Giving Students Some Space

An architect called to ask what school districts across the nation are providing in terms of square feet per student in their elementary schools, I told him that the latest construction report (see SP&M, February 2006) indicated that the median district was providing 120 sq. ft. per elementary school child. The school he had on the drawing board had 139 sq. ft. for each student. Was that too much?

I pointed out that national figures do not necessarily give an accurate picture. Schools in warm climates often do without corridors so that students go outside between classes and activities. That would not work in other parts of the nation, but it pulls the national median down. Regional figures (also provided in the construction report) would be more useful.

The school this architect is planning is located in a region where the median elementary school provides almost 157 sq. ft. for every child. When we examined the school on his drawing board, we realized that the district had specified a single“multi-purpose” room (often dubbed“multi-useless”) to serve as a gymnasium, cafeteria and auditorium.

Most elementary schools in his area have long since done away with this concept. With a separate cafeteria, the school would be about 150 sq. ft. per student. The architect hopes he can convince the district to provide the separate facility, since the building will still be below the area median in terms of space per student.

The Changing Space Scene

The architect’s question led me to examine how space-per-pupil has changed in the United States through the years. A study of schools built in 1970, showed the average elementary school provided 70 sq. ft. per child, the average high school 120, both low by today’s standards.

A lot has changed in schools since 1970. Technology, programs for children with special needs, handicapped accessibility and Title IX take space, as do reduced class size, expanded libraries and media centers, art and music rooms, science and computer labs, additional offices, full day kindergarten, pre-kindergarten… the list goes on. What they all have in common is that they take space not normally provided in schools built in 1970.

By 1987, the first year for which I have consistent information, the median elementary school was providing 90 sq. ft. per student; today the median is just over 120 sq. ft., a 34 percent increase. The median middle school in 1987 provided 111 sq. ft. per student, increasing 32 percent to 146 sq. ft. per pupil by 2005. By 1987, high schools were already providing 153 sq. ft. per student, but that stands now at almost 163 sq. ft., an increase of six percent.

How much space should you provide for each student in your schools? There is no magic to any of these medians, but, if a school you are planning has significantly more or less space than these medians (or, more important, the medians of new schools in your area), you ought to know the reason why.

Jamming too many activities into a so-called multi-purpose room may save a few construction dollars, but will inhibit the program for 50 years. An elementary school with classrooms clustered into pods may command more space than one with straight corridors, but if the program calls for students to work on projects, teaming and classes working together, it will be important to include that space.

A middle school that provides exclusive space for each team and its teachers will need more space per pupil than a middle school that schedules each classroom every period and has students moving from room to room around the school. But the middle school program will not work as well if each team does not have its private space.

A high school that features a full-scale auditorium or several performance gymnasiums will need more space. Similarly, a high school that includes shops for industrial arts, full-scale music and art facilities or science research labs may exceed the median.

Program, not arbitrary space goals, should determine how much space you provide in your schools. But do keep one thing in mind. If you build a school with 1970 space in the year 2010, you’re already 40 years out of sync. And, in planning for the future, remember the pattern of the last 40 years. The need for space to house mandated and desired programs continues to grow. It’s a lot less expensive to provide a little extra space today than it will be to add space in the future.

About the Author

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."