High Hopes

July 1, 2006
Communication and reasonable expectations are key in successful school renovation projects.

Many schools have growing student enrollments that require bigger and better buildings, and evolving educational delivery methods warrant new spatial concepts that support modern teaching needs. But does that mean it's time for a new school? Maybe not.

As much as new schools stand out, a school renovation project forms the heart of most districts' facilities-improvement initiatives. During their careers, administrators are far more likely to participate in a school renovation — especially now as the systems in 1970s schools reach the end of their useful lives and educators look to replace open-plan concepts that don't support modern program needs. School renovations with students and staff on site can be one of the most challenging career experiences any educator, architect or contractor will face.

Where did everybody go?

Every education institution embarking on a renovation project must first ask this question: where will classes be taught during the renovation? The three most common options:

  • Move into an available swing school

    This is the preferred option. Unfortunately, few districts have empty buildings available.

  • Purchase and install temporary portables on site

    Although portables can provide a temporary “swing school” on site, the dollars spent on them may reduce the budget for a new building.

  • Move classes within the building during a phased renovation

    Juxtaposing education with construction makes this the most demanding option. The school is renovated in phased segments, and classes relocate in coordination with those phases.

An institution should seriously consider the pros and cons of each option based on its unique situation and resources. Those without available swing schools may see a phased renovation as the most attractive because it keeps everyone within the building and does not “waste” project dollars on temporary features. But in addition to the added stress of moving a school to respond to construction zoning, phased projects generate added considerations:

  • Impact on students

    The safety of students is paramount in a phased renovation project and becomes a prime variable in a construction process already burdened by multiple factors.

  • Impact on classes

    Despite the spatial buffers between active classroom zones and construction zones, teachers and students still must endure the added distractions of noise, dust and power interruptions.

  • Impact on staff

    Not everyone knows what to expect of such a project, and even with ample preparation, some have trouble dealing with the inconveniences of such a project.

  • Impact on budget

    Phasing increases the length of a construction project, and the extra time and effort incurs additional costs of between 12 percent and 18 percent on average.

Unfazed in the face of phasing

Seven critical items administrators should know when proceeding with a renovation with students on site:

  • Treat phasing as its own project

    A renovation team should convene as early as possible to compose a phasing plan that includes the following components:

    • Planning: Building systems (primarily HVAC) typically drive a contractor's technical phasing plan. The architect and engineers (and contractor, if possible) assess the interrelationships of building systems to determine building phasing zones and ideal sequences in which construction may progress with no disruption to services.

    • Project schedule: The team should extend the schedule wherever possible. Everyone will want the project to be over as soon as possible, but a longer schedule will create fewer headaches than a shorter, intense one. Give special consideration to move times; the schedule ideally should provide a minimum of one week between substantial completion of one phase and the beginning of the next.

    • School master schedule: The school will need to compose a master schedule for each phase of the project. It is recommended that the principal and select staff complete a plan (based on the design team's technical phasing plan) to present to the remaining staff.

    • Design: Phases will drive overall design features integrated into the project. The design team should work with the school to determine (on a phase-by-phase basis) temporary space needs.

    Keep in mind that each individual phase can be its own project with unique infrastructure needs. For example, at one school the design team added a sink with a clay trap, VCT instead of carpet and an exterior door to a patio with an exterior outlet (for a kiln) to accommodate an art class for six months. After the project was finished, the room reverted to its originally intended use as a standard classroom. Although such phase-based additions incur extra cost, they provide the added value of future classroom flexibility.

  • Put the right people in the right positions

    A renovation creates a whole new set of duties for school staff, and it is critical to have enough staff to fulfill them in addition to normal educational duties. Be sure to pick people with the right skill sets to meet construction project challenges.

    Also, it is important to pick people who are likely to remain with the project from start to finish (typically three to five years for a phased renovation). A key foundation for success is the team's intrinsic understanding of and connection to the school and community culture.

  • Communicate, communicate, communicate

    It's important to communicate frequently, openly and honestly about project progress, challenges, developments and anticipated results.

    Take advantage of community organizations to help you inform their peers about a project. Bring them on board about the plans before design even starts, and then rely on them to spread information about the project.

    Many educators, parents and students don't know much about the design and construction process. Educate them in advance on what's involved — especially regarding hazardous-materials abatement and other such “red flag” topics.

    Communication, especially regarding problems, should be face to face whenever possible. Minimize links in the communication chain, but limit communication with the contractor and architect to appointed representatives.

    Use controlled media distribution such as newsletters and website updates to inform the community of project developments.

  • Don't lose sight of the rationale behind decisions

    The design process will take months, with many discussions about spatial needs, program goals, school identity and aesthetic preferences. From these discussions, design participants will make critical decisions that guide the project through the course of design documentation and construction. Collectively, these decisions become the basis on which the project is built. Once the construction documents phase begins, there should be no changes to the design. Changes at this stage or during construction can affect the budget significantly. This is why it is important for project participants to be committed to a project from start to finish.

    Consider creating a “living” design document that records the design decisions made during the process and that can be updated as necessary. Record each decision and a summary of the reasons for that decision, and log decisionmakers to track responsibility.

  • Understand that Murphy's Law applies

    Many people have the expectation that construction is a science: precise, exact and founded on infallible facts about building conditions. However, something goes wrong in the course of every project. Prepare the school community for the expected inconveniences (e.g. dust, strange smells, noise, etc.) as well as the probability of unexpected inconveniences and construction-related problems such as heat loss, plumbing trouble and unforeseen building conditions.

    The better prepared all concerned parties are for such eventualities, the better prepared everyone will be to solve a problem quickly when it arises rather than exacerbate it with outraged reactions.

  • Manage great expectations

    People need to know that they're getting something for all their troubles. Develop a concrete vision early, and broadcast it at every opportunity. Implicit in this idea is that a renovation should result in perceptible changes that improve the school environment. Even if a renovation involves primarily systems upgrades with no intended spatial changes, take the time to discover any opportunity for improvements that teachers and students can see. In addition, take care to extend a vision of value to everyone.

    For example, advertise the project as “the next big thing” to students, parents and community members, and solicit their participation in the design process to excite them and gain their support. Use drawings and renderings in public spaces and communications to reinforce the vision of the completed project. In addition, celebrate milestones as they are achieved. Find opportunities for parties to cheer substantial phase completions or, at least, a well-advertised grand-opening celebration at the end of the project.

  • Make it educational

    Being surrounded by various professions such as architecture (art and design), engineering (math and drafting), and construction (economics and industrial arts), provides a great opportunity to make instruction immediately relevant to the surroundings.

Mason, AIA; Johnson, AIA; and Ahern, AIA; are principals in DLR Group's Seattle office.


12 to 18

Percentage of additional costs incurred with phased construction, which can increase the length of a project.

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