ACES OF SPACE // How innovative design transforms classrooms into safe NextGen learning spaces for students with elevated ACE scores.


Aaron Buehring
HMC Architects

Anna Iverse
University of California, Santa Cruz

Gema Godina-Martinez
Principal, Dr.
Washington STEAM Academy

LU: 1

Learning Units/Health, Safety, Welfare (LU/HSW)

How applies to HSW:

An ACE (Adverse Childhood Experience) score is a tally of different types of abuse, neglect and other hallmarks of a rough childhood. Almost HALF the nation’s children have experienced at least one or more types of serious childhood trauma which can negatively affect their ability to engage in group learning. While collaboration and group learning is central to NextGen learning environments, it’s also part of the problem for kids with an ACE score. This presents a challenge and opportunity to the AEC industry to make students feel safe, connected and ready to learn with technology and innovative design solutions. This presentation first delves into evidenced-based research that explains the physical effects on the brain, statistics, and outcomes of students with an ACE score. We’ll present the sobering statistics that divulge how students with a score of 3 or more are three times more likely to have academic failure, four times more to have poor health, and six times more likely to have behavioral problems. We’ll discuss how the AEC industry can rise to this challenge by incorporating technology and innovative design and collaborate with school districts to create supportive learning environments that benefit all students. Lastly, we’ll discuss how we re-imagined, re-designed, and re-opened Sacramento Unified School District’s Washington Elementary School from being shut down due to declining inner-city enrollment and district-wide budget cuts to a thriving new STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Mathematics) school that offers all students a safe sense of place. We’ll highlight specific features such as built in ‘cubbies’ that give students a place to nestle quietly and recalibrate. School staff will share how they incorporate the ‘cubbies’ into their lesson plans and talk about the positive behavioral impact they are making. Attendees will leave with a solid understand of how changing these environments can help increase attendance, retain staff, and ultimately provide a financial boost to the district. In closing, we’ll hear some valuable post occupancy suggestions from Washington school staff on what could have been done better, and how the design could be changed to further help students with an ACE score.

Learning Objectives:
  • Recognize the important role the built environment plays in supporting -or aggravating – students with elevated ACA scores
  • Learn from educators who work with students with high ACE scores about specific building design elements, such as small build-in cubbies or furniture, that can help minimize student anxiety levels
  • Gain tools and strategies to use during the programming and early design phases to help uncover when/determine which strategies might be relevant for the student population being served
  • Demonstrate how to design appropriate safety elements seamlessly, such as decorative metal screens, green walls, or art, into the project to avoid the results appearing as a correctional facility, often a trigger for students with an elevated ACE score


Primary Competency:

Design of Educational Facilities: Acts as a resource to the design team in providing ongoing guidance and support to ensure that the emerging and ultimate design aligns with the established community vision, education goals, future programming, written design standards, best/next practices and education policy.

Primary Domain:

Learning: Content of this session/workshop will focus on how we learn and/or how the physical environment responds specifically to various methods of instruction, pedagogies, learning styles, or learning trends.

Secondary Domain:

Context: Content of this session/workshop will focus on the circumstances that form the setting for the design and construction of specific learning environments and characteristics that distinguishes the project from other applications.

Additional information: The number or students effected by ACE’s are shocking, while too few people in the educational industry know about it. Studies found 1 in 16, or 2 students per classroom, have a ACE’s score of 4 or more. Meaning at least two students per classroom will be three times more likely to have academic failure, four times more to have poor health, and six times more likely to have behavioral problems. We feel passionate about bringing this topic to light to help insure all students, and teachers, can be successful in the Next Gen learning environment.