Mon, Jul 25, 2022 - 2:38pm

As a collaborative of school districts, architects, builders, building scientists and health professionals, CHPS is fueled by volunteers. Our mission to support healthy learning wouldn’t be possible without them.  

This is especially true of CHPS’ board members. They bring a wide range of knowledge across many fields, and share their expertise with school project teams to help design and maintain healthy, high performance learning environments. 

This month we’d like you to get to know a little more about one of those board members. Irene Nigaglioni has served with CHPS since about 2015, which was shortly before she started her own firm, IN2 Architecture in Dallas, in 2017. 

“My good friend, mentor and colleague Roy Sprague brought me to CHPS,” she said.  “I was very familiar with CHPS and had completed a CHPS school (Atascocita Springs ES), but was not familiar with its governance. He reached out and asked if I would be interested in serving on the board, as he felt my passion and experience would be an asset on the board.” 

Sprague, who is the board’s Vice-Chair and is COO of Cypress-Fairbanks ISD (Texas), said it was an easy decision to recruit Nigaglioni based on her expertise and board experience (he has served with her on the A4LE Board of Directors). 

“She has provided excellent architectural services to our school district over the years, including long range facility master planning.,” he said. “I have to say she is one of the very best architects I’ve had the privilege to work with over my entire career.  She has a very unique ability to get things done quickly and solve detailed problems while addressing the overall goals and vision for her clients.” 

Nigaglioni said she’s enjoyed being on the board and feels that CHPS is in the cat bird seat, given how critical and relevant CHPS’ criteria and mission is and how it relates to the current needs of students.  

“CHPS is all about evidence-based design and how schools can be designed to positively impact learning,” said Nigaglioni, who also serves on CHPS’ National Technical Committee and is part of the TX-CHPS leadership team. “I feel we have a wealth of information that can benefit others, and I am so excited to spread the wealth.” 

CHPS Executive Director Craig Schiller said that excitement and passion is inspiring.  

“It's not easy to try and change a complex system, particularly when it's as diverse and emotionally connected as our schools,” said Schiller, who joined CHPS last fall. “Subject matter expertise is a start but often real change demands a broad understanding of the system, its influencers, respected organizations, navigating multiple needs and wants, a proficiency in marketing, and the ability to connect different parts to spark something that demands attention. 

“Most importantly it requires initiative by regularly showing up. This is what Irene brings to the table, and CHPS is lucky to have her on its Board. Our schools and students need more volunteers like Irene."

Considered a leader in educational planning, her dedication to healthy learning reaches far beyond CHPS. For example, she serves as Chair of the Southern Region Foundation for CHPS partner A4LE, and has earned their Chairman’s and Lifetime Achievement awards among many other honors. She somehow finds the time to be very active in the lecture circuit, presenting at conferences such as A4LE, Ed Spaces, TASA/TASB, School Facilities Forum, and CASH.  

She’s also written numerous articles that have been featured in many publications, and spread her knowledge through virtual talks and webinars like CHPS' School Building Science Fridays session on Calming the School Environment

We recently had a chance to do a Q&A with her on a wide range of topics: 

Q: Why is it so important that students have safe/calming spaces in schools? 

A: Learning is a very tough task.  In order to gain new knowledge, we cannot be distracted or disrupted.  Our brains are designed to keep us safe, so our first instinct is to find a way out of a space. This is called thigmotaxis. School environments are too often designed to be institutional, which is distracting, forcing our brain to constantly look for a way out.  

Schools that are designed to be calming and safe take that distraction out of the equation. Calming schools provide for spaces that restore learners.  This means spaces that inspire, allowing for transition from the outside world to a calming, safe environment.  The inclusion of mentoring zones and restoration zones that include biophilic elements (a CHPS criteria) help refocus the brain to allow learning to happen. When I am stressed, my brain always goes back to the beaches in PR. The sound of the waves, the feel of the breeze, the smell of the sand and water, and the memories they evoke can bring me to calmness.  I try to design schools that have that calming feeling for all students, as diverse and special as they all are. 

Q: What areas should school designers be focusing on, and are there trends that offer encouraging signs for the future? 

A: I personally think designing for wholeness is the most important trend in our profession today.  This means creating safe, calming, nurturing and awe-inspiring environments that allow all learners (students and teachers) to be inspired and learn.  The decisions we make on how to incorporate these components must be aligned to vision for learning. There are so many design components that I see going in schools today that aren’t aligned to the vision for learning that they have become almost like a meme.  Although I am a proponent of collaboration spaces, how they are designed and integrated to create diversity of settings and experiences is important. Too often I just see the space and some furniture within it, making it generally irrelevant. 

Using the CHPS criteria can help better design those spaces, as you can focus on items like acoustics, natural and artificial lighting and inclusive design to accomplish a variety of settings that help enhance learning.  I do believe that we should design for the most sensitive learners, and this will result in spaces that support all. 

Q: Could you share some insight into your experience as woman in business leadership, and do you have any advice for young women navigating your field? 

A: Part of me wishes that there didn’t need to be a question that relates to business leadership because I am a woman, but sadly, as a society we are not there yet.  When I was younger and working for the large firm here in Texas, I was sent to meet a client as a project manager for an upcoming project.  When I arrived, the client questioned my experience and proceeded to call my employer at the time to state they had made a mistake. To me, that just became a challenge I had to overcome, which I did. Whatever I do, I have learned I need to do more in order to shine.  It is funny because I was never an overachiever in HS; you could actually say I was a bit lazy. I have taken every task and made it my goal to excel, so that people learn to trust me. I do this for all I do, and I believe it is what has helped me become a leader in educational architectural design and planning.  

Starting my own firm in 2017 was tough and has come with a lot of challenges and learning opportunities. I know I lose a lot of sleep making sure we take care of our clients in the most dedicated way possible, including providing outstanding design and planning. That lack of sleep is exacerbated by making sure we are profitable business, and that we can continue to operate efficiently. Learning the full business side has been a steep curve (I missed payroll twice…now I have a million calendar notices) but I have appreciated the learning opportunities it has afforded me. 

I try to recruit more women to architecture and construction fields as I believe women bring a much-needed perspective to a traditionally male dominated field.  My biggest advice to young women thinking about this career path, and business leadership is not to give up and not be disillusioned by initial reactions.  Be a lifelong learner, always stay relevant and you will never be disappointed. 

Q: What drew you to your profession in architecture and working with school design? 

A: I grew up in San Juan, PR.  Since an early age, my dad told me and my siblings that if financially possible, he would like for all of us to attend school in the main US.  He had the opportunity to do this in the 1950’s which was very uncommon, and he felt the experience was invaluable. He and my mom made sure we all put education as our top focus always. 

So, I worked hard through HS, but never thought about a career.  When it came time to apply to college, I looked at those things I liked to do for inspiration.  Architecture came due to the combination of my love for math and drawing. I then charted a path and applied to schools hoping to get in their architecture program. I didn’t know what I was signing up for, but I attended college at Washington University in St. Louis. I very quickly became aware of how unprepared for architecture I was.  A few tough professors inspired me to be better, and 7 years later I completed my master’s degree in architecture. 

In between my bachelor’s degree and my master’s degree, I returned home to PR, because I needed to be sure this was what I wanted to do.  I had the fortune to work with a wonderful small firm in PR, where I learned just about everything about architecture, including learning about educational environments.  

As I moved to Texas, I landed a job at a large educational architecture firm. At first, I endeavored to learn about the public school system, as the one in PR was not good. The more research I did, the more interested I became.  Sometimes, architectural tasks get boring and mundane as you have more paperwork than creative work, answering RFI’s and reviewing submittals.  To overcome that, I researched more and more about pedagogy and learning, the brain and how it worked, and how the environments I created could enhance learning.  I quickly became a passionate proponent of public education, and the importance of evidence-based design in educational architecture.  

I am now a mom of a 17-year-old boy.  Looking at learning through his lens has been a learning experience for me.  He is the kid I want to design my schools for, and I love discussing designs and solutions with him, as well as touring new and innovative designs to hear his take on them. To this day, it is still the way I continue to motivate myself to do more. 

Q: Could you share something about yourself that people might not know?  

  • I have been married to Steve Barron for 30 years.  We met in St. Louis quickly after I finished my master’s degree working at the same architectural firm. We got married and swore we would never work together as we are polar opposites.  Well…we work together now! 
  • We have a son, 17, Kyle. He is the light of my world, although he is a pain in the rear teenager.  He plays soccer and baseball, so we spend a lot of weekends and nights watching games. He is interested in owning a garage and fixing classic cars, so I will do everything to support him in that.  I am in awe of him every day. 
  • I was born and raised in Puerto Rico where my family still loves.  However, I have now lived in Texas longer than anywhere, which I guess makes me part Texan. When I first moved to Texas I had soooo much trouble understanding people because of their accent. I have gotten much better now! 
  • I look to cook and entertain. That is my one hobby. I keep a huge list of recipes I want to try and test them out on friends, as well as have a cadre of meals that I know are always a hit.  My mom is a great cook, and I took that passion from her.  My parents would entertain all the time and I would always be in the kitchen helping.  People in PR know how to celebrate, and I miss that a lot living in Texas, as I don’t see that same level of joie de vivre.