Two (Uses) Are Better Than One

Creating schools that are the center of our communities is one of the key factors in creating 21st century schools. As an amenity for all ages, performing arts facilities are able to actively engage the larger community — as audience, performer and producer — and accordingly, good planning and design will help ensure that the school and community both can reap the benefits of their investment in these facilities.


In a previous “Building Blueprints” article (“From Auditorium to Theater,” School Panning & Management, Aug. 2012), we discussed design criteria for the design of great theater spaces. In this article, we discuss strategies to integrate them into a 21-st century schools.

In addition to the array of programming and equipping details defined in our previous article, when a theater is used as a joint-use space by community groups in addition to the school, programming questions include: Who are the other users? What is the anticipated scheduling of school and community events? What is the relationship of performance space to other activities occurring within the campus? Who will operate the space(s) for each respective group?

School design is seeing an increasingly common trend for joint use of the building by the school and a nonprofit organization or other municipal agency. When another agency or organization routinely coordinates community use of spaces such as the performing arts and physical education spaces after hours, additional program space such as dedicated office space for the organization’s staff and separate storage may be necessary. Importantly, if this organization controls the facilities after hours, its office space should be able to control the front door to ensure the security of the building just as the school’s main office would.

Longer-term community activities — for instance, if the theater is to regularly operate as a community theater on evenings or weekends — also would likely require discrete storage to avoid cluttering up back stage and other areas, impacting the use of the facility by the school.


Successful community use of our schools must prioritize limited access to certain portions of the building after school hours. This can be done by either creating separate buildings for the shared school and community functions or by closing doors, locking the portions of the building intended only for school use off. Doing so facilitates the ability to observe the use of the facility, assures school personnel that unintended visitors are not wandering the halls and also reduces the extent of cleaning required of the custodial staff after an event has ended. With a campus zoned into school-only and shared school and community spaces, mundane but important features to consider include the location of bathrooms for larger groups, vertical transportation (stairs and elevators) and safe egress from both sides of the security barrier.

For a major performance venue, pre-function space is an amenity that could serve both the school and the community well. Allowing the attendees a gracious place to arrive and congregate that is
adjacent to the performance space enhances the experience. Given enough room, this pre-function space can allow for temporary concessions, booths and other activities related to the programming. In many instances this space, too, can be multifunction. For example, at Yorkton High School in Arlington, Va., the pre-function spaces for the theater and a black box — an atrium and a courtyard — are situated so that they function as the “heart of the school” during the school day, and for evening performances, they can easily transform into gracious space for event attendees.

Loading and parking are also key to the successful sharing of facilities. Older members of the community will be better served by convenient access to the shared facilities and loading in of productions straight into backstage will facilitate security and use by all parties.


As the programming and design proceeds on a joint-use facility, it is often advisable to create a Memoranda of Understanding (MOU) to ensure that each party has clearly defined rights and responsibilities in using the shared school and community spaces. The MOU should define the hours available to each party, which spaces are specifically available and how additional spaces can be accessed if necessary. For example, at Stoddert Elementary School and Community Center in Washington, D.C., portions of the building begin to transfer to the Department of Parks and Recreation after school hours. Other spaces like the computer lab are available, on a case-by-case basis, if approved by the school. The MOU should address every detail including security and custodial responsibilities, utilities expense allocation, use of equipment and even the amount of display available to each party. Clarity will establish understandings and expectations that will help ensure the enjoyment of the facility by all.

Finally, a variation on the conventional sharing of school facilities is a school sharing others’ performance facilities. Washington, D.C.’s School without Walls Senior High School has a MOU with George Washington University for use of its historic Lisner Auditorium. Access to this performance space, and other campus facilities, enabled the high school to build and maintain a significantly smaller building in its urban location.

The resources available within our school performing arts facilities are valuable assets in building strong communities around our schools. With careful planning, they can support a contemporary curriculum and become an intergenerational forum for ideas, discussion and the arts. 

Sean O’Donnell is a principal in the Washington, D.C., office of Perkins Eastman.

About the Author

Sean O'Donnell AIA, LEED-AP, is a principal and practice area leader of primary and secondary education with Perkins Eastman in New York.