Learn more about GROTH Design Group’s education studio team: Nathan Schieve, AIA, NCARB, LEED AP BD+C, Senior Project Manager, Education Market Sector Leader; and Robert Koehler, AIA, NCARB, Senior Project Manager, Education Market Sector Leader
Q: You both recently joined GROTH Design Group (GDG). What was it about the firm and its culture that attracted you to join?
NS: It was especially important to my family and I to find a firm that supported its team members as human beings as well as employees. The GDG team is a collection of thoughtful designers, exacting technicians, and supportive co-workers that I am glad to be a part of. Knowing that we can celebrate success as well as navigate challenges together allows the group to maintain a steady balance even when circumstances would suggest otherwise. I look forward to many future projects where we continue to put the spotlight on the important work that schools do every day in their communities.
RK: I was first attracted to the work environment that GDG fosters – one that is constantly working to educate, empower, and develop individuals in their personal and professional pursuits. This has, in no small part, supported their development of some exceptional designers, award-winning projects, and created a great place to work. I was also drawn to the tenets of “Listen | Lead | Serve” that are core to how GDG works with their clients. This thoughtful approach resonated with me, as I always strive to better serve those I work with. “Listening” to understand mission, vision, and needs; “Leading” through a shared visioning process to reach consensus; we “Serve” the clients by developing a design solution that embodies their mission, values, and goals.
Q: Robert, you are now working out of GROTH Design Group’s newly established Appleton, Wis. office. The new office will drive even greater accessibility to our clients in the area. What are you most excited about in spearheading this new office location and working with the firm’s clients in the area?
RK: As an Appleton native myself, it is great to be able to serve my home community and the surrounding areas, helping shape the environment we all live, work, play, and learn in. Establishing an Appleton office show’s GDG’s commitment to Northeast Wisconsin while providing us the space and resources needed to meet with clients and grow our team. I am thrilled to be able to bring GDG’s services to my hometown and beyond.
Q: It is no secret that public schools have faced unprecedented challenges and been required to navigate the combination of virtual and in-person learning, many times simultaneously. As we look ahead, what are you seeing as the newly established standards critical to the classroom of the future (technology components, use of outdoor space, classroom structure, etc.)?
NS: Similar to many other sectors, the pandemic did not necessarily turn education on its head, but it absolutely accelerated every trend, firmly established or just emerging, that already existed. Increased use of technology in and out of the classroom, critical evaluation of indoor air quality to support occupant wellbeing, and learning environments that are as adaptable as the students and staff that use them. The time has come for us to seriously consider the function of 20th century classrooms and how hybrid student bodies, full-wall interactive screens, and ever more personalized curriculum will change the quantity, size, and adjacencies that new learning environments will demand.
RK: The COVID pandemic has given us a fresh perspective on educational delivery and some insights into where it might go in the future. The need for school buildings is not going away, but they will need to continue to adjust and evolve to new educational delivery methods and technologies. Digital connections to outside the classroom need to be further supported through webcams, large displays, and supporting audio systems, these will enable ever expanding virtual experiences and collaborative opportunities – Want to speak to an astronaut?…Tour the Pyramids of Giza as a class?…Why not?!
Spaces at the middle and high school level will also need to better support personalized, self-paced and collaborative learning, with gathering spaces of varied sizes, technology and display connections, and better acoustical management in large spaces to name a few. These grades might also see some allowance for hybrid/distance learning for some subjects. Finally, for all, the connection to the outdoors continues to be more recognized as valuable – daylight, views, and access. These things will enhance learning outcomes as well as foster a better connection to the environment and the importance of sustainability.
Q: GROTH Design Group is unwaveringly guided by its principles of Listening, Leading, and Serving, our clients. How do you find these principles critical in leading the education market sector, especially during a pandemic with such tremendous impacts on the sector?
NS: Starting out on a new project, I often find myself repeating a similar phrase to school districts, “Remember that the GDG team are experts in educational design, but we are not yet experts in your schools.” It is critical for us to listen closely to multiple stakeholder groups, especially student voices, when possible, building our knowledge about what has worked and what has not worked in the past. With that foundation, we are able to lead discussions, large or small, to prioritize what interventions will have the biggest impact on their learning environments. Remembering that every district is unique, and each has worked tirelessly to support their students, allows us to serve the community without a personal agenda and realize the most appropriate project to enhance their spaces.
RK: These principles ground us in a mindset of service and empathy. These past two years have been an especially difficult time for school districts to navigate as it relates to COVID, many dealing with periods of virtual learning, adjusted schedules, new software and technologies, etc., all while trying to maintain their focus on the student and their academic success, which itself was further hampered by the emotional/psychological toll this pandemic has had on many. When we start by listening, we reinforce that the focus is on the district and community’s needs and vision, not our own. We need to understand what is most important to them and how we can support them. Leadership comes into focus as we facilitate consensus building when working with the often-large community groups, with varying views, throughout the planning process for schools. This process is not always easy, but there is always common ground to be found. Finally, we serve the community by delivering a design solution that is in alignment with their needs and vision, while ensuring their taxpayer funds are used in a responsible manner, in service to the whole community.
Q: Nathan, you are certified as a LEED Accredited Professional in Building Design and Construction (LEED AP BD+C). School facilities today, perhaps more than ever, are assessing sustainable ways to reduce overall operating costs while also improving the student and faculty experience. For facilities beginning this journey, what are some low-cost, high impact shifts schools can consider to reach a more sustainable operating model?
NS: While reaching sustainability goals can seem daunting at first, there are some initial considerations that can be used as steppingstones to reduce ongoing maintenance and operating costs: review your building’s envelope (walls, roof, doors, and windows) for air leaks; add insulation or sealant where needed; install LED lights and low flow plumbing fixtures; replace less efficient equipment to reduce electric and water usage; consider multiple flooring material options; and, work to prioritize life-cycle cost, not simply lowest up-front cost. These enhancements will not only improve the learning environment for students and staff but will also have an impact on the bottom line for years to come.
Q: Our firm believes that the value of architecture extends far beyond brick and mortar. In partnership with our clients, we have the honor to achieve a lasting, positive impact on individual’s lives and the communities they live in. You must especially feel this to be true in the education sector. Can you speak to where your passion for the education sector comes from?
NS: Learning new skills and challenging old rules are critical to maintaining a growth mindset. While the physical environment is only a piece of puzzle; having safe, healthy, inspiring spaces to engage with peers allows our educational system and students to thrive. My own education has shaped so much of my life and provided me numerous opportunities; I am humbled to have a role in creating spaces that will allow future generations to have even more chances to explore. We should all aspire to be life-long learners and I look forward to finding something new while working alongside a school district on their next project.
RK: I believe strongly in the importance of quality education being available to all individuals, where everyone is provided with an equal opportunity to learn, grow, and develop, and where people are given their first chance to guide their own future through their efforts and decisions. As I consider my own childhood, I cannot help but think of the impact that education had on my life, the teachers that mentored me, the science, art, and technical exploration that I was able to experience, and the social skills I developed through interactions with fellow students. I would argue that this impact, the effect of quality education, can be observed not only in the individual, but also in the community, where those that support education see more population growth, more career options, and there is a visible pride in the built and natural environment they all share as they live, work, learn, and play. It is the prospect that I can contribute to this impact in a meaningful way, through thoughtful design of a facility that could stand for 50 or more years and see thousands of students pass through, that first gave me a passion for the education sector.