15 Low-Cost Tips for School Interiors

Building a new high school today can cost $40 million to $50 million. Thanks to the continuing recession, most school districts can’t afford that kind of money for new construction. Instead, superintendents are opting for remodeling projects and small additions.

These projects can range in cost from $500,000 to $2 million.

While those numbers seem substantial for remodeling and modest expansion projects, interior designers still need to use funds as efficiently as possible. To help, we’ve asked three K-12 school interior design professionals to share some of their favorite low-cost interior techniques.

They are Carla Remenschneider, interior design coordinator with Celina, Ohio-based Fanning Howey Associates, Inc.; Jeanne Jackson, AIA, partner with VCBO Architecture, LLC in Salt Lake City; and Steven M. Shiver, AIA, NCIDQ, LEED-AP, a principal with NAC Architecture in Seattle.

Here’s what they had to say:

VET, Casework, Colors and More
Carla Remenschneider


Vinyl enhanced tile: “I like to replace VCT (vinyl composition tile) with VET (vinyl enhanced tile),” says Remenschneider. VET costs a little more, but it is more durable — lasts twice as long — and it requires less maintenance.

VET outlasts VCT because it has more vinyl content, which gives it greater resilience and abrasion resistance. The maintenance benefit comes from a special top coating offered by many manufacturers.

“You don’t have to wax and maintain VET as much as VCT,” adds Remenschneider. “The savings on materials and labor you’ll see will pay for the VET in three or four years.”

Less casework: Expensive casework typically lines the walls of every classroom in a school, notes Remenschneider. She recommends cutting back to a wardrobe for the teacher and a couple of cabinets on wheels. “Another storage technique we’ve used is to put a common, shared storage room with cabinets between two classrooms,” she says.

Color: “Color and fabric offer inexpensive ways to refresh different kinds of spaces,” Remenschneider says. “Paint is cheap, and you can use it for visual punch. You can also select furniture with colorful fabrics to add to the aesthetics.”

Graphics and art for the walls: “With a little planning, you can create attractive but inexpensive graphics,” she says. “Today, wall covering manufacturers have digital imaging programs that you can use to design your own graphics package. Manufacturers will then incorporate the design into a durable wall covering. I’m also a proponent of hanging artwork on the walls. You can buy it commercially, commission it or even work with art created by students.”

Fewer marker and tack boards:
More and more schools are putting intelligent white-boards into classrooms. At the same time, more and more students are writing on handhelds and laptops instead of marker boards. As a result, you can reduce the number of marker and tack boards in classrooms.

Colors, Themes, Furnishings 
and Free Advice
Jeanne Jackson


Color-coding: “Green paint doesn’t cost any more than white paint,” Jackson says. “We build large schools, and I like to design the interior with small color-coded learning communities. In the last elementary school we worked on, we gave each of four communities — 1st, 2nd, 3rd-4th, and 5th-6th — a different color: gold, honeydew green, purple and cantaloupe orange. The millwork is all done in a neutral color. But the counters are done in the community color. And remember: because color is so inexpensive, you can redo the community colors every couple of years if you want.”

Visual themes: In the same school, Jackson created a theme around astronomy. She wrote to NASA and asked for photos taken by the Hubble Telescope. “They sent us incredible images of four different galaxies,” she says. “We used the photos at the entrance to each of the four areas.”

Furnishing styles: “I once gave some kids a camera and asked them to take pictures of where they liked to sit when learning,” Jackson says. “No one photographed a desk or a desk chair. They took pictures of the floor, beanbag chairs, tables and stools.” Jackson is currently testing an alternate furnishing concept in a school. School officials have furnished three test classrooms with tables and a few regular chairs, some beanbag chairs and a carpeted floor. The goal is to find out how the teachers and students like it.

Free advice: “Even though I don’t get paid, I always offer to spend an afternoon with the principal and others responsible for furnishing a school,” Jackson says. “I want the furnishings to reflect the interior design.” For the astronomy themed school, for instance, she helped school officials find and select fabrics and colors that reflect the space age.

Zigzag Lighting, Relites, Wainscoting and More
Steven M. Shiver


Zigzag lighting fixtures: “We like to think about using lighting fixtures to enhance the design of a space,” says Shiver. “For instance, instead of just running a strip down the middle of a corridor ceiling, we have created zigzag patterns. We’ve also done this in libraries and other large spaces.”

Relites and interior windows: NAC also uses interior relites (interior windows) between classrooms and adjacent interior spaces to allow more daylight to penetrate into the building. This reduces the number of required light fixtures and helps reduce energy costs, Shiver says.

Trimmed wainscot panels: In the Northwestern part of the country, many school building designs call for wood-framed walls instead of concrete block construction. This reduces costs and makes it economical to reconfigure buildings in the future, Shriver says. “Since framed walls don’t have the durability of masonry, we frequently specify medium density fiberboard (MDF) wainscot panels in high-traffic areas and public spaces,” he says. “Wainscoting is easy to install and can include patterns and reveals. We also cap the panels with solid wood trim.”

Double duty products:
Shiver says he looks for products that can perform double duty. As an example, he points to tackable wall coverings that serve as an aesthetic finish and provide wall space for staff and students to mount materials, artwork and other projects.

Sustainable materials: “With today’s focus on sustainability, school officials are requesting that we design with more natural products,” says Shriver. “We look for products that meet sustainable requirements for recycling or renewability while also reducing first costs.

For instance, we’ve found a number of metal ceiling systems made with recycled metal and faux or real wood veneer applied to the metal substrate. Installation costs are significantly lower than a solid wood product. We generally won’t use a metal ceiling system in classrooms, but they enhance the quality and feel of main entrances and public spaces.”

Durable flooring materials:
When considering flooring, Shriver wants durable materials that are easy to maintain. “For areas that are not carpeted, we are specifying ground and sealed concrete or rubber flooring almost exclusively,” he says.

Rubber flooring provides opportunities for creative design, he continues, mentioning colored inset patterns as an example. Concrete, of course, is virtually indestructible.

Shriver concedes that both rubber and concrete cost more to buy and install than VCT, but notes that maintenance is easier. “You can clean rubber and concrete with a damp mop,” he says, “and neither requires stripping or waxing. You’ll save countless maintenance hours over the life of a building.”

Perhaps more important than reducing costs, these kinds of ideas can help to fashion a contemporary, active-learning environment. They brighten and color spaces, bring in natural light and create innovative visual themes that will excite students as well as teachers.

That’s what interior design can do for a school. And that’s a lot more important than lowering costs. 

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