Best Practices for School Construction

The results from a new survey of the largest K-12 public school districts in the nation indicate that the school systems that had model five-year master plans were more likely to have fewer problems in the school construction process. The survey asked school planners, facility managers and superintendents about methods and practices used for school construction in order to determine best practices for school construction projects. The survey results are currently being finalized, but early analysis indicates that there are at least two important areas where school systems can learn from the best practices of others — planning and teambuilding.

Although 80 percent of all survey respondents noted that their school districts required a master plan for school construction, only 23 percent said their planning process was excellent and could serve as a model for others. The school systems with model master plans for school construction appear to have fewer surprises during the construction process, including reduced impact from change orders, thus allowing those school systems to reduce their project contingency budgets. They also have fewer surprises due to problems like“scope creep” during the project. A leading factor causing scope creep, according to the survey, is the tendency for facility users to impose different requirements during the construction process. Improved planning and collaborative processes can help to reduce the causes of scope creep and incorporate changes into the process before the construction phase gets underway.

One of the most important collaborative processes is teambuilding, often called partnering. When asked about project collaboration practices, the top responses were all key elements in a formal partnering process and, for example, included providing a clear contact for decisions and approvals; assembling the project team early and meeting frequently; openly sharing mission and goals and delegating communication and collaboration responsibility to the project manager, general contractor or construction manager. Many of these same elements in varying degrees of importance show up on surveys of owners that include public, private and government companies and institutions. When building public K-12 schools, there are often many parties involved outside the formal construction process, including school boards, parents of schoolchildren and the public in the school district. Collaboration and teambuilding should start in the master planning process and carry through to the construction process where the master plan serves as a key document for construction pre-planning and design.

Building teams and enlisting partners early in the process helps to ensure that everyone is aware of the goal and budget for the school construction project. In many surveys of contractors and owners conducted by FMI, the companies with the most effective planning processes tend to be the most productive, profitable and most likely to complete projects on time and within budget.

The construction process is very complex. For school systems that are building new schools and major renovation projects on tight budgets, good planning and partnering between all parties will help avoid changes in the later project stages and should result in more successful projects. One thing is clear from our survey of the largest school systems in the nation — the need to build new schools and renovate old ones is no longer an occasional event. Increasing numbers of students to educate and a shifting population will challenge school boards, planners and facilities managers for many years to come.

The Public K-12 School Construction Management Survey was conducted in conjunction with the Council of Educational Facility Planners International (CEFPI). The complete results of the survey will be released in September 2005. To receive a copy of the survey results when released, e-mail Philip Warner at .

MARK NAPIER Napier is a consultant for FMI, management consultants to the construction industry. Mark may be reached at .