Can architecture help students’ mental health? This Fort Worth designer says yes

dfwnewsa | November 28, 2023 | 1 | Dallas News , Fort Worth , Fort Worth News

Can architecture help students’ mental health? This Fort Worth designer says yes
Northwest ISD’s Lance Thompson Elementary includes collaboration spaces where students can work together just outside of their classroom. (Courtesy | Huckabee, Northwest ISD)

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Students should hear birds chirping in their schools.

Not the literal sound. But school designer Kerri Brady wants campuses to evoke that natural sense of peace and safety, so students can be present, better regulate their emotions and learn.

Editor’s note

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This is part of a series examining how Fort Worth-area schools are caring for students’ mental health.

The design of schools has become an increasingly important topic, especially in light of recent mass shootings on campuses. Since 1976, 19 shooting incidents have happened at schools in Tarrant County, according to the Center for Homeland Defense and Security. However, schools can be built to be secure while also fostering an environment that is conducive to learning and better mental health, Brady said.

It’s not an either-or choice for Brady, vice president of educational practice at the Fort Worth-based architecture firm Huckabee.

“We need to empower people and educate people about the ways in which really great designed spaces for learning are also really great spaces for human connection,” Brady said. “It is a prevention for active threats.”

Brady, a nationally recognized leader in social, emotional and trauma-informed design concepts, led the design of Uvalde’s new elementary school

Brady approaches the design of all schools in the same way regardless of the campuses’ grade levels. 

That’s because the rational part of the human brain isn’t fully developed until a person is 25, according to the University of Rochester Medical Center.

“In the realm of brain and nervous system development, we’re not all that different from pre-K through high school graduation,” Brady said.

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Lance Thompson Elementary in Northwest ISD features a maker space for students. (Courtesy | Huckabee, Northwest ISD)

‘All part of telling the brain’

The connection between architecture and mental health is important to administrators of Northwest ISD in far north Fort Worth. Jamie Farber, the district’s director of guidance and counseling, lists the design of spaces as one of the biggest needs in health-related resources.

“As the fastest-growing school district in North Texas, our building and facilities department is very willing to consider and has designed new schools with the consideration of a group counseling room or calm space in secondary counseling spaces,” Farber said.

Northwest ISD’s Lance Thompson Elementary features an open library that is reminiscent of a treehouse. (Courtesy | Huckabee, Northwest ISD)

Lance Thompson Elementary in Northwest ISD is an example of how Huckabee incorporated nature into a school, Brady said. 

What is biophilic design?

  • Accessing nature through sight lines
  • Incorporating building elements that invoke nature, such as a wallpaper with fractals
  • Greenery
  • Accessibility to outdoor spaces
  • Using glass to build layers inside a space

The challenge Huckabee faced was ensuring the school reflected its surrounding agricultural community while embracing biophilic design, a building concept that fosters human connection with a more natural environment. 

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Research shows that buildings designed to bring together nature and students can improve children’s well-being, test scores, overall health and learning.

Huckabee designed the two-story school to feel like a treehouse. Windows look out to green spaces. Natural light bathes the interior. 

“Seeing greenery that mimics the greenery seen in nature is all part of telling the brain and the nervous system that I have access to what I need and I’m OK in the present moment,” Brady said.

Lance Thompson Elementary in Northwest ISD features green spaces around the campus. (Courtesy | Huckabee, Northwest ISD)

Cannon Elementary in Grapevine-Colleyville ISD takes a different approach, Brady said. Students can easily access outdoor learning spaces during the day and after hours.

‘More connection’

The elementary schools were new, but many of the same ideas apply to renovations of older campuses. 

“You just have to reconfigure the spaces so you can demolish a bunch of walls and reconfigure your classrooms in a way that designs them to have more transparency,” Brady said.

In Mansfield ISD’s Jerry Knight STEM Academy, Huckabee took out entire classrooms and hallways to create open collaboration spaces with comfortable seating. Bigger windows were added to new classrooms so more natural light could come in and so teachers could see into the collaboration spaces.

Designs like that help create circulation space for students, Brady said. 

“That creates more connection as opposed to isolation.” Brady said.

‘If we do design well’

Schools should be designed so all students have a place to be physically and emotionally safe, Brady said. 

Not all students come from a home that is safe. And not all students have access to a safe school. Around 1 in 6 school-aged children are estimated to see their everyday lives and academic achievement affected by their mental health, according to the Texas Education Agency.

“If we are intentional in our work, then we’re designing in a way that is creating that warm and welcoming atmosphere, sense of belonging and community connection — a positive human relationship — for all kids,” Brady said.

The Fort Worth Report is part of the Mental Health Parity Collaborative, a group of newsrooms that are covering stories on mental health care access and inequities in the U.S. The partners on this project include The Carter Center, The Center for Public Integrity, and newsrooms in select states across the country.

Jacob Sanchez is an enterprise journalist for the Fort Worth Report. Contact him at jacob.sanchez@fortworthreport.org or via Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.

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