Tailored to Fit

Nov. 1, 2006
A collaborative design process enables schools to build customized facilities that satisfy their educational and community needs.

Building a new school can be exciting and creative. The process enables parents, students, educators and the community to explore their dreams and priorities, and create a facility tailored to their unique needs.

Unfortunately, the process also can leave education institutions and communities feeling like they've bought an “off-the-rack” facility that fits neither their budget nor their expectations.

That's why more and more institutions are turning to collaborative design to create facilities that are tailor-made to the specific needs and ideas of those who will use them. This approach brings together — as early as possible — designers, builders, users and supporters to share ideas, knowledge and priorities. The goal is to incorporate user and community insights into the design process so that the facility becomes a powerful tool for enhancing the education of every student.

Collaborative planning

In a traditional building design process, architects and a handful of administrators assess an institution's educational needs, develop a design and then move forward to build a facility.

Collaborative design involves, as early as possible, all the stakeholders that can affect or be affected by the planning, design and construction of a new facility. These stakeholders can include school board members, parents, teachers, staff members, students, administrators, community groups, local businesses and others.

Some institutions use committees of administrators, teachers, students, community leaders and others to assess long-range facility needs. Such groups help give a community confidence that an institution is making facility decisions in an open, logical way long before initiating or seeking funding for such projects.

When an education institution decides a new facility is needed, a collaborative design process might go like this:

The institution brings in an architect or other facilitator to get the community talking about the need, opportunities and challenges of a new facility, as well as user needs and preferences.

This initial conversation helps identify what data collection and analysis (interviews, focus groups, surveys, case studies) is needed to further identify user and community values, priorities, needs and preferences in relation to a new facility.

The institution and its architect take these findings back to the stakeholders to confirm whether their needs have been met, to refine their ideas about the kind of facility to build, and to begin outlining how to address funding and other obstacles and opportunities.

As part of the cost and funding discussion, the architect or the builder can help the public understand current design options, how those options may affect educational quality, and the comparative costs of materials, labor and upkeep associated with each option.

The final step in collaborative design is to use this dialogue to make decisions and cement support for a new facility. Where necessary, this even may involve using these discussions to fashion a bond issue or other funding plan that comes with demonstrated electoral or community support.

A two-way conversation

Designers and construction managers, administrators, policymakers, staff and parents all have different pieces of information which, when put together correctly, will produce the best facility.

Architects and construction managers can help educate a community about the role of building design in enhancing instructional results. For example, incorporating daylight into school design has been shown to increase test scores in some cases by 20 percent. After learning how diverse elements (indoor air quality, lighting, color, acoustics) can affect educational achievement, the community can make better-informed decisions about what levels of investment are necessary to shape the educational environment they want.

Conversely, although design professionals have specific skills and knowledge, only end users (students and community members that will use the buildings) can articulate and prioritize what they value most in an educational facility in terms of design, function, materials and other factors.

Information-technology personnel, students and parents might be brought together to discuss technology needs in the classroom. Civic leaders may be consulted about potential community uses of education facilities. Teachers even might be asked to sketch designs showing the type of classrooms that will match their teaching styles.

Having stakeholders articulate what is important to them gives an institution a better idea of what the community will support.

If a bond issue is involved, getting users and taxpayers involved in the process can increase the likelihood of success. They can give the board and administrators a clear understanding of the values the community brings to the table.

Some institutions continue to use a collaborative decisionmaking process even after construction begins because problems or challenges typically will arise during major building projects. For example, unanticipated costs such as oil price fluctuations and foreign competition for construction materials often require tough decisions on alternative ways to proceed. When stakeholders have input into weighing the consequences of different choices and safeguarding educational quality, they are more likely to support a district's decisions.

A change in roles

Collaborative design requires that the key players in the planning, design and construction process accept a change in their traditional roles.

Administrators that give up some control may be frustrated by the extra time and attention collaborative decisionmaking requires. But it may result in an education facility in which:

  • The process itself provides a less problematic building experience for educational leaders.

  • Design and construction personnel are motivated and inspired to provide a more satisfying design.

  • Teachers and students enjoy a better learning environment tailored to their needs.

  • Taxpayers feel greater ownership in the final product and, as a result, are happier about the financial support they're called upon to provide.

Perhaps most important, collaborative design enables each community to enjoy the feeling of creating a new school facility that fits its needs perfectly.

Milbradt, AIA, REFP, is president of PBA Architects, Wichita, Kan., an architecture firm with 60 years of experience planning and designing education and other facilities. Klock, AIA, is a partner with PBA.

Weighing options

In the process of designing a new high school in Erie, Kan., stakeholders came up with some of the most innovative ideas for any school in the state.

Taxpayers in the CUSD 101 school district had not passed a bond issue since they consolidated more than 45 years ago. As they started to consider the need for a new high school, stakeholders (including teachers) sketched plans of the features they wanted to see incorporated.

The community chose flexible workspaces for classrooms to complement the school's proposed project-based teaching style. For example, they favored classrooms with open, central project workspaces surrounded by student desks.

After the community had offered ideas, the architects helped it and the school board understand the costs and educational implications of various options. Together, the architects and stakeholders proposed a new school with an auditorium, two gyms and a sports complex. But they also looked at the potential savings afforded by a scaled-back version featuring a cafetorium, the elimination of ball fields from the sports complex, or building only one gym instead of two.

Ultimately, they decided to go with a full auditorium and defer construction of the ball diamonds. Erie is moving ahead with a project that meets its budget and demands for a unique facility, while retaining the components the community felt were most crucial.



Number of steps in the collaborative design process.

Forming the game plan

Steps in collaborative design for school facility planning:

  1. A stakeholder committee is formed.
  2. Data and information about the institution are collected and discussed.
  3. A community meeting is held to educate and get feedback.
  4. Options and cost estimates are developed.
  5. A community meeting is held to choose the best options.

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