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Designing and Building Robust Innovative Learning Environments

Faculty of Education and Business Studies, University of Gävle, 80176 Gävle, Sweden
Author to whom correspondence should be addressed.
Buildings 2021, 11(8), 345;
Submission received: 10 June 2021 / Revised: 2 August 2021 / Accepted: 5 August 2021 / Published: 11 August 2021
(This article belongs to the Special Issue Learning Environment Design and Use)


Prior research shows that creating innovative learning spaces that work well for pupils and teachers is a challenge which implicates different stakeholders. The aim of this article is to inquire into how educational visions evolve and are expressed through the different phases of two school design processes as well as visualize how stakeholders’ roles in the processes result in innovative learning environments and practices that work well. The data consists of photographs from school visits, briefs, and interviews. The material is analyzed with a particular focus on educational vision, organization, and working methods. An analytical model showing the stakeholders’ levels of participation at each stage is revised and developed. The results indicate four common themes: Continuity (several stakeholders involved in more than one phase); Preparation (processes were long-term, continuous, and iterative, with future users testing and evaluating prototypes and other innovative interior design elements to be used in the new spaces); Alignment (early and extensive considerations of the school’s organization and working methods); and Participation (multi-professional teams with representation of a pedagogical perspective at the higher levels of participation). From this, it can be concluded that achieving robust, innovative learning environments involves stakeholders’ regard to the aspects of knowledge, education, organization, and economy.

1. Introduction

Across the globe, newly built schools are increasingly featuring non-traditional learning environments, where classrooms and corridors are replaced by more flexible, complex, and multi-use learning spaces. In order to create functional schools that serve their intended purposes and users, attention has been directed toward the involvement of different stakeholders in the design and building process. In a comparative case study, the design and building process is examined in two schools with innovative learning environments in order to further the understanding of how alignment can be created between the school building, its users, and its educational practices. The aim of this article is to visualize how and by which stakeholders pedagogical visions are generated, developed, translated, negotiated, and embedded into learning spaces. In addition, an analytical model is suggested for analysis of when and how stakeholders can be involved in the different phases of school design and building. The model can benefit those involved in the planning, designing, building, ownership, and use of school buildings by providing an improved understanding of the complexities of creating innovative learning environments that serve their intended purposes and users.

1.1. Innovative Learning Environments

In the learning environment research field, the notion of an innovative learning environment (ILE) has become a common way of describing schools and school spaces that in various ways break away from traditional configurations (i.e., those typically represented by a square classroom with desks in rows and the teacher at the front of the room, delivering a teacher-centered education). In contrast, innovative learning environments have been connected to student-centered and activity-based pedagogy [1], flexibility [2,3], multiple zones [4], open spaces [5,6], and new technologies [7,8]. Mahat et al. [9] defined ILEs as products of innovative design and innovative teaching and learning practices. The notion of innovation has to do with calls for change expressed, for example, by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), which stresses the need to prepare pupils for a new future requiring twenty-first century competences such as communication, creativity, and collaboration [10,11,12]. Although the ILE concept is also used to denote a combination of space, pedagogy, and organization, considerable attention has been given to physical learning environments as drivers for educational change [12,13,14]. It should be noted that the discourse on the need for new practices and spaces has been criticized, because change does not necessarily mean improvement, and there is, therefore, a risk of abandoning well-functioning arrangements for the sake of change [15].

1.2. Challenges of Alignment

Learning environments can be viewed holistically as ecosystems consisting of intertwined times, places, people, relationships, and activities and being connected to particular educational purposes [16,17,18,19]. However, they are only successful when they fulfill the purposes for which they are built. ILE design thus needs to connect to educational theory [1,20,21]. Gislason [22,23] described the notion of a good fit between what he called a school’s educational programs and the design of its learning spaces, and he stressed the importance of school design, see also [1,24] Teachers who are mainly responsible for aligning space and pedagogy often experience challenges in this respect [13,25,26]. Indeed, some building projects have failed to deliver such an alignment, which has led to expensive and time-consuming rebuilds [27,28,29].

1.3. Preparations for Sustainable Transitions to ILEs

Several studies highlight the challenges of organizing time, people, and space differently and call for adequate preparation in order to achieve sustainable change [6,20,30] when transitioning to teaching and learning in ILEs. Many studies have shown that successful transition processes take time for investment both in real time and over time, often lasting several years [14,31,32,33] and involving multiple stakeholders. They also stress the role of leadership in managing such changes using preparations [31,32,34]. For example, head teachers can introduce change gradually in the existing environment in a way that nudges teachers toward organizing their teaching and learning differently, establishing and communicating structures that help teachers to adopt new practices [26,31], and helping teachers to manage perceptions of risk [35].
Creating and promoting a shared vision in a school is a long-term process [33]. The same goes for building relationships and culture among teachers that sustain the vision and translate it into everyday practice [31]. Moreover, teacher support for creating alignments is necessary for successful transitions to ILEs [36]. Teachers need time and support to prototype and experiment with new spatial arrangements and to understand the new plans [25,26,37]. The learning space design process may also include an activation phase led by the designer for translating the designed intentions for the spaces into action [38,39].
Financial robustness is an important aspect addressed, for example, by Leiringer and Cardellino [3]. School designs that cannot accommodate an increase of the pupil-to-teacher ratio due to classroom size may result in a financial loss. They also point to large and noisy spaces that cannot be used in the way they were intended, e.g., [40].

1.4. Participatory School Design

One way of enhancing the fit or alignment between learning spaces and educational practices is to use a participatory design process [41,42,43,44] in which teachers and pupils are included as important stakeholders [20,28,44,45,46,47]. Although in larger schemes their participation is often lacking [48], in participatory design processes, the extent to which stakeholders have influence and the phases during which participation occurs vary.
In a research project on the UK Building Schools for the Future program, analysis by Daniels, Tse, Stables, and Cox [28] of the accounts of multiple stakeholders highlighted the challenges of multi-agency work and the importance of continuity throughout the process for translating visions into buildings [49]. Tse, Learoyd-Smith, Stables, and Daniels [50] stated the following: “Maintaining continuity between different design stages and different stakeholders and preserving leadership is essential to delivering the educational vision of the project throughout the design and construction of a school” (p. 79). They argue that different professional groups have different knowledge and motives and that tensions and trade-offs made in and between the phases could jeopardize the delivery of an effective environment for teaching and learning.

1.5. Main Aim and Conclusions

To summarize, the design process is important for alignment between the place and practice, especially in innovative learning environments, and there is a need for more research on how these design processes can be improved. In this article, we examine the design and building processes adopted by two schools to successfully introduce innovative learning environments in order to show how educational visions are translated and negotiated into spaces and practices that work for the users.

2. Materials and Method

The school design and building process is a complex endeavor. In order to visualize it, we used a case study approach [51]. Each school building was studied as a case in itself, and the same kind of data was collected in the two cases. The collected empirical material was first subjected to a within-case analysis and then a cross-case analysis.

2.1. The Swedish Context

Most Swedish children attend preschool, and in Sweden, the comprehensive school system spans from the ages of 6 to 16. From the age of 16, upper secondary schools offer 3-year vocational and academic programs. The school system is regulated by a national school law [52], and national curricula are issued by the Swedish National Agency for Education [53] along with a course syllabus for each subject. Around 85% of comprehensive schools are managed by municipalities, and the rest are publicly financed but privately run so-called independent schools or “free schools” (similar to charter schools). (Including upper secondary school, 25% of students attend independent schools. For more information, see, accessed on 8 June 2021) The subjects and the number of guaranteed teaching hours per subject during each school year are nationally determined by the Ministry of Education and passed by the Swedish Parliament. Regular inspections of schools are carried out by the Swedish Schools Inspectorate, which also reviews and approves the establishment of independent schools.

2.2. The Case Schools

The two case schools were selected at the outset of the project by the funding agency due to their innovative learning environments, architectural qualities (both had been nominated for or awarded prizes), and participatory design processes. As such, they were considered exemplary cases of a new type of learning environment that is trending in school buildings. Moreover, a survey that was conducted in both schools indicated that the teachers perceived a high degree of alignment between the school building, its users, and its educational practices [54]. In this article, the names of the two schools have been changed for ethical reasons, and their aliases are Hill School and Valley School. (The choice to change the names and omit photos and blueprints has been deemed necessary for ethical reasons, in accordance with ethical guidelines for Swedish research.)
Both opened their new school buildings in 2019. Located in the greater Stockholm area with a population of 1.5 million, both schools accommodate pupils from above average socioeconomic groups in comparatively affluent areas. Hill School’s uptake area is mainly local, whereas the pupils attending Valley School also travel from other areas. Additional data is provided in Table 1.
Hill School is a municipality-run school built on sloping ground in an industrial cultural heritage area. The school is located near a park area, which is within walking distance. One of the school’s older buildings has been integrated into the new design. The surrounding residential area mainly consists of newly built flats and is still largely under development. The entire complex was designed in a way that took the challenges of the location and slope (over 10 meters and resulting in 6 different levels) into account. The design solution consisted of two buildings connected by a partly submerged area containing the dining hall and other common functions. A separate building for physical education is located across the street. In full operation, Hill School serves 900 pupils from preschool to year 6 (ages 6–12), although it is also able to take pupils up to year 9 (aged 15) due to its special facilities for science and other school subjects. Each year has its own team learning environment (TeLE) that can house up to 90 pupils and includes 1 large open area, 2 classroom-sized, and 4 breakout rooms, all of which are furnished and have other affordances (see Figure 1).
Valley School is an independent school that is privately operated and tax funded. It first opened in 2013 in temporary modular buildings and moved into the new three-story school building in 2019. The school is located in a hilly residential area, and the school building is located adjacent to a small forest. It consists of one large rectangular building. At the heart of the building, there is a large open area with stairs and a dining hall, and the three floors include open areas for communication and study outside the learning spaces. The school is built to accommodate 520 pupils from preschool to year 9 (aged 6–15), with each year housed in a team learning environment for up to 56 pupils. The TeLE contains a large open area, one large breakout room, and two small breakout rooms, all with different kinds of furniture and other affordances (Figure 2).

2.3. Data Collection

The newly built case schools were visited early on in the research project in order to familiarize the researchers with the buildings and their learning environments. During guided tours of the premises, photographs were taken to support the analysis process, and the researchers asked clarifying questions in preparation for the data collection. Documentation such as building briefs and programs, blueprints, school website addresses, and mission statements were collected. The data that were used for the analyses in this article were collected during the spring of 2020 and consisted of 10 semi-structured interviews with stakeholders involved in the school design processes, which are shown in Table 2.

2.4. Interviews

Most of the interviews were conducted at a location chosen by the informant. However, due to restrictions during the COVID-19 pandemic, the interviews with four of the informants were conducted using a video conferencing system. Both researchers participated in all the interviews, during which the informants were initially informed about the study and consent obtained in accordance with the prevailing ethical guidelines. Each informant was asked about their role during the design and building process and their knowledge and influence regarding the school’s educational vision, organization, and approach. An interview guide was used, and the questions included the following examples: “What can you tell me about the vision of the school? How is it negotiated throughout the process? How is it expressed in the building? In the furniture? In the technological solutions?” A large sheet of paper and pens were provided during the on-site interviews, with prompts to make notes about important events, people, and other aspects of the design and building processes in chronological order. The informants were also occasionally asked to make sketches of space layouts, furniture, and other features, as exemplified in Figure 3.
The informants whose interviews were conducted online e-mailed their notes to the researchers afterward. The duration of the interviews ranged from 50 to 130 min, and all were audio recorded. All the data were stored on a password-protected server [55].

2.5. Data Analyses

The within-case data analyses followed a three-stage process, after which comparative cross-case analysis was conducted. Initially, the data from the interviews in each school were compiled into one common document and sorted under the three categories of educational vision, organization and approach, and physical environment, as stated in the purpose of the project. The data from each informant were color coded in the text. To support the process, the informants’ timelines were used to clarify and complement the interview accounts. Secondly, this document was used to construct a common process timeline on a large sheet of paper, with the three categories displayed in rows and the years written from left to right. Keywords from the informants’ accounts were color coded and written against the approximate year and category they referred to. This process timeline was intended to aid the discernment of phases in the process. In fact, it revealed instances where there were an absence of distinct beginnings and endings in the process and showed ways in which different phases in the design and building processes overlapped and interacted, such as through the actions and interactions of the stakeholders, and other factors such as policy and concrete obstacles. At this point, and drawing on the research literature, an analytical model was developed to capture the stakeholders’ roles in the different parts of the process (see the details below).
Finally, themed common process timelines were used to construct a common narrative of the design and building processes in each school. In this narrative, the different voices were merged to add chronology and thickness to the description [56]. It also laid the foundation for the cross-case analysis. The common narratives were read by both researchers in conjunction with the corresponding document from stage one and accordingly corrected and complemented with details and quotations. This version was checked by the head teacher and the operations manager at the respective schools.

2.6. Constructing an Analytical Model

In order to make sense of the design and building process, during the analysis, previous models were examined for this purpose. Of particular use were a stage model by Daniels et al. [28] and Singer and Woolner’s [57] climbing frame of participation using Arnstein’s [58] ladder of participation. Daniels, Tse, Stables, and Cox’s [28] model illustrates the different stages of a school building project: vision, concept design, design development, technical design, construction, and occupation, and highlights how stakeholders with different motives and knowledge act and interact in multi-agency work, resulting in trade-offs and tensions in and between the various phases.
Singer and Woolner [57] used a typology developed by Arnstein [58] to describe stakeholders’ roles. Arnstein’s ladder of participation features eight rungs of (non)participation in matters of citizen participation from manipulation to citizen control, of which they used four:
  • Control: the final word in decisions and negotiating the conditions for others to have influence over them;
  • Partnership: planning and decision making is shared in negotiations throughout the process;
  • Consultation: the involved actors are informed and their views solicited so that they may be taken into account;
  • Inform: the involved actors are informed, but information flows one way with little possibility for feedback.
Based on indications in the data material, a modified analytical model was developed containing elements from all three of the models mentioned above, as shown in Figure 4. Although important actors’ roles during various phases were being visualized in the previous models, the role of interior design was not made visible. Other changes were made to enhance the visibility of stakeholders during the phases. In addition, the period of occupancy was omitted in order to refine the focus on the design and building process.
In the model, the left-hand column indicates the different stakeholders’ levels of influence in the design process.
The other columns each represent a phase, and these may overlap:
  • Educational vision: the pedagogical ideas and values are formulated;
  • Concept design: a design brief is produced, transforming ideas and values into functional demands;
  • Space design: a building program with spaces and their relations is developed, and drawings of floor plans are produced;
  • Interior design: furniture and other artifacts are chosen and ordered;
  • Technical Design and Construction: technical drawings are produced, and the building is erected.
The model introduced below shares some features with the one above, but it has distinctive differences. The stakeholders are indicated in each column according to their level of representation in that phase, rather than having a column of their own as in Singer and Woolner’s model. We did not distinguish between technical design and construction like in Daniels et al.’s model. Moreover, as an important theme in our interviews was the interior design, we distinguished between space design and interior design. In this article, and based on the interviews and documents, stakeholder involvement was traced for each school and phase and presented in the results. In a school design and building process, one stakeholder could be present on a high level throughout all phases and another only in one or two phases and on a lower level. One process could have many stakeholders with little continuity, whereas another process could have fewer involved with strong continuity through all phases, please see Figure 4.
It should be noted that even though the pupils were not included in the data here and were not formally part of the process, their indirect influence was present in their verbal and non-verbal feedback to the teachers during the everyday teaching in both schools and, in the case of Hill School, through extensive interviews, which also fed into the building briefs and programs.
The ECSIT model could be used in building projects in order to design participant design processes, to facilitate multi-agency discussions during the process in terms of the definition of and agreement on roles and involvement, and for evaluation purposes after the participant design processes. The model may prove valuable in terms of planning the school design and building processes with adequate actor competence and user representation in the different phases, as well as preventing a loss of knowledge due to a lack of continuity between the phases. Moreover, in research, it could be used as an analytical tool for examination of singular processes or for comparative purposes.

2.7. Cross-Case Analysis

Finally, cross-case analysis was conducted to compare the two case schools. The focus for the comparison was how and by what the stakeholders’ pedagogical visions were generated, developed, translated, negotiated, and embedded into the spaces and practices during the design and building processes. The cross-case analysis was based on comparisons of the results from the within-case analysis. The comparisons highlighted the similarities, the patterns that emerged between the cases, as well as the specifics in each case.

3. Results

The design and building processes of both schools are presented, analyzed, and compared in this section.
  • First, the processes for both schools are presented in narrative form. As the processes in the two schools were somewhat different, the headings are not identical in these narratives.
  • Secondly, the ECSIT model is used to plot stakeholder involvement in different parts of the process in each school.
  • Lastly, the two cases are compared in terms of the various features of the process from vision to building.

3.1. Hill School

3.1.1. Background: School Buildings Program

The process of designing and building Hill School’s learning environments can be traced back to the development of a common school buildings program initiated by the municipality to support the building of more schools in the city. The municipality’s educational property coordinator led this project from 2012–14, which included site visits, workshops with stakeholders, and interviews with a number of teachers and 300 pupils, all of which provided input and helped to shape the program.
The program expresses educational ideas about thematic practices, culture, the use of technology, and approaches to pupil diversity. The organization that the program’s schools are expected to support includes team teaching and the provision of learning environments accommodating the equivalent of three to four classes per year group (max. 90–120 pupils). The intention is for the TeLEs to function as smaller units in a larger organization, rather like schools within a school, where teachers have a common work room and are expected to work collaboratively in teams. These areas, in which pupils have all their classes that do not require special spaces (such as science and physical education), reflect the educational ideas from the school buildings program and include the following features:
  • Areas where pupils’ work can be displayed;
  • Screens and projectors;
  • Large open and common areas;
  • Variations in the sizes of the different areas;
  • Sound-absorbing materials for floors, such as carpets.
Another aspect of the school buildings program, and one that is not based on pedagogic ideas, is that of the size of the school. The creation of larger schools is seen as a way of creating economically sound units. Space efficiency is also important and is expressed in terms of reducing areas that are not directly related to teaching and learning, such as corridors or multifunctional areas. An example of this at Hill School is the integration of the cloakroom into the large open space in the TeLE. The overall ambition is that each space can be used as a potential learning environment, which is why the windows are at floor level and the windowsills are wide; this is so that they can be used as study spaces.

3.1.2. The Design of the New School

Important factors when drawing up the plans for Hill School were the differences in height in the building plot and also that the existing buildings in the industrial heritage area should form part of the new school. These aspects made the project differ from many others. The architect’s vision for the design included comfort, safety, and security, and already in the initial stages, an interior architect was commissioned to produce design sketches for the different areas that included furniture. One design example was finding a solution that gathered 60 pupils in one place in order to free teachers for other work.
A head teacher for Hill School was appointed during the design phase in 2016, when most of the architecture was in place. Following this appointment, the municipality’s educational property coordinator, who had had a prominent role in the design and building processes, and the head teacher worked side by side until the latter became more familiar with the project. The head teacher wanted the learning environments to accommodate the needs of as many pupils as possible and had pedagogical ideas about the looks and layouts of these environments. Other ideas included shared leadership and delegating control to the staff. These ideas aligned with those expressed in the municipality’s school buildings program.
At the time of the head teacher’s appointment, the floor plans were more or less complete, although there was still ample opportunity to influence the interior spaces. The same interior architect who produced the design sketches was recommissioned, as that person was already familiar with the building. A 2-year collaboration process began, during which the interior architect, the head teacher, and sometimes the architect gradually shaped the learning environments. The head teacher explained this as follows:
She helped me with the procurement documents for the furniture and interior decorating because these aspects were very time consuming. She made suggestions for everything from boxes, desks and drawers/…/so that I did not have to search for them./…/My goal has been that all the spaces in this school should benefit the pupils, so that they always have access to a learning environment, no matter what. Our conference room is also a classroom. [The interior architect] drew these kite-shaped tables, we talked a lot about what I wanted and developed them together].
The collaboration included negotiations about transparent or non-transparent walls, the choice of materials, and what kind of furniture should be included. The interior architect contributed ideas about the importance of comfort, pupils being able to choose where to work, how to furnish the various areas, and the creation of an environment that supported teaching and learning based on democratic values. The head teacher in turn contributed pedagogical ideas and visions about the organization, the working methods, and the need for furnishings that supported these aspects. During this process, a furniture collection was designed and produced. This included a combined seating group and locker area and kite-shaped tables that could easily be arranged into different groupings.

3.1.3. Preparations in the Existing School

In 2016, the academic staff and pupils who were to inhabit the new school building had their classrooms in a nearby school with temporary module buildings. At that time, the number of pupils was 90, a number that increased with each new year’s intake of pupils. New teachers were appointed as the student body grew. The head teachers had several pedagogical ideas: to introduce a subject teacher system for each year’s grouping, create a flatter organization, and put more emphasis on pupil welfare. (A Swedish class teacher is a teacher who mostly teaches a primary school class in many school subjects. A subject teacher usually teaches several school classes in one or more school subjects. Subject teachers are most common in secondary and upper secondary schools.) Each work team was also expected to be more self-sufficient and make its own decisions, including how to group the pupils taught in the TeLEs. This organization was gradually implemented.
The head teacher also started the process of identifying core values for the new school and included the teachers in this development work. This led to so-called expectation cards for teachers, pupils, and parents. In 2017, the head teacher introduced new year organizational units and, in parallel with this, created a pilot learning environment in a large classroom in the present premises, with a focus on accessible learning. Here, the more traditional furniture was replaced, and the teachers and pupils were instead asked to test and evaluate new alternatives, such as prototypes of the kite-shaped tables. Some of the furniture that was to be used in the new school was tested in the old school. The head teacher introduced blueprints so that the teachers would be able to visualize the new learning environments and taught them about how they were designed to function.

3.1.4. Applying the ECSIT Model

The ECSIT model is applied here (Figure 5) with information from the various data sources to visualize the levels of stakeholder influence.
The model shows the shifting levels of participation throughout the process. For example, the highly influential role of the municipality’s school buildings coordinator (MBC) was gradually phased out, and the partnership between the head teacher and the architect (and the property manager later) increased. The school buildings program and the MBC influenced the design of the space, and the head teacher and the interior designer influenced the interior design. Movements in the various positionings can be discerned in the process flow of the stakeholders. A downward move is exemplified by the MBC, from control of the program to a partnership with the architect. The architect, on the other hand, was involved in the various partnerships throughout the process in what can be characterized as horizontal positioning.

3.2. Valley School

3.2.1. An Educational Vision for a School

The pedagogical ideas for Valley School were formulated early on by the founder of the school who later became operations manager. This person’s experience was mainly outside the world of school, and the idea was that the school should differ from mainstream schools to increase motivation and that the pupils should do things “for real” and display them. The ideas were based on thoughts about the role of the school for the pupils’ own personal development, motivation, and learning and that they should be regarded as subjects. The aim was for Valley School to foster creativity. As a consequence, the learning environments differed from traditional classrooms and offered a variety of different spaces that also promoted the teachers’ own learning and development. The school was organized around ideas about goal-oriented management, shared leadership, and collaboration. Already from the start, the school introduced co-teaching, with ideas about interdisciplinary theme work and cooperative and value-creating learning. This kind of approach aimed at promoting individual motivation. A development of self-knowledge meant accommodating pupils’ different learning styles regarding work, movement, and learning. Digital tablets were important components in the learning environments, which in turn meant the provision of Wi-Fi and furniture that supported this way of working.

3.2.2. Prototype School with Pilot Learning Spaces

The school started in 2013 with 57 pupils in so-called modular buildings. This was a temporary solution prior to the building of more permanent school premises. Early on, the teachers were encouraged to test ideas for new learning environments that improved the quality of teaching, and a prototype mode of thinking was applied. A learning environment consultant was included in the process and held workshops with the teachers once every 6 months for several years. An interior design agency known to the founder was also involved in this work.
Ideas about how to reduce stress, ensure safety and security, and create different areas that best met the pupils’ motivation and needs were behind the formation of the learning environments and the different zones. The latter were to be defined spaces that were easy for the pupils to interpret and use. The learning environment consultant worked with the teachers on how best to use the zones, both in their own teaching and for the pupils’ work. One idea was to reduce the amount of furniture. Another was to create corners, safe zones, and leisure zones. It was also important to improve the flow through the various zones (i.e., the “space choreography”) so that the teachers could easily move around and help each pupil and so that pupils did not disturb others with their movements.
The first prototype for the TeLEs, or so-called learning studios, was designed to accommodate two classes of pupils (i.e., a total of up to 56 pupils and 2 teachers). After iterations, this was later changed to one larger and one smaller space, both of which were tested and evaluated to ensure that they reflected the school’s working methods. Prototypes were also used for the furniture with the involvement of the design agency. A stairs prototype was also tested, and after feedback, new versions were designed iteratively. Another prototype involved so-called niches for quiet reflection and overview. Loft beds were also bought and tested in the modular building, and new versions for the different age groups were designed. Other places for reflection were so-called caves, developed from a first prototype that was found to be too deep toward a finished, shallower place under the stairs. At first, the stairs were placed in the center of the large space as a divider, but in the new building, they were against a wall and facing movable screens and whiteboards, which gave the teachers more of an overview and better sight lines.

3.2.3. The Design of the New School

The learning environment consultant who was involved in the development of a brief for the new school building was inspired, for example, by Hertzberger’s L-shaped classrooms. The idea behind the new building was that it should be a welcoming environment with a clear pattern language, natural and sustainable materials, and a uniformity throughout the year groups, with defined zones and varied spaces. The founder recalled the following:
We discussed these things early on: activity, variation, collaboration, safety and security. We also thought about displaying and exhibiting, but they are connected to the idea of value-creating learning, being able to exhibit and display things in the different environments.
The design agency also worked on the design of the new school’s learning environments by doing research, leading workshops, and interviewing the teachers.
The TeLEs, one for each year group, consisted of a larger space than a regular classroom and a smaller space that was bigger than a regular breakout room. Each learning studio was designed to cater for each year group and was equipped with high-backed chairs, tables, and armchairs with high backs and sides. In addition, they had the same custom-built features of stairs, two smaller breakout rooms with glass frontages, a loft (for younger children), seating areas in the windowed areas, and an enclosed space. New kinds of sound-absorbent panels were installed in different places in the school, where the acoustics were designed to fit the collaborative working methods that generated more noise than individual work. In line with this, no outdoor shoes were allowed in the TeLEs.
The architect’s designs were discussed with the founder, the learning environment consultant, a furniture company representative, the design agency, and the teachers, and changes were made in the placement of the functions in the common areas. Discussions about the design of the TeLEs also included which wall parts were to be transparent or not. It was also considered important for the teachers to be able to see the different study areas, including the adjacent areas outside the studios. During the testing and prototype work, the teachers became highly aware of the teaching and learning space, which enabled them to ask questions and contribute to the formation of the different learning areas. As it turned out, the building project was delayed for technical reasons, which gave more time for testing and prototyping. According to the founder, this delay proved advantageous in terms of the design and development of the learning environments.

3.2.4. Applying the ECSIT Model

In the same way as for the Hill School, the information from the various data sources were applied to the ECSIT model in Figure 6.
In the case of Valley School, the operations manager was responsible for the design process from beginning to end. The second architectural firm entered at a later stage, and the process was characterized by partnership with many different stakeholders. The property manager was involved to a limited degree. The design and building process at Valley School was influenced by the learning environment consultant and the interior design agency. Here, it can be noted that the teachers and other stakeholders were involved in a partnership collaboration with other stakeholders throughout the design process.

3.3. Comparative Analysis

The visions for the two case schools were generated from two different directions. At Hill School, the vision came from inside the school sphere, initiated by the municipality’s administration and carried out by the municipality’s educational property coordinator, who had worked for many years as a head teacher, and supported by many voices from interviews with a large number of pupils and teachers. At Valley School on the other hand, the vision came from the outside and was derived very much from the thoughts of the school’s founder. Here, the vision was, from the outset, more directly aimed at the development of a particular kind of individual, whereas at Hill School, the vision was directed toward creating an environment that would ensure the pupils’ well-being and allow for meaningful educational activities.
The visions for the new schools were developed in two separate documents. At Hill School, the vision reflected the municipality’s school buildings program, which was to be applied in many schools, and a design brief was created specifically for the vision of Valley School. During the design and building phases, these visions were tested and revised. An existing learning environment and modular building were gradually shaped to match the visions of the new head teacher at Hill School and at Valley School to reflect the environments in the modular buildings. In both cases, larger spaces than classrooms were created and equipped with furniture and other artifacts to be tested for use in the new school. The testing process at Valley School was longer, more systematic, and involved workshops with consultants and an iterative way of working, although in both cases, the teachers were supported in the change process both internally and externally.
The translation of the vision became more distinct at Hill School when the new head teacher was appointed and gradually took the design process over from the municipality’s school buildings coordinator. The head teacher brought to an almost finished space design clear visions and ideas for the organization and working methods and collaborated with the interior architect for 2 years in order to translate these visions into learning environments in the new school. The process resulted in new designs of furniture that would support her vision, and she also instructed and consulted teachers on the use of the new team learning environments. At Valley School, the transition of vision to practice was more extensive in several phases, and the translations were more gradual and in partnership with the teachers. At Hill School, when the building program was generated, the processes to translate the vision were already set in motion based on the teachers’ and pupils’ feedback. Here, the translation of the vision for the design of the furniture and interiors was largely in the hands of the head teacher. At Valley School, the iterative process of translating the vision was closely linked to the existing teaching and learning practices and carried out prior to moving into the new school building.
Both schools encountered opportunities and challenges during the design and building process and had to negotiate and adapt their visions in the different phases according to circumstances. For example, due to need for space efficiency, at Hill School, the cloakrooms were integrated into the team learning environment, which resulted in the development of new types of furniture being used that integrated group seating with the pupils’ need for storage. It also had to cut out some of the technological features due to budgetary constraints. Delays in the building process meant that Valley School had to stay in the modular buildings for longer than originally planned, but this also allowed more time for the iterative development process.
The above results indicate the processes through which the visions became embedded in the learning spaces in both schools. For example, at both schools, the vision of team teaching and the vision of learning spaces that allowed flexibility and variation were embedded in the configuration of the TeLEs in the school buildings. Although the sizes of the TeLEs and the working methods varied, both made use of customized interior design features.

4. Discussion

One of the challenges during the design and building process was the translation between the professions involved, particularly how to create and sustain a multi-professional language [49]. Another challenge was to create and maintain a clear pedagogical vision. Gislason [23] stressed the importance of achieving a fit between educational programs and the design of the teaching and learning spaces in a materialized vision, also [59]. In the two cases studied here, such a fit was largely achieved in relation to the school buildings and the ILEs [54]. In the results, the analyses of the design and building processes were presented with the aim of investigating how the educational visions were translated and negotiated into spaces that supported the visions and practices. Although the processes differed in terms of vision, stakeholder involvement, work methods, and finished learning environments, they had some common features. Below, the important themes are discussed in relation to previous research and the contributions of the present study indicated in relation to the themes. Questions and suggestions for future design and building processes are also formulated.

4.1. Continuity: Creating Knowledge Robustness

Common for both processes is the participation of several stakeholders in more than one phase and the representation of a pedagogical perspective at the higher levels of participation. In one case, the operations manager was involved throughout the process, and in the other, the MBC, a former head teacher, gradually handed over responsibility to the appointed head teacher. Working closely together, those involved in the space and interior designs and the end users participated in the design process, albeit at a higher level in one school. The engagement of many of the stakeholders stretched over several years, during which trusting relations were formed that seemed to facilitate the collaboration and development of a multi-professional language, also [50]. In some cases, the stakeholders were familiar with one of the parties involved. The successful use of continuity and long-term investment for stakeholders in the design and building processes is consistent with previous research [28,32,33,34,50,60], and we suggest that the ECSIT model contributes to making stakeholders’ levels of participation visible in the different phases of the planning, design, and construction processes.

4.2. Preparation: Creating Educational Robustness

Several studies draw attention to the need for adequate preparation when transitioning to teaching and learning in ILEs [20,29,30]. Previous research shows that the more an ILE deviates from traditional design, the more important preparing habitants becomes [6,25,28]. If this process is not achieved to a sufficient extent, it can cause severe problems during the initial period, as well as attrition among head teachers and teachers at the new school. Thus, when planning a design and building process, particular attention needs to be paid to the preparation factors that facilitate the transition and thus support the creation of an educationally robust ILE. This preparation involves supporting a new pedagogy or changes in the pedagogy, which has also been highlighted in the research literature, such as [9,59].
In both cases, the preparation practices were continuous and took several years. Onsite workshops were connected to the practices, which allowed for the iterative process of testing and evaluating the prototypes and other innovative elements to be present in the space and interior design in the new learning environments’ everyday practice. Some testing could be seen in terms of a participatory activation phase in which spatial awareness and competence were developed, see also [38]. Preparation also involved recurring external and internal professional development, although the level of teacher participation was higher in one of the schools, and the development of experiential spatial competence was more systematic. The spatial competence that teachers developed during the preparation process and the long-term relationships that developed with external participants facilitated the evolving of a multi-professional language and understanding that then became expressed in the design of the spaces and interiors [38]. Based on the results, we suggest that developing teachers’ spatial awareness and competence [38,61,62] is important and can motivate more participation in the design and building processes [14,28,50].

4.3. Alignment: Creating Organizational Robustness

As has been pointed out elsewhere in the article, one of the challenges of a well-functioning ILE is to align space and practice. In previous research studies, it was argued that teachers carry the main responsibility for aligning space and pedagogy [13,25]. This is certainly true from a narrow teaching and learning perspective, but it ignores other basic factors such as management, organization, and various support functions. Our results have highlighted that making ILEs robust involves early and extensive consideration of the school’s organization and working methods. Previous research indicates the importance of creating relationships and culture among teacher, for example [31]. This article also highlights the organization of practices, such as co-teaching and subject teaching, in the preparation work. As organizational components are in need of further attention in research on ILEs [4], they are factors to consider in the alignment of vision and practices in new school buildings.

4.4. Participation: Creating Economical Robustness

A vital component of the design and building process is the creation of economically robust ILEs. This was part of the municipality’s school buildings program at Hill School and something that was raised by Leiringer and Cardellino [3]. An efficient use of learning environments involves making sure that all the available spaces are used but that none are crowded. Making cutbacks in the wrong places during the design and building processes could easily hamper the attainment of the envisioned practices as argued, for example, by Tse et al. [50]. This is an argument for involving multi-professional teams with pedagogical competence throughout the process and the continuous engagement of users in the various phases. We suggest that even if participatory design processes are costly, they may still contribute to economic robustness by ensuring an alignment between space and practice. However, as user participation may produce challenges like idiosyncratic buildings and ill-fitting solutions [50,60], making room for the development of the users’ spatial awareness and competence in everyday practice among future habitants could be a sound investment. Moreover, attention needs to be paid to carrying the vision across phases, because breaks in continuity can create weaker alignments and affect the function of the finished spaces so that they become less effective.

4.5. Concluding Remarks

In conclusion, this article has drawn attention to considerations regarding the involvement of different stakeholders when planning for schools characterized as ILEs. For example, the role and content of the visions and the carriers of these visions throughout the process as challenges and opportunities are discovered and negotiated. The ECSIT model can be used to discuss the need for and recruitment of competencies in multi-professional teams and when and on what level stakeholders should be employed. It can also help to clarify the windows for opportunities and points of no return for the stakeholders.
Spaces can change practices, but this is not a causal process, as has previously been demonstrated for example by [13,14]. Every new building brings opportunities for pedagogical development. However, change takes time, and pedagogical developments perhaps need as much time as the building project itself in order to be both economically and educationally robust. Being prepared includes being familiar with space and interior design before moving in. Additional things to consider are the testing of new organizational solutions with co-teaching and larger pupil groups and alternative ways of scheduling the teaching and learning activities. The challenges of changing established ways of working, organization, and alignments when transitioning to an ILE need further attention [4].
The challenges of creating economically robust ILEs need to be included in the planning process, and the economic viability of the visions needs to be negotiated in the early phases. For example, will the new building, organization, and pedagogy survive future cutbacks in funding or conversion into teaching other student year groups? The design process itself also needs to be economically sustainable, and the ECSIT model can help to plan for a cost-efficient participatory design process and identify breaks or weak points that may lead to additional costs. Making sure that there is sufficient competency in the different phases can help to guarantee economically robust projects.

Author Contributions

Both authors contributed equally to the article throughout the process: Conceptualization, A.F. and J.G.; methodology, A.F. and J.G.; validation, A.F. and J.G.; formal analysis, A.F. and J.G.; investigation, A.F. and J.G.; resources, A.F. and J.G.; data curation, A.F. and J.G.; writing—original draft preparation, A.F. and J.G.; writing—review and editing, A.F. and J.G.; project administration, A.F. and J.G.; funding acquisition, A.F. and J.G. All authors have read and agreed to the published version of the manuscript.


This research was funded by the research and development fund for municipal real estate issues, grant number HIG-FORSK 2020/4.

Institutional Review Board Statement

Ethical review and approval were waived for this study, in accordance with national guidelines.

Informed Consent Statement

Written and oral informed consent was obtained from all subjects involved in the study.

Data Availability Statement

Data is available in accordance with national research guidelines.


Our warm thanks to everyone who participated during data collection, to the research and development fund for municipal real estate issues that funded the project, and to the ROLE research network for valuable comments on a version of the manuscript.

Conflicts of Interest

The authors declare no conflict of interest. The funders have selected the case schools, but have not had any role in the collection, analyses or interpretation of data; in the writing of the manuscript, or in the decision to publish the results.


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Figure 1. Team learning environment in Hill School.
Figure 1. Team learning environment in Hill School.
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Figure 2. TeLE in Valley School.
Figure 2. TeLE in Valley School.
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Figure 3. Detail of space layout sketch during interview.
Figure 3. Detail of space layout sketch during interview.
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Figure 4. The ECSIT model, consisting of educational vision, concept design, space design, interior design, and technical design and construction.
Figure 4. The ECSIT model, consisting of educational vision, concept design, space design, interior design, and technical design and construction.
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Figure 5. The ECSIT model plotting stakeholder influence in different phases of the design and building process at Hill School. ARC: architect; HET: head teacher; INT: interior designer; MBC: municipality’s school building coordinator; PRM: property manager; and TEA: teachers.
Figure 5. The ECSIT model plotting stakeholder influence in different phases of the design and building process at Hill School. ARC: architect; HET: head teacher; INT: interior designer; MBC: municipality’s school building coordinator; PRM: property manager; and TEA: teachers.
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Figure 6. The ECSIT model plotting stakeholder influence in different phases of the design and building process at Valley school. ARC: architect; FUR: furniture company representative; INT: interior designer; LEC: learning environment consultant; PRM: property manager; and TEA: teachers. OPM: Operations Manager.
Figure 6. The ECSIT model plotting stakeholder influence in different phases of the design and building process at Valley school. ARC: architect; FUR: furniture company representative; INT: interior designer; LEC: learning environment consultant; PRM: property manager; and TEA: teachers. OPM: Operations Manager.
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Table 1. Description of Hill School and Valley School.
Table 1. Description of Hill School and Valley School.
SchoolHill SchoolValley School
Pupils’ ages6–126–15
Number of pupils in full operation 900520
Square meters8850 m25000 m2
Table 2. Overview of interviews.
Table 2. Overview of interviews.
Hill SchoolValley School
Interior architect
Head teacher
Municipality’s educational property coordinator
Municipality’s educational planning officer
Municipality’s building company project manager
Interior design agency
Operations manager
Learning environment consultant
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