry labs, but in biology, physics and general sciences and so forth, you can avoid it.

I find that the science case work manufacturers – and I’m on extremely good terms with several of them – tend to like to sell the units that are fixed to the floor.

What kinds of materials have aided this flexibility?

One table that several teachers have spoken about recently, and it’s not a new one, but it’s shaped like a trapezoid. That works nicely because if you put two of them together, you have a hexagonal table if you put them together on the long dimension of the trapezoid. If you put them together where the diagonals fit, you can make a long string of them as long as you want. That has some interesting potential, I think, in giving students project space which they can move around into something that might be more of a lecture format.

I still think a rectangular table is probably as effective as anything else. You can use it for just about anything. It doesn’t have the limitations that may be built into something that’s a different shape.

Is there a particular area in high school design, such as computer stations, that has changed a lot in the last few years?

I think what’s happened a lot in high school science is there is less and less of what used to be considered hazardous chemicals. Chemistry has, to a large extent, gone to something called microchemistry where the quantities of materials in use are quite small. So when you store an acid or something that might be flammable, you’re storing significantly smaller quantities of it.

In biology, the old frog in formaldehyde comes vacuum-packed in a water-based solution so you don’t have the formaldehyde problems anymore. At the same time, there are being developed new computer simulations that allow students, if they’re queasy about dissecting an animal or if their religion says not to do it, they can do it virtually on a computer. If you’re going to do that, you need a computer that has a fairly large screen, so maybe we ought to have some computers that aren’t laptops with a 21-inch monitor. Then you need to design a space for those functions. Or maybe they don’t need to be in the science lab at all, but in a computer lab somewhere else.

This article originally appeared in the November/December 1999 issue of School Construction News.

This Post Has One Comment

  1. Gorman KW Wong

    Hi James

    I am currently following up on a secondary school project where I was in charge of the water services design. It seems that the previous designer has included hot water for all the lab sinks. Is this a common practice? Appreciate if you can help to advice?

    Regards & Thanks

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