The first time one enters the new Lower School building at the Perkins School for the Blind, inaugurated in March, something seems to be missing.
There's plenty of activity: students, staff, and teachers passing in the hallways, activities going on in classrooms, custodians carrying out tasks. Yet it's quiet.
More like a small college than a secondary school for 6- to 14-year-olds.
"We've found that excessive noise can make learning harder for many students," explains Kathy Heydt, assistant education director for the Lower School Program. "So technologies have been incorporated into the building's design to lessen noise."
It's part of a two-year planning effort that has resulted in a state-of-the-art, environmentally friendly, energy-saving school building. For instance, the fanless air conditioning system is silent; it's a technology more common in Europe than in the United States. And the fluorescent lights are low-hum and have sensors to minimize their use, while the building is designed to feed natural light from its southern exposure into the corridors.
But those are just some of the innovative features – not all of them high-tech – in the new Lower School. The hallways are also wide, so students in wheelchairs can pass each other easily. Today, Perkins has many students in wheelchairs and with multiple disabilities.
Something as simple as wider hallways or a covered walkway, so students don't have to put on coats each time they go to a different building, didn't exist in the old building, which is a handsome, 100-year-old structure that's being renovated for other uses.
"The goal it to make students as independent as possible," says Heydt.
The new classrooms are also larger and more specialized and outfitted to help students learn faster and better. Some rooms have electrical outlets in the middle of them, which allows students with some vision to use direct light on their work. And there's wireless Internet access throughout the building. The Perkins students often use computer such as the Talking Tactile Tablet and Braille Notetaker, which are similar to laptops.
Even decorative quilts on the walls have a functional purpose. They act as "textile landmarks" that let students feel where they are in the building.
On its roof, the school has a giant array of 108 solar panels, and another section is a "green roof," covered in perennial plants that help reduce cooling costs and also lessen runoff. The gym floor is made of highly-renewal bamboo.
The building's innovative construction technologies are also teaching tools — something that could be done in other secondary schools. On one wall inside the school, for example, the construction crew has installed a "tactile display board" with touchable samples of building materials, so students can learn about the construction process. Many of building personnel also took a safety and project awareness course.
In fact, during the construction process, students were able to place bricks into the walls with the supervision of bricklayers.
"You might say that the kids helped build the school," says Bill Winter, senior staff writer at Perkins.