A Chance to Change Codes

A few months ago, I wrote a column concerning state laws and regulations that stifle innovation in school design. The catalyst had been listening to a speaker describing modern techniques and approaches that were being used in schools, and then talking about the kinds of spaces necessary to support them. All around me, architects were furiously raising their hands and saying, “we can’t do that in our state” because it would violate one or another regulation.

There was a sense of frustration in the air. I was sitting among dozens of architects who were aware of how education was changing, who had ideas about creating better spaces to accommodate today’s needs and provide flexibility for the future, but who rightly or wrongly felt that their state building codes forced them to stick to old practices and designs that did not fit today’s needs.

I had some examples of my own. In one instance, I had specified 900-sq.-ft. rooms in order to meet program needs, but the state allowed, and in effect encouraged, smaller classrooms — classrooms that were too small for modern programs. I had learned that office space was a problem because the state did not consider office space part of the educational process, and therefore would not pay the state’s share of construction costs. I had also come up against issues concerning the use of interior glass and open space. I was told that fire codes make certain designs difficult.

If state regulations were keeping innovative ideas out of schools, I felt that there was a need to bring regulators, architects, and educators together to examine the building codes and to see how they might be modified to allow better schools.

A project like that needs national leadership, and I suggested it as a good project for the Council of Educational Facility Planners, International (CEFPI). (National leadership could come from Congress or the Federal Government, but I hope not. Politicians are not the ones to understand educational needs or to draft rules and regulations concerning schools, as the No Child Left Behind legislation clearly demonstrates.)

I’ve had two very interesting reactions to that column. The first was unexpected. It came from architects who said it was not always the rules but the architects who could be the cause of the problems.  They pointed out that when a client suggests doing something different or unusual, or asks a question about why something was done, it’s often easier to say, “state regulations or fire codes,” than to take the time to solve a new design problem or to admit that something that had been done was a mistake.

The second came from the Northeast Region of CEFPI, informing me that it had decided to take that column as the theme for its Spring 2008 conference, to be held in Albany, NY, and asked if I could open that meeting with a keynote speech on the topic.

The region is planning a full-day symposium centered around panelists from states within the region involved in the regulation and oversight of school facility planning, design, and construction. Representatives from the state education departments in New York, Massachusetts, and Maryland have already agreed to participate, and others are expected from Pennsylvania, Vermont, New Jersey, and Delaware.

This is not to be a gripe session or a case of regulators standing up and defending what they do. Rather the objective is to have a positive dialog between regulators and design practitioners in a joint effort to understand how they can work together to provide school districts with the best possible educational facilities for the needs of the 21st Century, while keeping them safe, secure, and economically viable. Individual sessions will cover planning and design regulations, sustainability, and funding and equity issues. It should be an exciting and useful forum.

It’s an important step forward. There’s a good reason for state regulations and oversight (not the least being that state money is often used to build local schools), but unfortunately, laws and regulations tend to get stuck in place and sometimes outlive their usefulness or purpose. The Albany discussions will give everyone an opportunity to examine the issues, make suggestions, draw conclusions, and possibly, suggest changes that will facilitate the business of creating better, more flexible schools for today and the future.

The meetings are scheduled for April 17, 18, and 19 and are open to all participants. If you are interested in learning more about how state rules and regulations can be loosened and changed to support better schools, registration is open now. I hope to see you.

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."