Architects as Educators

As one of the most important landmarks in a neighborhood, a school reflects the personality and conscience of the community. Therefore, choosing the right architect is critical. The architectural team will be key to how well-received, functional and successful your new school will be. In essence, the architect will influence the outcome of the new school as much as anyone.

With that in mind, school administrators should choose an architect carefully. Whether an elementary school, middle school or high school, the design must be much more than just an efficient working space. The functionality of the building for teachers and students is critical, but the path to a truly excellent design must extend into the classrooms and even to how the teachers instruct. An architect needs to understand the teaching philosophy at each school in order to make the building work and aid the teaching process as efficiently as possible.

Finding an architect willing to gain this understanding may take some effort, thoughtfulness and a bit of luck.

Checking credentials When choosing an architect, find out if the firm has designed schools before. Then, dig a little deeper and learn what types of schools it has designed. Look at photos and plans, visit the schools, and question the architects and their clients on the outcome. After all, if a district's vision for a school includes open spaces, courtyards and sun-drenched classrooms, it would not be prudent to choose an architect whose only experience is designing schools that are nothing more than brick boxes.

Plan on interviewing many architects. Determine if they are willing to work with the school team to gain an understanding of the school's philosophy and needs, and if they will be able to incorporate those into the design. Ask a lot of questions, and listen to questions they ask about the proposed school.

In order to understand how well an architect will work with you, a school team should find out how well they work with others. Do not just ask an architect's clients-ask his or her peers. For example, get a list of contractors and subcontractors that an architect has worked with, and ask them how well they worked as a team.

The architect you choose should understand the surroundings. Whether the neighborhood is new or old, the architect should be familiar with the area. Most neighborhoods have an established character, and the architect must design within this framework. Ask architects if they are willing to study the surrounding neighborhood, and interact with the neighboring properties and homeowners. Unless the architect learns all of the existing conditions, the design is more likely to fail.

It may be surprising how important an architect's relationship is with the city or town where the proposed school will be located. Any new construction project is likely to encounter political hurdles. Find out how well-acquainted an architect is with municipal regulations, the firm's and the individual architect's standing with local government agencies, and how successful the architect has been in getting designs approved.

Delicate balance Do not be sold on glamorous design. Most architects can create artistic buildings that are designed to impress. But that is not the most important consideration for a school. Ask architects tough questions about how functional their designs are. Find out how their design addresses the flow of bodies within a facility, the location of classrooms and administrative space, the size of entry areas, the use of high ceilings, the placement of lockers and restrooms, accessibility for persons with disabilities, and the many other issues that are key to making a school operate as efficiently as possible.

Do not settle for a basic design. That may be the easiest path, but choosing an architect who generates exciting ideas will better the school's final environment. A school is meant to be fun, not conservative and stoic. School administrators ask their teachers to make the classroom an energetic and fun place to learn-ask the same of an architect.

Ask, for example, if the architect has designed schools that maximize solar energy, or that are ecologically sound or that pushed the limits in terms of the school's color. If an architect can bring a sense of play and fun to a school, without making it garish, the building will provide far more stimulation to students and staff.

Find an architect who will listen to ideas. Choose architects who have a vision and the conviction to stand up for the ideas they believe in, but are willing to consider other ideas. Incorporating the ideas of administrators, teachers, parents and students can help to create the most desired school for everyone.

Another element in all of these decisions is cost. The architect must understand the financial restrictions, and should be able to come up with creative suggestions to make the school functional and attractive without breaking the bank. Any qualified architect will have experience devising creative and cost-effective design solutions.

Quality of construction and materials are important aspects of building a school. But, ultimately, the architectural design of the school may have far more to do with its success than anything else. The best architect for the job will be one that understands the school philosophy and how to meetcommunity needs.>SBSchool design exemplifies community vision>TXThe Friends British Primary School (Friends School) in Boulder, Colo., is the result of a community working together to create not only a new school building, but also a school with a heart and soul.

Boulder is a challenging community in which to build any type of new facility. Concerned citizens and city council members are interested in maintaining the unique atmosphere of Boulder, and every project is scrutinized.

In order to meet these challenges, school administrators realized that they needed a design that was not just functional and attractive, but also one that would meet the expectations of the school's neighbors.

The architect, OZ Architecture, explored the neighborhood and incorporated much of the atmosphere into the design. City and school officials, parents and neighbors were able to communicate their expectations and desires. During the design process, numerous people offered ideas. All ideas were given attention, and many became part of the final design. With an understanding of the school's philosophy and how the school would fit into the neighborhood, the architect began designing.

The final design of Friends School is a balance between an ideal architectural concept and the vision of the community members, school district and city planners. It is a strong design as a result of the compromise by all the groups involved.

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