September/October 2018

Carrie Matlock, AIA, NCARB, LEED ®AP BD+C, is president at DLA Architects.

Kenna Hansen graduated recently from Lyons Township High School in LaGrange. Before a renovation during her junior year, her school’s cafeteria was dark and windowless. To create a space that would better ignite learning and collaboration, the school board decided to renovate the cafeteria with the goal of providing students a place to recharge mid-day.

The renovation included an addition with large windows and skylights to bring the outdoors inside, along with a courtyard area where students can picnic with their friends without leaving school grounds. The space was reconstructed to fit more student seating, which condensed the number of lunch periods from five to four. This provided 25 more minutes of study hall, so the project created more time in the school day to catch up on homework assignments.

Hansen reflects on the recent renovation of her school’s cafeteria and its positive impact on students’ attitudes, as well as their grades. “One thousand students flood the doors (to the cafeteria) every day to recharge not only their bodies but also their minds,” she said.

DLA Architects, an architectural firm located in Itasca, specializes in educational and community institutions. DLA led Lyons THSD 204’s “smarter” cafeteria renovation, which succeeded in providing educational institutions solutions to the challenges of 21st-century learning. The firm’s philosophy, “Form Follows Learning,” serves as an architectural method for educational institutions, and leverages each part of a school’s building structure to transform it into an interactive learning experience. As a result, the functionality of the learning environment leads to inspiration for students actively using the space.

“We listen closely to our clients’ educational philosophy to guide us in designing a building that inspires learning,” said Matthew Ryan Lowe, Director of Design at DLA Architects. “We also believe in positively challenging school boards and administrators by encouraging them to work alongside us to not only meet current needs but also to prepare them for the future.”

Success is measured not only by how well the project aligned with the school district’s educational goals, but also through eliciting feedback directly from students — those who are actively learning, communicating, and collaborating within the space.

Although constructed in the 1990s by DLA Architects, Bartlett High School’s Academy of Science, Engineering, and High Technology Lab in School District U-46 was groundbreaking then and still holds a significant impact on students as educators implement 21st-century learning solutions in today’s classrooms.

Because the program’s success was highly dependent on the environment, the Academy and Technology Lab were built with practicality in mind, to foster creativity and ignite collaboration. Windows from the corridor and the Tech Lab’s open-plan layout put learning on display, allowing students to observe the learning and collaboration occurring in different workspaces by walking through the hallways. The exposed mechanical chases overhead create an industrial aesthetic, providing insight into the school facility’s functions and encouraging systems thinking.

 “The intricate pipe and structural work inspires students to think about the world around them,” said recent Bartlett High graduate Marina Filipek. “It’s about thinking outside the box and outside the walls in which we find ourselves every day… and refining the skills necessary to provide a promising future.”

To keep the momentum going, each year the DLA team and an educational client institution attend Learning Environments for Tomorrow (LEFT), a program jointly designed by the Harvard Graduate School of Education and the Harvard Graduate School of Design. At LEFT, they collaborate with educators and architects from around the world and learn more about the connection between the built environment and the educational delivery process. It’s an opportunity for educational leaders to learn how to connect their educational delivery process to the architecture.

“After going through the program with one of our clients, we all went back to the school board immediately to present new ideas and designs to help update their space to support 21st-century learning,” said Edward L. Wright, a partner at DLA.

As school boards consider implementing 21st-century learning in their schools, architecture and design of a space should be considered to help integrate digital and traditional elements as an asset to support educators and students. Architectural firms can be a partner in designing spaces to support the education of our youth today and in the future.

Editor’s note

Resources for his article can be found at