Schools that embark on facility upgrades often end up with unexpected outcomes. Educators and board members may pursue a building upgrade to accommodate new technology only to discover that the buildings need major updating to comply with codes.
With buildings ranging from 50 to 125 years old, many school districts can expect similar surprises as they begin to address their facility needs. Older schools have issues beyond deferred maintenance — leaky roofs, outdated plumbing, windows and paint. Many lack ventilation or have mold. Aging classrooms may be woefully undersized. Programs mandated by the government may have forced your schools to convert academic classrooms to spaces for special education and support services. Expanded curriculum, smaller class sizes and larger media centers also have reduced available classroom space in many schools.
Long-range planning can help districts anticipate their facility needs and the problems that may arise. A long-range plan creates options and gives a district direction. It also helps school administrators articulate their expectations for educational planners and architects.
A districtwide comprehensive study will examine educational adequacy, educational environment and physical adequacy of the facilities. Educational adequacy includes space programming and section tallies to analyze educational directions, curriculum, schedule, as well as flexibility for educational changes. Schematic sketches of the site and floor plans will illustrate options for alternative space uses, remodeling and expansion.
The educational environment study includes evaluating aesthetics, function, interior traffic flow, indoor air quality, lighting, acoustics, color, furniture, safety and the appeal of the learning environment. The physical environment either supports or hinders the teaching and learning experience.
The physical adequacy study looks at the site and building; structural, mechanical, electrical, security and technology systems; operations and maintenance; and code updating for energy conservation, handicapped accessibility, fire, life-safety and health. Operational and maintenance records identify problem areas, and life-cycle cost analysis targets equipment replacement.
Site studies evaluate use, size, expansion, topography, drainage, landscaping, accessibility, parking, vehicular and pedestrian traffic patterns, playgrounds, and physical education and athletic fields. Schools should review structural, mechanical and electrical systems in all buildings. Old schools need special attention. Schools built in the late 1800s and early 1900s may lack adequate structural capacity to support heavy floor and roof loads. Many classrooms have no ventilation except for a window. If they have ventilation, the system may lack fire protection.
Stay up to date
Master plans need continual updating because of changes in enrollment, demographics, educational directions, mandated programs, technology, curriculum and delivery. The Independent School District 279, a 25,000-student system in Osseo, Minn., has revised its plans several times over the years:
1988: Create parity throughout all buildings.
1991: Expand existing high schools or build new high school.
1999: Comprehensive study that led to a successful $138.9 million bond issue.
“As a suburban district that has faced 20 years of rapid growth and building projects, we needed to step back and look at the basic space needs and how to address future educational adequacy,” says Chris Richardson, superintendent of District 279. “The facilities study must not only focus on what is needed today but also reflect flexibility to address future needs and changes brought on by new technology, structures, calendars and legislative mandates. Our educational facilities study helped us to establish minimum standards for each of our 30 sites as well as basic standards that would assure equity across all buildings.”
The long-range study for the Rocori Area School District in rural Minnesota resulted in a new 1,000-student high school, conversion of the existing high school to a 700-student middle school, and adaptation of the middle school for district services such as Kid Stop, Early Childhood and Alternative School.
“The planning for our district had to cover more than K-12,” says Tom Westerhaus, Rocori Area superintendent. “Our buildings serve as the community hub. Participatory planning included all stakeholders in the community to ensure that facilities will address the breadth of the district's needs — early childhood, before/after-school daycare, adult programs, senior citizen center, community health/wellness center, social service agencies, small business spaces, and changing K-12 needs for growing and shifting demographics.”
Master plans evolve as the study unfolds and directions and options are discovered. Some suggested changes are readily accepted, some take time to digest and accept, while some are rejected. Most long-range studies need to identify phasing, or short-range goals that evolve to accomplish the long-term picture.
“The Board of Education and the superintendent must set the direction for a facilities planning study,” says Richardson. “They must gather knowledgeable individuals that can provide input and feedback. Beyond meeting educational needs, the study must help us develop a vision for how our communities will interact with our buildings both during the school day and during expanded hours of facility use.”
Here are some tips that will help a district successfully navigate the master planning process:
Be willing to pay adequately for a comprehensive study.
Involve representatives from the school board, administration, curriculum, buildings and grounds, custodial, teachers, citizens and students.
Recognize that the staff members at the building level may be skeptical, intimidated and concerned with change.
Create a list of goals, yet expect surprises not on your list.
Evaluate options and make decisions in a timely fashion.
Rydeen FAIA, is an architect/facility planning specialist and former president of Armstrong Torseth Skold & Rydeen, Inc. (ATS&R). Erickson AIA, is president of ATS&R.