How This School Uses Architecture and Design to Improve Mental Health

When John Lewis Elementary School opened in August 2021, it became the first school in the District of Columbia school system to pursue a WELL Building certification. To get it, the school was designed and built with mental health in mind.

The WELL Building Standard is a set of concepts laid out by the International WELL Building Institute, an organization focused on the relationship between design and health. Those concepts—keying in on air, water, nourishment, light, movement, thermal comfort, sound, materials, mind, community, and innovation—are built off decades of research demonstrating how design can facilitate active learning and childhood development.

“There are myriad strategies that we have for really improving educational outcomes and for improving… the mental health of students, teachers, and staff,” said Rachel Hodgdon, the president and CEO of the IWBI.

Large glass windows that allow for natural light to soak the whole library, geothermal wells that heat the building, pod-style classrooms with garage-style doors that open to collaborative spaces, and increased ventilation are all elements that were designed as part of the certification. And the school itself is part of DCPS’ Capital Improvement Plan, a six-year, $2.5 billion initiative to modernize its facilities.

“We’re here for academics, but if you’re not well, you can’t learn,” John Lewis Elementary’s principal, Nikeysha Jackson, said. “I think this building really supports that and it’s a step in the right direction.”

Jackson also said that, compared to the previous building, she’s seen how the new environment has helped her students focus and changed the way they interact with the space.

“Just the attention to not littering our space. I hear them on the playground [say], ‘Make sure you put it back where you found it,’ ‘Clean up after you’re done,’” Jackson said. “They’re just at a level of consciousness that I’ve never seen before.”

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