A Chance to Change Codes
- By Paul Abramson
- February 1st, 2008
A few months ago, I wrote a column
concerning state laws and regulations that stifle innovation in school design.
The catalyst had been listening to a speaker describing modern techniques and
approaches that were being used in schools, and then talking about the kinds of
spaces necessary to support them. All around me, architects were furiously
raising their hands and saying, “we can’t do that in our state” because it
would violate one or another regulation.
There was a sense of frustration in the
air. I was sitting among dozens of architects who were aware of how education
was changing, who had ideas about creating better spaces to accommodate today’s
needs and provide flexibility for the future, but who rightly or wrongly felt
that their state building codes forced them to stick to old practices and
designs that did not fit today’s needs.
I had some examples of my own. In one
instance, I had specified 900-sq.-ft. rooms in order to meet program needs, but
the state allowed, and in effect encouraged, smaller classrooms — classrooms
that were too small for modern programs. I had learned that office space was a
problem because the state did not consider office space part of the educational
process, and therefore would not pay the state’s share of construction costs. I
had also come up against issues concerning the use of interior glass and open
space. I was told that fire codes make certain designs difficult.
If state regulations were keeping
innovative ideas out of schools, I felt that there was a need to bring
regulators, architects, and educators together to examine the building codes
and to see how they might be modified to allow better schools.
A project like that needs national
leadership, and I suggested it as a good project for the Council of Educational
Facility Planners, International (CEFPI). (National
leadership could come from Congress or the Federal Government, but I hope not.
Politicians are not the ones to understand educational needs or to draft rules
and regulations concerning schools, as the No Child Left Behind legislation
I’ve had two very interesting reactions
to that column. The first was unexpected. It came from architects who said it
was not always the rules but the architects who could be the cause of the
problems. They pointed out that when a
client suggests doing something different or unusual, or asks a question about
why something was done, it’s often easier to say, “state regulations or fire
codes,” than to take the time to solve a new design problem or to admit that
something that had been done was a mistake.
The second came from the Northeast
Region of CEFPI, informing me that it had decided to take that column as the
theme for its Spring 2008 conference, to be held in Albany, NY,
and asked if I could open that meeting with a keynote speech on the topic.
The region is planning a full-day
symposium centered around panelists from states within the region involved in
the regulation and oversight of school facility planning, design, and
construction. Representatives from the state education departments in New York, Massachusetts,
and Maryland have already agreed to
participate, and others are expected from Pennsylvania,
Vermont, New Jersey,
This is not to be a gripe session or a
case of regulators standing up and defending what they do. Rather the objective
is to have a positive dialog between regulators and design practitioners in a
joint effort to understand how they can work together to provide school
districts with the best possible educational facilities for the needs of the 21st
Century, while keeping them safe, secure, and economically viable. Individual
sessions will cover planning and design regulations, sustainability, and
funding and equity issues. It should be an exciting and useful forum.
It’s an important step forward. There’s
a good reason for state regulations and oversight (not the least being that
state money is often used to build local schools), but unfortunately, laws and
regulations tend to get stuck in place and sometimes outlive their usefulness
or purpose. The Albany
discussions will give everyone an opportunity to examine the issues, make
suggestions, draw conclusions, and possibly, suggest changes that will
facilitate the business of creating better, more flexible schools for today and
The meetings are scheduled for April 17, 18, and
19 and are open to all participants. If you are interested in learning more
about how state rules and regulations can be loosened and changed to support
better schools, registration is open now. I hope to see you.
Paul Abramson is education industry analyst for SP&M and president of Stanton Leggett & Associates, an educational facilities consulting firm based in Mamaroneck, N.Y. He was named CEPFI’s 2008 "Planner of the Year."