LSW Principal, Jason Olson

Safe, Sustainable, and Inclusive: Discussing the Future of Educational Architecture with LSW Principal, Jason Olson

March 30, 2022 by Clayton Truscott

Jason Olson is a steadying presence at LSW. He is always there when you need him, composed, and ready with a plan or an appropriate sporting analogy to ground a conversation, project, or an idea. With more than twenty years at the firm and an impressive list of K-12 projects to his name, he has become a foundational leader to whom our internal teams and clients turn to for clarity, insight, and precision.

Against the backdrop of an evolving architectural landscape that is being driven by new technology and an ever-increasing need for connection to the natural world and community, the newly appointed Principal is taking the lead on K-12 projects at LSW. And, like always, he’s prepared to do what he does best: rally teams, work hard, and deliver.

To get his thoughts on this challenge, we recently took a few moments to ask about a range of topics critical to the firm, including his road to this new leadership role and the changes and evolutions that are shaping the future – for him, LSW, and K-12 environments across the country.

Jemtegaard Middle and Columbia River Gorge Elementary School (above) was designed and built to fit within its iconic home in the Pacific Northwest

What has helped prepare you for the role of Principal at LSW?

When I joined the firm, I knew I would be here for the long haul—but becoming a Principal at LSW was not one of my early professional goals. I’ve always loved this work, and when I looked at Casey (Wyckoff) and the other Principals, I believed that my skillset was ideal for project management. With time, experience, and knowledge of K-12 school projects that has been built over two decades, I’ve learned to be comfortable with myself and my own leadership style.

My approach is to be heavily involved on projects and focused on details. While Casey creates value for our clients through his bigger picture thinking and strategizing, particularly very early in a project, my strengths and highest level of confidence have always been in execution, working side by side with our team and clients, making sure that LSW is delivering work on time and budget.

Alongside my work at LSW, I would say that officiating volleyball has significantly increased my sense of personal confidence, too—because you have to be confident and self-assured in that role, or athletes and coaches will eat you up. Being a referee for twenty-five years has helped to develop my communication style and my ability to make quick decisions.

As a Principal, how will your focus on K-12 projects change?

A big part of my new role is leaning into the daily needs of our K-12 clients—providing the Principal-level leadership that is needed to give clients confidence in LSW and to keep delivering work that brings joy to learners and communities. For me, that means finding ways to exceed expectations, to add value, and be a trusted partner to our current and future K-12 clients. Our relationship with many school districts goes back decades and it’s absolutely critical that we keep showing up for them and making their lives easier. Our history with these districts is only a competitive advantage if we continue to add value that meets and exceeds the needs of today’s educators and learners.

(Above) LSW worked with the Ridgefield School District on the design for Sunset Ridge Intermediate School View Ridge Middle School.

Starting at the proposal stage of any project, we have to show that our historic knowledge of local districts is complemented by a long-term, future-focused vision of K-12 educational spaces and the capabilities needed to deliver. To me, this means putting time and resources into new technology, tools, processes, and areas of expertise that can help us bring teachers, students, and administrators closer to the design of their schools, so that they can help shape an environment that best serves their needs.

Can you unpack how the needs of K-12 schools/clients have changed over timewhat do these changes mean for architects and designers working in educational spaces?

At a firm that’s been around as long as LSW, you can begin to see and analyze long-term trends and changes that happen over generations. The architecture, engineering, and construction (AEC) industry has evolved a lot since I joined the firm over 20 years ago. The design process used to be more linear and compartmentalized, which just doesn’t work in a world where varying styles of communication, differing perspectives, and needs play such an important role in the creation of any space. Part of this firm’s evolution has been finding ways to grow with education, to keep putting their needs at the forefront of our design processes.

The Jim Tangeman Center (above) provides a specialized educational program for students grades 1 through 12, focusing on emotional and behavioral self-regulation.

We’re also a much more connected and socially-aware society. There are so many critical design elements we need to understand to provide the same service. To be more specific, factors like sustainability, safety and security, trauma-informed design, equity, and inclusion—all of these things, coupled with the evolution of learning and how that manifests itself in space, has made designing any school a much more involved, complex, exciting, and rewarding challenge.

Every school in every district has its own unique challenge and for us, connecting with each one as an individual community is how we can continue to add value. Considering everything from social and economic factors, to trauma, intercultural and cross-cultural design, varying modes of mobility and more, we’re also starting to work more with specialized consultants to make sure our team is able to meet specific needs with specific levels of expertise. Understanding what it means to be truly inclusive and pairing this knowledge with design solutions is a commitment to constantly learning.

What are some of the ways that LSW collaborates with school districts to accomplish these things?

A school is a community asset that should reflect and respond to the needs of its users. It should also last at least five to ten decades, which is far longer than most of the material being taught today. These are two important truths to recognize and embrace. Designing a school the right way means bringing its users as close as possible to the process.

LSW’s signature symposium process is designed to uncover important needs, allow space for perspectives and views, and build consensus in large, diverse groups, all of which help shape the design ideas.

I alluded to this earlier, but our stakeholder engagement and symposia process has become a vital part of beginning any education project. This series of pre-design meetings puts our team and consultants in the room with key District stakeholders, which includes students, to discuss their vision and hopes and challenges. For us, we need to listen to students and teachers, to understand their needs, to earn their trust, and to design a space for them.

As for the lifespan of the building, flexibility is an ally to longevity. There are things that we know will be important decades from now, which are critical to the design. Safety and security, for example, will always be a priority. If we look at massing and layout, research continues to show the mental, physical, and learning benefits of more natural daylighting, improved indoor air quality, acoustics, and spatial variety; these are good long-term design considerations.

History shows that spaces in a school today will very likely be different in one to two decades. Educational models and programs change, demographics can change, staff and ideas change; we have to do our best to look into a crystal ball and think about how spaces can adapt. One example of how we try to respond to the inevitability of change is limiting those items that create specialized spaces as much as possible, by making as many things portable as we can. This includes casework, storage, and furnishings, so a space can more easily be adapted to a different use. This is one area where LSW’s Interior Studio, who work in tandem with the architects, provide an invaluable service by using their understanding of space, materiality, and natural elements to create a user experience that feels cohesive and tailored to the original project vision.

Image Elementary (Above) is one of seven prototype schools LSW designed for the Evergreen School District.

What aspects of design and architecture keep you motivated?

I’ve always made the metaphor that an architect is like the quarterback of the construction team – we work with a large team of specialized disciplines, and we have to make sure that everyone is communicating and working well together. We have to have a working knowledge of everything to make sure the building gets into the end zone. It’s a fun challenge to keep everything together and to celebrate wins, as a team.

At the same time, we need to continue to listen, understand, and research all of the constantly changing factors that have an impact on the design of space (and specifically schools) and push ourselves to grow and serve our clients.

There was a period of time a while ago when I realized that I have a career’s worth of experience and knowledge in K-12 projects, and that I can lean into that to maximize my value to LSW and our clients. Designing schools has always been a labor of love. Each one presents its own set of challenges and opportunities and serves a community in ways that are unique to every neighborhood.

LSW has been a leader in educational architecture for decades and it will continue to be a huge part of our legacy and portfolio. I can bring value by leading this part of our practice and that is what my team at LSW is counting on me for as a Principal. Gaining more experience in Business Development is getting me out of my comfort zone these days, as that was never something I was counted on for in the past.

What does the future of educational architecture hold?

Technology and sustainability will continue to shape and drive the direction of our craft. Virtual reality, as an immersive design tool and an experience for collaborative design, is going to become more and more prevalent. We’ll continue to use VR and other technologies – which we probably don’t even know about yet – to design and present both project concepts and full project designs.

LSW and Evergreen Public Schools staff worked with dedicated community health partners at PeaceHealth, Legacy, Providence, Kaiser, Clark College, and WSU Vancouver to design the 69,000 sf Henrietta Lacks Health and Bioscience High School (above).

Sustainability will continue to drive our profession and the way we design buildings. With climate change becoming more aggressive alongside the world’s growing population, shifting and expanding policy environments focused on comprehensive sustainability goals will drive us, and our clients, to design with conviction and a stronger eye toward being true stewards of our environment. We have a goal of designing net-zero buildings by 2030 (as part of the AIA’s 2030 Challenge) and it’s not that far away. As our state continues to push school districts and public agencies to design more sustainable buildings, LSW Architects is in a key position to lead our clients to a more sustainable future.

Sustainability will take a foundational effort across not just LSW, but our partners and clients, to design and deliver spaces that are resilient, welcoming, inclusive, and fundamentally beneficial to our communities and the environment.

What advice would I give my 30-year-old self, knowing what I know now?

  • Don’t doubt yourself
  • Find ways to get out of your comfort zone
  • Be a student of the profession and find your true passion