A Final Thought
Thinking About Construction?
- By Paul Abramson
- October 1st, 2016
If you had been a school superintendent, business official or
architect 60 years ago, there’s a good
chance that you would have experienced
planning and building new school facilities.
Practically every school district in the nation
was involved in construction of some kind —
building new schools, enlarging existing
buildings or bringing them into usable shape.
The situation today is very different. Some of you may have built,
many have not, but you may be called upon to plan and build in the
next few years. In some districts, expanding student population
will need to be accommodated; in others construction will be the
result of deterioration of 50-year-old buildings, changes in program
and program expansion. (As an example, who planned to house
pre-kindergarten programs, much less full-day kindergarten, when
most of today’s schools were planned and constructed? Little wonder
that proper space for these programs does not exist today.)
Fortunately, for those who have not previously planned or
built new facilities, “The Essential Guide to School Facility Planning”
(Hill Publishing, Story Wyoming 82842; ISBN: 978-06927)
has just been published.
It was written by Denny Hill, a planner who has worked in large
and small districts for more than 30 years, and it does just what its
title suggests: It guides the inexperienced school planner step by
step through the process, explaining what needs to be done and how
to do it. It would be a valuable book not just for the people doing the
planning, but also to distribute to members of the school board and
to other concerned citizens so that they understand why things have
to be done, why they take time and why solving immediate problems
should not be undertaken unless a long-range view is in place.
Hill takes the reader through the process, step by step, starting
with determining what you need and why. In what he calls the
“situation audit”, he explains how cohort survival demographic
studies are carried out and puts them in context with historic
district trends. In a section on “facility master plan”, he helps the
reader determine what facilities are needed and how many.
Understanding and preparing educational specifications is
next, but now, with every step forward, Hill reminds that everything
needs to be viewed in context with demographics and the
building conditions survey conducted earlier. Let’s not leap forward,
he says in effect, without checking what’s already in place.
Hill takes the reader through site selection, funding options
design and construction options and, finally, monitoring and
managing the process. It’s a valuable step-by-step guide for
the people leading the process and for those who are anxiously
waiting for the project to be completed. The text is accompanied
by many clear graphs and illustrations and five appendices that
provide examples from projects.
If I have one quibble with the book, Hill, whose background is
business and planning, not education, does not spend enough time
on the issue of planning for changes in the educational process
and on bringing into the project new ideas. You could follow all
the steps and end of with a building suited to the 20th Century, not
the 21st. In a very useful chapter on Educational Specifications, he
helps lay out the district’s needs, but then appears to suggest that it
is now up to the architect to design the actual building.
In a chapter on Educational Specifications he helps lay out the
district’s needs but puts too little emphasis on looking at educational
trends and changes that demand different kinds of space or
spaces of different sizes than in the past. As an example, studies
have shown that 900-square-foot classrooms are the minimum
size needed for elementary schools, no matter the number of
students accommodated. That’s a change from what has been
common in the past. And if one wants to gaze into the future of
instruction, the whole concept of classrooms might be challenged.
Hill also appears to suggest that once educational specifications
are written, it should be left to the architect to design the actual
building. Based on my own experience, I think it is important
that district planners stay with the architect all the way, critiquing
proposed designs against district objectives and insuring that
the building design reflects not just the words on the page but the
thinking and objectives behind them.
I was involved with a district that wrote educational specifications
for a new middle school based on teams of students and
teachers working in rooms with quick access to large open spaces
where they could come together, carry out special projects and
move back and forth with ease.
The architect’s plan provided open spaces but not where they
were meant to be. He lined classrooms along a corridor and half
a building away designated a widened corridor as “open space.”
His design met the written specifications but not the spirit and
philosophy behind them. That’s what the school’s planner must
ensure to the very end.
This article originally appeared in the October 2016 issue of School Planning & Management.
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."