Facility Planning: Up, up and Away

Visually exciting exterior and interior architectural designs can enrich learning environments. Research indicates student achievement rises in buildings of higher aesthetic standards. But, such physical enhancements often come with a hefty pricetag. Over the last 40 years, school buildings slowly have grown in volume, and increased costs have followed.

During the 1960s, a high school for 1,800 to 2,400 students was designed in the range of 125 to 150 square feet per student and 1,700 to 2,400 cubic feet per student. Today, the range is 160 to 215 square feet per student and 2,800 to 4,800 cubic feet per student. Some recently built high schools have ratios in the range of 5,000 to 8,000 cubic feet per student.

Middle and junior high buildings show a similar trend. During the 1960s, they averaged about 108 square feet per student and 1,700 cubic feet per student. Today, the average is about 190 square feet per student and 2,500 cubic feet per student.

Schools have increased in floor area to accommodate expanded curricula, community uses, and federal and state-mandated programs. As floor area has increased, so has the building volume; but the volume has increased at a greater pace. Increased volume may boost initial construction costs, and long-term maintenance and operations expenses. Some increased volume is necessary to accommodate more sophisticated building systems. More concealed ceiling space is needed, and exterior and interior walls must be higher.

Comparing facilities is not an exact science; program needs can vary significantly among school systems. However, many common denominators exist:

  • Activities within certain spaces (e.g., gymnasiums, fieldhouses, swimming pools and auditoriums) dictate the volume. Many new auditoriums have vertical fly spaces above the stage for scenery. For other interior spaces, designers should evaluate what are appropriate ceiling heights.

  • Because of differing acoustical needs, music rooms such as choir may have height requirements that differ from instrumental, band and orchestra rehearsal rooms.

  • School officials should evaluate entry lobbies, student commons, corridors and other circulation areas. Spaces exposed to an exterior wall usually have more window area, which can increase long-term maintenance costs.

Along with selecting materials and systems carefully, don't forget to review the area and volume of the building design as a means of controlling construction costs, and long-term maintenance and operating costs. Raising ceiling heights beyond what is needed increases costs unnecessarily.

Rydeen, FAIA, is an architect/facility planning specialist and former president of Armstrong, Torseth, Skold & Rydeen, Inc. (ATS&R), Minneapolis. He can be reached at [email protected].

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