Asumag 2446 Rydeen 2013

Facility Planning: Building Schools that Stand the Test of Time

May 1, 2011
Investing wisely for the long term.

Alhough much is written about the design of new school facilities for the 21st century, many schools are 50 years old or older, and taxpayers expect those buildings to be operational for many years into the future.

On one 1960s campus of elementary, middle and senior high schools, the buildings and grounds have been well-maintained, and the buildings have aged beautifully. They have been maintained and repaired as needed, and the interior finishes were durable; skylights in the hallways were designed to provide natural light so that extensive artificial light fixtures were not necessary.

But what about upgrades to the heating, ventilating, air-conditioning, plumbing and electrical systems, which were designed before the need for energy conservation? What unforeseen problems were hidden in the walls and ceilings of these systems? Aging mechanical and electrical systems have increasing operational and maintenance costs. Deferring maintenance or replacement creates additional strain on budgets.

In 1968, one 300,000-square-foot high school cost $7,398,616 to build with high-quality materials and interior finishes (plus furniture, fixtures and equipment). During its history, the building has received a major addition that updated HVAC systems, heat-recovery units, an energy-management system, lockers, security, accessibility, lighting, ceilings, furniture and casework. In summary:

•Total construction costs for all work during its history amounts to about $14 million, or $350,000 per year. This shows an excellent use of taxpayer money, considering 100,000 students had passed through its doors in 40 years with an average cost of $140 per student.

•The average cost during 40 years for operations of plant, maintenance of plant and custodial salaries is about $3 per square foot or $360 per year per student.

•No technology costs have been included because technology varies depending on the uniqueness of each school district.

•$500 per student equates to an excellent public investment over 40 years.

School buildings have proven to be adaptable, albeit sometimes with major adjustments, to the educational changes during the last 40 to 50 years. The standard classroom of yesterday now is used for multiple learning activities for a variety of class sizes, including blended learning as students study at school and online at home.

Upfront spending on design features that provide excellent life-cycle costs is a wise investment. Some materials have a shorter life cycle, but provide the flexibility sought to deliver the curriculum and adapt to change. Education institutions should choose materials and systems that can evolve with teaching and learning.

One of the biggest change agents may prove to be ergonomic, flexible furnishings that can transform buildings into multiuse, diverse learning spaces.

Don’t lump all existing schools in the same category. Some schools were built cheaply, but many others have high-quality materials, systems and construction. They were built to last a long time as long as maintenance, repair and replacement of fixtures, furniture and equipment are carried out at the proper time.

To ensure community members have a clear picture of the condition of school facilities, administrators must strive to communicate clearly with taxpayers about the state of their buildings and what improvements are needed.

Rydeen, FAIA, is an architect/facility planning specialist and former president of Armstrong, Torseth, Skold & Rydeen, Inc. (ATS&R), Minneapolis. 

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