August 13, 2013, was a big day: the ‘Education Built to Last’ School Facilities Best Practices Tour visit by the U.S. Department of Education and Environmental Protection Agency, beginning at a Staten Island ED-Green Ribbon School (Hubert Humphreys) and continuing to three ED-GRS honorees in northern New Jersey. While I drove the 70 miles to the event through pouring rain and high winds, I was secure in my belief that, at the end of the day, my feelings toward school facilities would be unchanged. After many years of designing, building, managing, reviewing, and approving school facility projects for the State of New Jersey, I believed that my “Theory of Beige” would remain intact.
The “Theory of Beige” is quite simple. At one of the school districts where I was previously employed, all the classrooms were painted beige. They were intended to be neutral and unnoticed. As long as the walls remained in their beige state, they never received criticism. They were only noticed when they became damaged from desks or chairs scuffing the paint, water leaking through the ceiling, or graffiti marring the walls. Over many years of working for the district and attending more than 200 school board meetings, I do not recall a single instance that someone praised the pristine condition of the beige walls. They did, however, complain about dented walls, dirty floors, broken lockers, and the like.
From this experience, I concluded that the best a school facility could hope for was to remain anonymous and that, likewise, the best the facilities director and staff could hope for was that no one knew who they were. To be known meant that something diverged from beige.
The first tour stop on the School Facilities Best Practices Tour began with the introduction of dignitaries, remarks, and appreciation all around, followed by a school tour. We moved to the next school and enjoyed a wonderful healthy lunch and interactive tour. Then, we had a chance to listen to a presentation by five of the six New Jersey ED-GRS honorees from the first two years of the program. The day ended in late afternoon, after the fourth school tour of the day, at a school challenging itself to become a Living Building, with everyone tired but satisfied with what was seen and heard.
As I began my way back home, I mulled over the events of the day. My “Eureka” moment came while I was enjoying a mid-trip respite afforded by stopped traffic on Interstate 287. I realized that U.S. Department of Education Green Ribbon Schools had poked holes into my “theory of beige.”
What had been a traditional classroom was now a sustainability and art studio; a standard science lab had been transformed into an environmental science resource; and a school roof became an energy source, teaching tool, and opportunity to get students outdoors. A courtyard where trash once accumulated was transformed into a productive garden that provided a native habitat to local wildlife, a site for student-constructed rain barrels, and a place to cultivate mushrooms and learn about composting. A dreary corridor was transformed into solar heat sink to absorb sunlight in the winter months and slowly release the heat later in the day. The school grounds now allowed the underground to be used as a source of heating and cooling, an energy efficient way to ensure a healthy and safe learning environment and outdoor classroom for students and staff.
In short, the dull, anonymous, beige school facility has become a relic of the past. The ED-GRS recognition has spotlighted a new type of school facility, one that serves as a critical teaching tool, uniquely designed and integrated into the educational programs offered by the school. After decades of working on school facilities, my conclusion is that this integration of facility and instruction is truly the best way to deliver an ‘education built to last.’
Now that my “theory of beige” has been eliminated, I will have to adopt a new theory. Maybe I’ll look into a new theory about the “Jersey Devil.” I’ll have to get back to you on that one.
Bernard E. Piaia, Jr. is director of the Office of School Facilities for the New Jersey Department of Education