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The return on investment in environmental design research

By Sean M. O'Donnell FAIA posted 05-30-2024 05:54 PM


By Sean O’Donnell, FAIA, Principal & K12 Practice Area Leader, Perkins Eastman
Co-Principal Investigator, “Addressing a Multi-Billion Dollar Challenge.” 

Sean O'Donnell headshot


In December Perkins Eastman published a final report for a study that explored whether school modernization had a significant impact on educational outcomes.[1] Funded by the AIA College of Fellows through the biennial Latrobe Prize and J+J Flooring, the study, conducted in collaboration with the Drexel University School of Education, is the largest and most ambitious research project our team had undertaken since we began performing research around 2014.  

In presenting this study, and others that preceded it, someone in the audience would often ask, “How can you invest in such extensive research?” The reasons behind developing a practice to support research, identifying how the results can change our work, and the greater impact of that research on others are all critical factors in defining the “ROI” (return on investment) of research time and resources. In the end, the ability of research to expand our knowledge of how design impacts both building and user performance more than justifies the commitment required. 


A Firm Commitment 

Perhaps the fundamental prerequisite for a practice to undertake consequential research is to have a culture that recognizes the potential that these efforts bring to enhancing the built environment. This can include the potential to improve the quality of the work we produce, enrich the quality of life for the communities and constituents we serve, and/or more pragmatically, to better position the firm to win additional, challenging, and aspirational work. 

Fortunately for our team, Perkins Eastman was already performing research—our leadership understood its foundational value. Our senior living practice area conducts Post Occupancy Evaluations (POE), has published analyses on emerging trends in designing for aging for the AIA,[2] and, most importantly for our school design practice, had hired a full-time Environmental Design Researcher.  


A Driving Question 

Within this supportive environment, the next step was to identify a research topic or question worthy of investing significant time and resources. Such a question confronted us in 2014, as we opened a replacement building for the District of Columbia Public Schools’ (DCPS) Dunbar Senior High School. In concluding the work, we discovered the building had become the highest scoring LEED for Schools building in the world.[3] While this wasn’t a goal, the school community celebrated the achievement as evidence that their efforts had produced something remarkable. However, after hearing this, a budget conscious City Councilor challenged whether the city could afford to build schools like Dunbar. 

As the year progressed and the school settled into its new building, Dunbar reported the highest test score gains of any high school in the city, and enrollment and graduation increased. It appeared the new educational environment had influenced these standard indicators of student success. But we couldn’t know for sure without conducting real research. 

Image: The front door of the new Dunbar Senior High School. Image credit: Joseph Romeo courtesy of Perkins Eastman


A Team and a Process 

With a supportive practice setting and a driving question to be answered, the next step was to develop a research method to investigate the question: does school modernization enhance teaching and learning, and if so, how?  

Developing a rigorous and defensible process takes investment, and it may take even more time than expected to yield meaningful results. We began by tapping the expertise of the firm’s researcher and previous research to develop a Post Occupancy Evaluation (POE) for Dunbar. It provided insight but didn’t answer our fundamental question about school modernization.  

So, we added a Pre-Occupancy Evaluation (PreOE) as a benchmark to compare the POE against. With the addition of several sustainability experts, who had recently joined the firm, we also added a focus on Indoor Environmental Quality (IEQ). Using the Martin Luther King Jr. School project in Cambridge MA, we could begin to establish that student and teacher satisfaction was enhanced in the new building thanks to higher IEQ performance.[4]  

Image: A high-performance classroom at the Martin Luther King Jr. School. Image credit: Robert Benson Photography courtesy of Perkins Eastman 
With a viable PreOE/POE process, we next undertook a nine-school study to further evaluate the connection between IEQ and student and teacher satisfaction in modernized schools within the District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS). With DCPS’ participation we could also now tap anonymized data on school performance.  To assist in the analysis, we bolstered the team’s efforts with a consulting statistician. 

As we concluded that study with encouraging results,[5] we also recognized its limitations. A fortuitous meeting with a member of Drexel University’s School of Education enabled us to address these limitations; expand the team’s expertise; develop a more complete learning environment model focused on IEQ, Educational Adequacy, and Community Connectivity; and, with the collaboration of DCPS and the Baltimore City Schools, expand the number of schools studied. The result would be a more statistically significant sample to evaluate. Thus, we established the team and the methodology underpinning the successful pursuit of the AIA College of Fellows biennial Latrobe Prize in 2019. 


The Investment 

We are often asked, how can the firm support such an extensive process? Meaning, how can we invest time, resources and money to research?  

The research described here required many hours of our team’s time over almost ten years. But, as the work became more compelling, we began to attract grants, first from J+J Flooring to support the nine-school Investing in our Future study. J+J continued to support our work when we next won the AIA College of Fellows’ 2019 Latrobe Prize. These generous grants allowed our team to continually refine our processes and tools, engage outside collaborators, and derive more and more meaningful results, but the firm and our partners still provided time and resources beyond those funded by grants.  

Image: The array of methods used by the interdisciplinary research team for the 2019 Latrobe Prize.


The Return on Investment 

So why make such an investment? How has the investment paid back?  

One answer is that the tools and processes developed have changed and continue to change the way we design. They inform the design decisions we make with our clients to create sustainable, healthy, high-performance schools. The research and the tools have also helped expand the scope of services we offer to school districts beyond individual design projects.  

Today, our research underpins our ability to help districts make informed long term, system-wide strategic planning decisions. And finally, our research has helped districts advocate for funding to modernize more schools. For example, DCPS appended the Investing in our Future Study to two annual capital funding requests to demonstrate that the city’s investment in school modernization was having a significant impact by enhancing student and teacher satisfaction.  

After almost ten years of work, we can also now answer the City Councilor’s challenge to Dunbar. The city’s investment in school modernization does, in fact, have a significant impact on teaching and learning. Now, with the evidence in hand, it’s our hope that more communities will be able to make research-informed investments to create more equitable school facilities that can change, and improve, people's lives. 






Sean leads Perkins Eastman’s international K-12 Education practice, advising and inspiring diverse project teams on new and best practices in design for learning environments. Through his work, he seeks to revolutionize schools, transforming expectations of their role in educating future leaders. He sees the school as the center of its community, and brings together civic architecture, sustainable design, and innovative educational planning to create high-performing, inspiring places where students learn and grow. A global thought leader in education design and co-director of the Consortium for Design and Education Outcomes, Sean conducts innovative research and speaks about transformative, sustainable learning environments around the world. In his spare time, you can find Sean on a beach with his family, ideally with an acoustic guitar and a set of watercolors nearby.


(Return to the cover of the May 2024 PM Digest)