Community-Based Facility Planning

If your board room, auditorium, gymnasium or other space has ever been the scene of public protest over an educational facility construction project, or if you have worked tirelessly to pass a referendum only to have it voted down, you can count yourself as one of the many challenged with shepherding a project through the environment that we call educational facility planning. The process of creating a building “of the community and for the community,” yet focused around students, has become more difficult.

Challenges Experienced
The educational building boom of the mid-1990s through 2007 often created a frenzied environment for educators, planners and designers as they scurried to open facilities to support the growing populations in many areas around the country. The model for planning and design during that boom often followed the traditional process, in that it was relatively iterative and linear. The goal was to plan the facilities quickly and to open their doors. Although the intent was always to provide quality, student-centric spaces, at times the speed with which facilities were brought on line hampered the ability of the process to provide the transparent qualities so necessary in today’s environment.

For many, the school building boom has slowed with the economy. To some, this may bring a sigh of relief as administrators and boards sense a slight reduction in the burdens of high growth. Trends are obviously cyclical though, and demographics will begin to shift again in the future. With that in mind, now is the time to review the process for educational facility planning and district master planning. A careful re-entrenchment of the process may alleviate some of those concerns about lack of transparency that came along with the previous educational building boom.

Community-Based or Census-Driven Design Process
Increasingly, the students and community have become integral to the overall process of conceiving a school. That process has also been integrated into the math and science curricula and includes bringing those community partners from the design process back into the classroom. Student participation in the workshop process has also resulted in genuine qualitative design inputs and, perhaps most importantly, the students have learned while having fun. They have produced real-world solutions to problems that far exceed the personal.                           

A Model
A growing body of work supports the notion of providing a truly transparent process for facility and master planning. The process does indeed require additional work on the front end; however, those long nights of defending the process are later reduced. Further, that ribbon cutting ceremony held at the opening of the project will likely result in more smiles and positive reactions 20 months to 36 months later.

The process can take many forms but, ultimately, should include a variety of stakeholders. The traditional stakeholder should take the role of facilitator. Thus, design teams (to include planners, architects, engineers, landscape architects and other consultants) and district administrators must facilitate the open forum design workshops. Instructors, facility support personnel and students should be front and center in the planning and the design of those facilities in which they will instruct and learn. Further, community members, parents, local business owners and municipal representatives all create that community of which our facilities will become the center. A carefully instituted process allowing a significant community dialogue, beginning with that first sketch, is paramount to gaining support.

In order to provide this level of community involvement, a significant structure must be provided to ensure that the more dynamic process actually has true results. Many models for engagement of constituents can be developed, and each will need to be custom-built for the community that it will serve. The components of a planning process for engaging all parties could take the following form.

Each workshop day is broken down further into micro-design processes with internal feedback-loop discussions. The goal is to produce tangible results at the end of each of the planning days.

The Results
Facilities have begun to adopt the lessons represented by current sustainable research. Designers have accepted that our facilities must minimize the impact that they have upon the environment. More importantly though, the process by which we develop these facilities has the opportunity to become community-based to further support the goal of transparency. Designers throughout the U.S. are adopting the community-based process as a model by which community consensus is reached, to integrate carefully executed designs to support those facilities in which we live, love and learn.

So, we are at a turning point in the development of our schools. As we pause to reflect, let’s all try to reinvigorate the community process for these community-focused facilities!

David L. Schrader, AIA, LEED-AP, is the managing partner of SchraderGroup Architecture and an active member of the Council of Educational Facility Planners International (CEFPI). He may be reached at [email protected]

About the Author

David Schrader, Chairman of the Board of Directors, Association for Learning Environments, is the managing partner of SCHRADERGROUP architects in Philadelphia, PA. He may be reached at [email protected]