paul erickson

Does it bear repeating? Prototype school designs

April 2, 2021
The next time your school district interviews architects and engineers for a new design project, consider whether it makes sense to go with a prototype design. Learn about the pros and cons with this approach.

What does “prototype” really mean? A prototype or “repeat” is a replica of a previously built facility, built on a different site. This means the building design and construction documents and drawings from a built project will be used for a new project—either the same district or a new client. It is rare, however, to do an exact prototype for a new client.

Alternatively, a modified prototype or “modified repeat” incorporates design changes to a built facility, providing slight reconfigurations to the building interior or exterior. The changes are made to tailor the design to fit a particular educational curriculum, local building code, geographic climate and building orientation (for energy modeling), or other unique idiosyncrasies.

Sometimes, a district will need to make extensive modifications to a prototype design. Depending on the extent of changes, a prototype design may still be a viable approach for a new campus. For example, a learning cluster that contains classrooms, teaming space and planning areas may need complete reconfiguration to accommodate the curriculum of a particular school, even though the remainder of the building—circulation, administration area, and support spaces—can stick to the prototype design. This approach is frequently referred to as working with a “kit of parts” or “unitized plans.” Facility planners can switch out part of the layout for a design that better fits the specific campus.

Typical modifications to a prototype design may alter the number of classrooms, gyms, labs, studios, or industrial tech areas.

The needs of a specific school may require altering the size of spaces as needed to fit a building’s student capacity needs and the number of scheduled periods per day at the school. Also, a student dining area may need to be enlarged or reduced because the school in question may need to schedule a different number of lunch periods than envisioned in the prototype.

If program space is needed that does not exist in the prototype design, architects and school administrators may have to revise the prototype to accommodate those needs. Modifying a prototype design enables architects and educator to satisfy the unique needs of a specific school community.

The variable in every prototype design is the site itself. Site entrances, parking lots and bus loading areas, play fields (their layout and orientation), site utility routes (water, sanitary, electrical, gas, fiber, etc.), and landscaping are unique to a particular school site and may require alterations to the prototype design to fit the site. Existing contours, orientation and vegetation also may require design modifications to building entrances, loading and receiving docks, mechanical and electrical rooms, and other spaces.

Despite the challenges of having to alter a prototype design, school systems that opt for such a design can realize many benefits:

  • School districts save months of design time, resulting in an earlier construction start and completion.
  • They provide a school system the opportunity to review and choose from among numerous building designs.
  • They enable school leaders and stakeholder to tour an already built facility and talk with teachers and other building users “to kick the tires.”
  • District leaders, by seeing materials, systems, and other details of an already completed building, can be more confident in the facility they have decided to build.
  • Prototypes provide a basis of energy efficiency from which a school system can improve upon.
  • Building performance and construction issues can be identified in a completed building and corrected when the updated version of the prototype is built.
  • Because prototypes require less design and drawing time, school systems can save on architectural and engineering fees.
  • Using a design that has been used in a completed building provides a district with proven costs and leads to more accurate budgeting and bonding costs.
  • Because contract bidders are able to “see” how the prototype was constructed, a school district may benefit from receiving lower construction bids.

But not every building project is a right fit for a prototype design. Some potential problems:

  • Architects may have to limit the uniqueness of the prototype design because it needs to fit a particular educational curriculum or program.
  • The prototype design may limit how a particular community is able to use a facility.
  • Elements of the prototype design may conflict with the community’s preferences (e.g., relating to exterior materials, building heights, occupant views)
  • A prototype design may require excessive revisions to meet local codes, accessibility requirements, fixture heights, or other building requirements.
  • Excessive modifications of the prototype design may result in a school system losing out on architectural and engineering fee discounts.

For a large school district with a pressing need to build several elementary schools, a prototype design addresses the objective of providing district-wide equitable space for its learners. With this approach, a local community can be confident that the design will be equal to other new schools in the district.

District may be able to save even more money if they are able to construct several schools concurrently, with same opening dates. With this approach, architects and engineers typically provide a discount in design fees, yet receive full fee for plan modifications, site design, and the construction phase. During bidding, contractors may provide a discounted combination bid to include both projects.

For many districts looking to build new facilities, a prototype school design may be an approach worth exploring. It may offer definite advantages that save the district money, time, and stress.

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