Natural connection: As educational facilities seek upgrades, architects increasingly tie schools to outdoor elements

Biophilic design. It’s one of the terms Thomas Wighard tosses around that you might not have learned in school (unless, like him, you happened to study to be an engineer and architect).

But, it’s more than industry jargon. That design philosophy, which endeavors to connect buildings with the nature surrounding them, is regularly today being incorporated in some of New Jersey’s most formative facilities: namely, schools.

Led by New Jersey’s architects and their many different schools of thought, the state’s aging K-12 educational facilities continue to undergo some of the most innovative overhauls of any buildings in the state.

Thomas Wighard.

Wighard, president at LAN Associates, said that — more than might be expected — architecture trends are rapidly changing in the education sector. He adds that, predictably, a lot of that has been spurred on by COVID-19.

One of the more recent examples that comes to mind for him is his firm’s involvement on the ground-up development of Ross Street Elementary School in Woodbridge. A central feature of that three-story, 87,000-square-foot project was an adaptable outdoor courtyard.

“It was a large center atrium that just hasn’t been seen in K-12 schools; it’s more of a higher education feature,” Wighard said. “But, more schools are leaning toward wanting these outdoor, flexible learning spaces with lots of natural daylight.”

His Midland Park-based architecture and engineering firm has been apprised of at least a dozen local school districts interested in incorporating similar features, sometimes reusing older structures or unused spaces at a school to connect hallways and cafeterias to outdoor extensions that can be adapted as learning areas.

The concept is closely tied to a trend toward more wellness-focused spaces in the way projects are designed, Wighard said. His firm is working on more straightforward wellness centers at schools as well, such as at public schools in Bergen County’s Ho-ho-Kus.

“The other area that’s really at the forefront due to COVID, and it’s maybe not quite as attractive or exciting, is updates of HVAC systems at schools,” Wighard said. “A lot of schools want to bring in more ventilation, sometimes with projects fueled by federal or state grant money. Although, hopefully, we don’t want to deal with it again, schools want to get ready for viral outbreaks.”

For LAN Associates, architectural and engineering work in the education sector represents about 60% of its portfolio. As an increasing number of school districts look to keep up with the most recent design trends, Wighard said there’s a steady pipeline of K-12 work in the state.

“This is a focus we picked up years ago, and we haven’t looked back,” he said. “It’s a major cornerstone for us. It’s an interesting world. And it continues to evolve.”

Bringing lighting in

There’s an exact number associated with how far developer Douglas Adams wants you to be from the nearest natural light source in an office: No more than 40 feet.

There’s no need to bust out the tape measure. As Adams himself alludes to, there are studies that show that how good you feel can be a gauge of whether the natural light in a workplace is adequate.

Douglas Adams. (Photos courtesy Streetworks Development)

Cornell University many years ago showed workers exposed to natural light had an 84% drop in headaches and other health issues. The Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine more recently published findings that a lack of natural light in the workplace severely affects sleep quality.

“It’s not to say you won’t ever have to go to the doctor if you’re no more than 35 to 40 feet away from a natural light source at work,” Adams said. “But, people exposed to natural light feel better and are more productive. And the studies back that up.”

Adams, who serves as a senior vice president of development at Streetworks Development, said following certain rules around natural lighting — often achieved architecturally by punching out a lot more windows around a building and adding skylights — is one way to account for the new realities in office space development.

“As there’s been this change to the way people are working today, workers have to feel like they’re in a really good place to work and that they like the way they feel there,” he said. “It should be less about deciding how many days an employee has to return to the office than ensuring they enjoy that space and want to come in more often.”

One Westfield Place in Westfield.

Streetworks Development, which operates as the real estate development arm of HBC, has been converting buildings formerly occupied by Lord & Taylor into flexible workplaces with other commercial and residential offerings as well. It’s doing that at One Westfield Place in Westfield and 50 E. Ridgewood Ave. in Paramus.

The former department store sites offer high ceilings and a lot of potential to add more of that natural lighting Adams speaks so highly of.

“These sort of conversions, we’re bullish on it. … And I think you’re going to see more and more of this,” he said. “This trend is broadly applicable across our portfolio, not just in New Jersey, but in the Northeast and beyond.”