A Final Thought

Thinking About Construction?

If you had been a school superintendent, business official or architect 60 years ago, there’s a good chance that you would have experienced planning and building new school facilities. Practically every school district in the nation was involved in construction of some kind — building new schools, enlarging existing buildings or bringing them into usable shape.

The situation today is very different. Some of you may have built, many have not, but you may be called upon to plan and build in the next few years. In some districts, expanding student population will need to be accommodated; in others construction will be the result of deterioration of 50-year-old buildings, changes in program and program expansion. (As an example, who planned to house pre-kindergarten programs, much less full-day kindergarten, when most of today’s schools were planned and constructed? Little wonder that proper space for these programs does not exist today.)

Fortunately, for those who have not previously planned or built new facilities, “The Essential Guide to School Facility Planning” (Hill Publishing, Story Wyoming 82842; ISBN: 978-06927) has just been published.

It was written by Denny Hill, a planner who has worked in large and small districts for more than 30 years, and it does just what its title suggests: It guides the inexperienced school planner step by step through the process, explaining what needs to be done and how to do it. It would be a valuable book not just for the people doing the planning, but also to distribute to members of the school board and to other concerned citizens so that they understand why things have to be done, why they take time and why solving immediate problems should not be undertaken unless a long-range view is in place.

Hill takes the reader through the process, step by step, starting with determining what you need and why. In what he calls the “situation audit”, he explains how cohort survival demographic studies are carried out and puts them in context with historic district trends. In a section on “facility master plan”, he helps the reader determine what facilities are needed and how many.

Understanding and preparing educational specifications is next, but now, with every step forward, Hill reminds that everything needs to be viewed in context with demographics and the building conditions survey conducted earlier. Let’s not leap forward, he says in effect, without checking what’s already in place.

Hill takes the reader through site selection, funding options design and construction options and, finally, monitoring and managing the process. It’s a valuable step-by-step guide for the people leading the process and for those who are anxiously waiting for the project to be completed. The text is accompanied by many clear graphs and illustrations and five appendices that provide examples from projects.

If I have one quibble with the book, Hill, whose background is business and planning, not education, does not spend enough time on the issue of planning for changes in the educational process and on bringing into the project new ideas. You could follow all the steps and end of with a building suited to the 20th Century, not the 21st. In a very useful chapter on Educational Specifications, he helps lay out the district’s needs, but then appears to suggest that it is now up to the architect to design the actual building.

In a chapter on Educational Specifications he helps lay out the district’s needs but puts too little emphasis on looking at educational trends and changes that demand different kinds of space or spaces of different sizes than in the past. As an example, studies have shown that 900-square-foot classrooms are the minimum size needed for elementary schools, no matter the number of students accommodated. That’s a change from what has been common in the past. And if one wants to gaze into the future of instruction, the whole concept of classrooms might be challenged.

Hill also appears to suggest that once educational specifications are written, it should be left to the architect to design the actual building. Based on my own experience, I think it is important that district planners stay with the architect all the way, critiquing proposed designs against district objectives and insuring that the building design reflects not just the words on the page but the thinking and objectives behind them.

I was involved with a district that wrote educational specifications for a new middle school based on teams of students and teachers working in rooms with quick access to large open spaces where they could come together, carry out special projects and move back and forth with ease.

The architect’s plan provided open spaces but not where they were meant to be. He lined classrooms along a corridor and half a building away designated a widened corridor as “open space.” His design met the written specifications but not the spirit and philosophy behind them. That’s what the school’s planner must ensure to the very end.

This article originally appeared in the issue of .

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."