Get the Most From Your Architect

I sat in on an interview when a school board was deciding which architectural firm to hire. I was part of one architect’s team. After making our presentation and responding to questions, we had an opportunity to ask some questions of our own. I was surprised by the responses. I asked about expectations for change in the student body. No demographic study had been made. I asked about school size, organization of the program and about how instruction might change in new facilities. None had been seriously considered.

Apparently, little planning had been done before the district began looking for an architect. The district felt it needed new facilities and it needed an architect to design them. But what was needed, for how long, at what grade level and for what program? Those questions had not been asked or answered.

Before You Call

Before calling an architect, a school district should have its own educational long-range plan focused on the numbers of students to be served, the district’s educational program and the way instruction will take place. Such a long-range plan may very well show that the district lacks facilities, but it need not identify the best way to get those facilities. That’s the job of the architect.

Architects are designers of space, and the best of them do a terrific job of taking your program and translating it into facilities. But most are not demographers or educators. If you bring them in without having a plan in place, all they can do is fix or expand what already exists. It is up to the district to look ahead, to determine how it would like programs to change and then to consider the facilities that might facilitate that change.

Long-Range Planning

A long-range educational plan can be developed“in-house” or with the aid of an educational planner, but whether the leadership comes from the district or a consultant, the planning should involve faculty, administrators, parents, students and interested members of the community, including leaders in the business, financial and public service industries.

A first major step should be to carry out a demographic study to determine the number of students you are likely to be serving over the next five or 10 years. In stable districts, a simple“cohort survival” estimate will be sufficient. Cohort survival suggests that the grade-to-grade progression of students that has been occurring is likely to continue. If your district is changing (new housing is being planned, ethnicity is changing, a non-public school is opening or closing, employers are leaving, etc.), cohort survival may give a false reading. A more detailed study, taking into account economic, ethnic and other changes in and around a school district, ought to be considered.

Once you have an understanding of the numbers of students you are going to be serving, how are you going to serve them? Should the grades be reorganized? The decision to have specific grades in one school rather than another ought to be an educational decision, not based on available space.

How will technology be used, where and by whom? It’s easy enough to say that technology ought to be available everywhere, but educators should determine what is needed where so that the architects can do more than just make it available. They can plan it for optimum use.

How will the program be organized? There is sufficient evidence that students do better in small learning groups. If you must have 800 students in an elementary school or 2,000 in a high school, do you want to consider ways in which they can be broken into smaller groups?

I think you also ought to think about the needs of your community beyond the schools and whether the schools can or should participate in them? Consider senior centers (they work very well adjacent to elementary schools and pre-school centers), libraries, health care, day care and job training. Does the area need them? Could they be part of a school complex? Would other governments help pay for them?

Those are just some of the questions that a district ought to be looking at in its own long-range planning. Then, when an educational plan is in place, call an architect and ask for help in examining the space you have and the space you may need. That’s when they can do the best job for your district.

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."