Student Centered Solutions

Space efficient, sliding doors solve challenges in elementary school design

In early 2023, John Diemer Elementary School, located in an east Kansas suburb, was transformed into a facility that embodies the idea that learning happens everywhere. The new facilities feature innovative classroom designs that balance flexibility and security—a plan that had been developed collaboratively between the architects and project owners.

After several visioning meetings with parents and staff, the architects at incite Design Studio focused on designs that prioritized “visual openness, safety, flexibility, collaboration and grade level cohorts where students can help define their individual pathway towards learning.” These concepts, however, were not the only goals of the renovation. The architects and the Shawnee Mission School District also wanted to create a design that contributed to a more secure school environment. The solution to both challenges came in the form of mini maker spaces, dubbed “Co-Labs,” that were situated between classrooms. Complete with storage space, restrooms and collaborative tools, these spaces ensure students have access to a variety of learning experiences. They are also designed to double as shelter-in-place locations in the event of an emergency.

Key to the shelter-in-place aspect of the Co-Labs, the sliding doors that led into the spaces included minimal locking hardware and were customized with markable surfaces to camouflage the opening. The markable surfaces also double as a way for students to engage with classwork or to sketch out their own ideas. Their durable hardware and space-efficient design also helped the team meet their building goals, including creating long-term, easy-to-maintain spaces.

Space-efficient Sliding Doors Contribute to Design Flexibility
Integrating the Co-Labs between classrooms required a creative use of space. The design team specified sliding doors to preserve square footage. Sliding doors eliminate swing arc trajectories, saving up to 30 square feet of useable space per door. For this project, because there was no need to plan for swing arc trajectories, the design team could maximize the size of the Co-Labs without drastically reducing classroom space.

Further, because the doors slide along the wall, students and teachers can operate them without rearranging desks and other furniture to minimize disruptions.

“Extreme flexibility was a driving force in the design,” said Duane Cash, principal architect at incite Design Studio. “These doors can easily be opened to spread the kids out or to allow the teacher to observe what’s happening in the classroom and Co-Lab simultaneously.”

The flexibility of these openings not only allows teachers to approach lesson plans creatively, but it also gives students agency to learn in a way that is best suited to their needs. “Sliding doors define and blur the line between classroom and Co-Lab,” Cash said. “And because they have markable surfaces, they can help students jot down ideas or sketch out concepts.”

This quality centers the belief that learning can be flexible and happen anywhere and at any time.

Door Hardware Provides Accessibility and Access Control
In addition to the look and feel of the doors, the sliding doors’ hardware also contributed to flexibility and security goals. Their soft-close dampening systems reduce operating noise and slamming so the doors can be used without disturbing quiet study in either the Co-Labs or the classroom. Likewise, the heavy-duty, top-hung roller systems and durable perimeter frames contribute to smooth and maintenance-free operation, even in an elementary school setting where wear-and-tear can be accelerated.

While these features help ensure the doors will be a long-term solution for John Diemer Elementary School, the door hardware, including locks, also played a key role in realizing the design goals for this project. For example, the ladder pull handles are no-twist and easy to operate for the youngest and oldest students at the school. These handles are also useable for a wide range of abilities and meet the standards outlined in the American with Disabilities Act (ADA).

Further, the hardware contributed to security goals. Cash explains, “We wanted the Co-Labs to be able to function as a comfortable shelter-in-place area in case of an intruder. Our research indicated that getting students out of sight is highly important.”

Not only are the Co-Labs visually isolated from hallways when the sliding doors are closed, but their whiteboard surfaces also blend into the wall — someone quickly scanning rooms may not notice they are doors at all. This ability to camouflage into the wall is enhanced by both the door handles and locks.

The minimal, standard cylinder locks take up little room on the classroom side of the doors—all but invisible to those far away. On the Co-Lab side, the ADA Enhanced thumbturns ensure accessibility and easy operation. With large thumbturns, seeing if the locks are engaged is easier, which helps ensure added security in an emergency.

These qualities contribute to a safer, more secure environment for kindergarteners, 6th graders and every age in-between. In fact, the doors worked so well, the architects plan to use them in future education projects.

Achieving Fortitude, Flexibility and Futurity
A doors’ ability to protect during an emergency is an important aspect of the school’s design. However, these sliding doors also needed to be strong enough to withstand the normal wear-and-tear of elementary student use.

“These doors are substantial,” Cash said. The sliding doors feature durable leaves, hardware and framing. As a full system, they can last through the wear-and-tear typical of an educational setting for years to come with minimal maintenance. This helps ensure a learning environment that will last school year after school year, but the way these doors contribute to a future-looking design goes beyond John Diemer Elementary itself.

One of the guiding concepts behind the project was that learning can extend well past the classroom walls. The Co-Labs and openings of the project help make this concept a reality by contributing to classroom flexibility and student agency. They also reflect this concept back to the architectural firm behind the school, whose work in the educational space has recently seen added emphasis placed on enhancing classroom security.

“This design solved issues from past projects,” Cash concludes. “It’s a big step forward for architects trying to balance education goals and a sense of safety and security for children.”

This article originally appeared in the November/December 2023 issue of Campus Security Today.

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