Space and School Design

How much space do you need when you build, expand or renovate a school building? Some factors are obvious.
  • How many students will be accommodated and at what age or grade level? Given this information, there are many formulas that will tell you how much space of every kind should be provided.
  • How much money can we spend? Given this information, any local architect can tell you the estimated local cost of construction and give you a ballpark figure as to how much space you can afford to build.

But neither of these answers the really important question: How much space should we provide (and of what type) to accommodate the program we want to run now and into the 21st century? And that, more than anything else, is the question your district should answer first when it contemplates adding new school space.

There was a time when considerations of program were secondary. After World War II, when thousands of veterans returned and began fathering what has come to be known as the Baby Boom generation, school districts had little time to think about programs. They needed space, lots of space, in which to accommodate larger and larger cohorts of entering students.

The schools that were built at the time were designed to go up quickly and house as many students as possible. The typical elementary school consisted of an office, a multipurpose room (poor space for lunch, physical education and performance/assemblies) and classrooms — as many as were needed, could be afforded or could be fit on a site. These classrooms were filled by as many children as there was room to place desks — and sometimes by more. Only wealthy districts, it was noted at the time, added a library. That was it. (High schools, which did not feel the full effect of the Baby Boom for another six years, were a little more generous, normally adding gymnasiums, cafeterias, libraries and science rooms.)

As a result of this need to provide space for lots of children, by 1970, it was estimated that the median elementary school provided only 70 square feet per student. High schools provided 100. They were bare bone schools.

The Baby Boom did come to an end, and as the number of children entering school declined during the late 1970s, districts reduced class size and transformed empty classrooms to libraries, art and music rooms, office space and the like. By the mid-1980’s, when births began once again to rise, neither school districts nor parents were prepared to go back to the old days and pack schools from end to end with children and classrooms. They had developed programs that called for smaller classes and a variety of support activities.

They began to build new elementary schools, designed for a curriculum that included space for art, music, special education and support staff, and that provided physical education facilities separated from the cafeteria. A few years later, new and expanded secondary schools also supported smaller classes and more specialized facilities. As a result, the space per child in each school increased significantly. By 1987, the median new elementary school being constructed was providing 90 square feet per student and middle/junior high schools were providing 111 square feet. High school size had jumped to 155 square feet per student.

Since 1987, the amount of space assigned per student has continued to grow. It must be understood that these calculations are based on individual reports from schools and were certainly affected by where those schools were located, (schools in warm climates often eliminate corridors, so they report less space per student) but the volume of schools included and the use of medians insures that the numbers and trends shown are representative. If one looks at the median space provided over the decade of the ‘90s, the decade of the ‘00s and over the last seven years, it is apparent that the trend is continuing.   

There is no magic in these figures of course. Half the new schools currently being planned will provide less space per student, although not a great deal less (among elementary schools reported under construction this year, none reported less than 100 square feet per student). The other half will provide more — often a great deal more. One in 10 high schools reporting this year included more than 223 square feet for every student.

Why the increase in space? Some of the need is obvious. Technology, even as hand-held devices come into play, needs space. Physical education and sports space, once solely the province of boys, must be provided for all students. Students with special needs, smaller classes, pre-kindergarten and full-day kindergarten, middle school programming, offices for support staff, more comfortable cafeterias and space for adult and community use are among factors that go into decisions about how much space a school needs. Each district in designing its schools’ needs to look at its own special situation in order to determine its overall space but, as the above shows, as we move through the 21st century and add programs that encourage interaction among students, tables and chairs in addition to desks, etc. a district preparing its schools to house programs we have not even yet contemplated, will need space in which to accommodate and house whatever may come along.

Classroom size
While overall space in schools has certainly expanded, the classroom — the basic building block and instructional space of most school buildings has, if anything, shrunk. The rule of thumb for school buildings from well before World War II was to provide 900 square feet for a classroom. Districts constructing new schools during the Baby Boom period however, often designed the smallest classrooms allowable, classrooms as small as 660 (22 x 30) or 672 (24 x 28) square feet.

These small classrooms did put a roof over children’s heads and, so long as the students stayed essentially in their seats, they provided adequate room for instruction. As class size declined following the Baby Boom, the small classrooms were accepted as “adequate.” Thousands of those small classrooms continue in use today. But, they are too small to properly support today’s educational programs. (Some enlightened school districts and architects are attacking that problem by eliminating one of every five or six rooms and opening that up as common space.)

How much classroom space is needed to house a modern educational program? There have been many attempts to answer that question ranging from estimates of the social space needed for people to properly interact, to attempts to account for all the equipment needed in a room (and then determine how many students can fit in the left-over space), to legislative action to set standards or minimums that will be adequate but not too expensive.

One attempt to answer the question occurred when nine teams of architects, planners and educators were invited to plan prototype space for elementary schools in Maryland. They were told that the expectation was that there would be 22 to 24 children in each room. Then, in meetings with teachers, they learned how the rooms would be used, the equipment that would be housed, the groupings that would be formed, the individual work that would be expected and the ways in which students and teachers would move.

The assignment of the teams was to provide the space needed and then to draw walls that would show the amount of space needed to house the program. At the end of the day, the nine proposed schemes were measured. Every one provided a minimum of 900 square feet; several needed significantly more space to allow the proposed programs to function.

More recently another factor has come into play. Schools are replacing long corridors with “common space,’ large open areas, often adjacent to classrooms, where groups of students can assemble and work. These areas are large enough to accommodate all of the children and teachers in adjacent classrooms, encouraging teaming and group projects and bringing classroom teachers out of isolation.

These are not the “open schools” with few interior walls or defined classrooms that were encouraged some 30 years ago and subsequently abandoned or closed in. Rather, these open spaces supplement and complement the classrooms and provide options that teachers can choose to use in a variety of ways. They become, in a sense, extensions of the classroom.

The problem, however, is that providing open common space also increases the overall size of the school. (Corridors between classrooms take less space.) As a result, while the 900 square feet classroom remains a good planning minimum, some architects are now “borrowing” classroom space in order to provide common space on the other side of the door. Thus the classroom itself may be only 800 to 850 square feet, but the total space per child of a complex including a group of classrooms and their adjacent common space will make up for the lost classroom space by providing its equivalent and more in a flexible working area. In a sense, by utilizing somewhat smaller classrooms and complementary open common space, school districts are able to have their classrooms and open space, too.