Cutting Costs/Maintaining Quality

In spite of predictions that the recession is behind us, anyone who is part of the school planning process knows that “budget” is more than just a six-letter word. In fact, cost savings are still top-of-mind for all of us in the design and construction industry and will continue to be for some time to come, especially since, as reported in a review by the New York Building Congress, construction costs rose in the first three quarters of 2010. In these economic times, a design team rarely has carte blanche. As an architect, I often field client concerns, and one of the most popular questions is, “Will I have to sacrifice quality or style to stay within my budget?” — to which my reply is a resounding, “No!”

With proper planning, it is absolutely possible to achieve a desired look for an educational facility while remaining within a finite budget. Furthermore, one can select materials that don’t cost much, yet will go the distance in terms of longevity. The immediate approach a design and construction team takes makes all the difference. A specific budget is, in reality, a perfect start. When no guideline is in place, the design can become overcomplicated. A complex architectural theme is not only unnecessary, but it can get in the way of making wise decisions. By having parameters in place before the project is underway, the project team can creatively work with the budget. In fact, I find that a budget often drives creativity rather than constrains it.

Once parameters are in place, there are two distinct options: creating a school with “plain vanilla” architecture or coming up with an architectural composition that takes advantage of, and imaginatively works around, monetary constraints. I always advise clients to aim for design appeal and quality of construction. With the enormous plethora of materials on the market today, this goal is quite feasible.

One area in which significant savings can be realized is the design of the “core and shell” of a space. A building’s structure, foundation and framing are the heart of any project’s budget, and any modifications to save on the bottom line are ones that are not even seen by the general public. For instance, an educational facility’s structural system can be created through concrete or structural steel, offering different options for cost and constructability. Many schools require flexibility. For example, converting a music room into a general science lab or a basic classroom for students is a commonplace need. In this instance, structural steel is more flexible than concrete. While the initial, upfront cost is greater, the ability to later modify a space constructed with such a material adds to its lifecycle savings, which is why we advise clients to look at the big picture and long-term costs of any early design decision.

The biggest opportunity to realize extra cost savings without sacrificing anything in terms of the look or quality of the design is in the “fit and finish” stage. This part of the project is where a client, with the assistance of the architect, selects interior and exterior touches to be applied to the structure’s core and shell. Changes can be made for value engineering purposes, such as switching from marble flooring to porcelain tile or selecting a different grade of carpet. Another trick of the trade is to select standardized finishes throughout a space, such as one carpet type for an entire school building rather than multiple types of flooring that change from one part of the building to another. By standardizing the palette, a school can obtain a bulk discount without sacrificing style. While changes can be made later, and a good architect has the resources to go back and make alterations as needed, we recommend selecting and pricing these materials at the inception of design.

A real-life example of exercising both types of cost savings is a project in Port Washington, N.Y. After a failed referendum vote, the Port Washington School District selected Spector to review its educational space requirements and create a design scheme that would unite a divided community and reflect a significant cost savings over the first proposal it received. Passage of this referendum was crucial to this district, as enrollment was expected to increase by nearly 25 percent by 2011. The Port Washington School District had six different buildings, each with multiple uses, and by exploring and implementing cost-saving measures, our firm was able to help the district come in under the projected budget. These included a full exploration of structural setups in the core and shell stage, as well as a myriad of changes to the finishes, such as switching the grade and species of the wood paneling used throughout — and even using some wood laminate materials to keep the costs in check while still providing the look for which the school was aiming. Getting creative on the finishes helped the school district stay within its financial limits, which was appreciated by both the district and its taxpayers. We created a well-executed, cost-effective design that was both flexible and innovative. In fact, three alternative schemes were presented during the planning phases, sparking positive discussion and allowing room in the plan to add and subtract various elements, all while keeping costs under control without sacrificing quality.

Sometimes adding a touch of green — or eco-friendly elements — to the design helps a client “save green.” Presently in the concept design phase is the creation of the new Nassau County Police Academy Law Enforcement Training Center in Uniondale, N.Y. The training center will feature a cost-efficient green roof and a wind farm, which will utilize the latest in wind turbine technology to save on energy costs. The result will be a beautiful, “smart” facility that works within the client’s budget.

Colleges are also putting to work the latest in green technology to create beautiful buildings that do not cost a bundle. One recent renovation at a state university in New York comes to mind. The university used eco-friendly technology to enhance and fully renovate its Campus Center building’s exterior envelope. In this case, the cost savings came from very simple measures, such as introducing natural light to save on expenditures while adding loads of style. With a completely new exterior of metal panels, a stunning glass skywalk, energy-conserving window systems and plentiful skylights, the new, environmentally friendly design created a fresh theme and image to the largest single building on the campus. The end result was a modern, state-of-the-art, aesthetically exciting piece of architecture that became the pride of the campus. A refreshed HVAC system also added to the efficiency of the building, as did the strategic addition of LED lighting and touch and occupancy sensors, where appropriate. Newer lighting technology costs less than a regular light switch, offers superior lamplight and, best of all, saves schools money.

With savvy planning and an eye on style, an educational facility and architect can work closely to create a space that is both beautiful and budget-friendly and, hopefully, one that is kind to the environment.

Marc Spector, AIA, NCARB, is a principal at the Spector Group, a New York-based, international architecture, masterplanning and design firm. To date, it has completed over 1,500 projects in 12 states and five foreign countries. For more information, visit