Facility Planning: Extravagant Schools?

Have school designs become too extravagant? “Gold-plated,” “Cadillac” and “extravagant” are terms familiar to architects who specialize in school design. But what is extravagant to one may not be extravagant to another.

A cupola housing the bell from a high school built 130 years ago may appear “extravagant,” yet is a significant enhancement for students and the community. A school's mascot duplicated in the terrazzo floor may seem wasteful to outsiders, but not to students. High-quality hardware is necessary, considering building longevity and the abuse doors receive.

A variety of factors influence design and costs:

  • School philosophy, programs, curriculum, scheduling, delivery methodology, technology, security and maintenance.

  • Enhancement of community value and student achievement with aesthetic design features.

  • Changing building and fire-safety codes, which increase the cost of materials and systems.

  • An evolving learning environment that responds to new educational processes, community uses and students.

  • Human factors in spatial design.

  • Monitoring of architectural and engineering staff to avoid unnecessary costs in design features, specifications, details and systems.

The antonym of extravagant is cheap — one thinks of low-price. Cheap school buildings were constructed quickly after World War II to meet the baby-boom demand. Few understood the impact of long-term maintenance and operations (M&O) costs. Consequently, these “cheap” buildings have been repaired at high cost.

The ratio of initial cost is about one-eighth of the total lifetime cost of operating and maintaining a school building. The initial construction, furnishings and site costs are the least of the equation, yet demand critical evaluation for effective long-term use. Selecting cheap materials and systems without considering value engineering and life-cycle costing consumes monies that could go elsewhere.

Many institutions view cost containment as a long-term issue — not just the initial costs of design, construction and furnishings. They are willing to invest upfront monies to create long-term containment of M&O costs with minimal upkeep. They also view cost containment as an ongoing issue during the design phases.

What is the best for your school?

  • More space with cheap design features, materials and systems, and greater long-term M&O costs?

  • Less space with high-quality design features, materials and systems with low long-term M&O costs?

  • The desired space with “sensible” cost-effective design features, materials and systems that minimize long-term M&O costs?

This decision needs to be made long before a bond referendum is held. Monies spent upfront for quality materials and systems result in economies during the life of the building.

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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