Becoming Partners

A school construction project typically involves cranes and bulldozers, dump trucks and cement mixers. But beyond the bricks and mortar, a school construction project is, at its heart, a relationship.

On one side is a school or university, an entity with its own traditions and culture, looking for someone who can meet its needs by providing a design for a new or renovated education facility. On the other side is an architectural firm, with specialized skills that can transform an institution's vision into reality. They meet, they get to know each other, and they decide to make a commitment to the relationship.

When the process works, both sides can live happily ever after and point with pride to the facility that is the fruit of their labors. But successful relationships take work. Education administrators should understand what architects do and what they need to be effective in their jobs; architects should be aware of how education institutions function and the specific traits of the school they are working with.

“We want to be a district's partner and not just a vendor,” says Gary Keep, chief executive officer of SHW Group, an architectural firm based in Dallas. “We can better help them solve their problems if we are involved with them over years and really understand them.”

Acquiring that knowledge is a continual quest that can consume the greater part of an architect's or administrator's career. To provide an overview that can form the foundation for an effective partnership, some school administrators and architects working in education have suggested 10 things that architects should know about education institutions, and 10 things education administrators should know about architects.

What architects should know about education institutions

  • An education institution has many constituencies. An architect should recognize the many stakeholders that are part of the school design process — board members or trustees, administrators, facilities and maintenance workers, principals, teachers, parents, students, taxpayers, community members, business leaders. Architects need to know what each of those constituencies expects from a school project.

    “They have to have a feeling for what the community wants,” says James Koster, assistant superintendent of the Novi (Mich.) Community School District.

  • Education institutions are not one-size-fits-all. Architects can draw on previous experiences, but they should realize that what worked at one campus may not fit the needs and desires of another.

    “You have to get to know the specific needs of clients — where they are, who they are serving,” says David M. Maroney, an architect with ATS&R, Minneapolis. “Different districts have different needs.”

    A small, rural school system that rarely builds a new facility will have different expectations than a huge system spending millions of dollars every year on new buildings.

    “The architect has to understand our district and its special requirements,” says Dale Scheideman, director of new school and facility planning in the Clark County (Nev.) district. “They have to design a school that will fit in a desert.”

  • Education institutions typically are bureaucratic, political environments. Most public school boards are elected by the public, and even in systems that are not led by elected officials, the competition for limited money and resources can lead to turf battles that may place roadblocks in an architect's path.

    “Architects have to be sensitive to the landscape they're working in,” says Michael Hall, an architect and chief marketing officer for Fanning/Howey Associates, Ohio. “They should understand that administrators are working in a very political environment. Architects think in a linear fashion; we don't move on to point B until point A is finished. Things don't always occur in a linear fashion in a school district. To keep things moving forward, we need to recognize the political implications.”

  • Education institutions that receive taxpayer funds must be good stewards of the public's money. Many education institutions face an uphill battle to acquire funding for construction projects and have to be sensitive to the public's general reluctance to approve higher taxes — especially if the project in question is perceived to be extravagant.

    “Architects need to be accountable for how money is spent — treat it as if it's your own money,” says Hall.

    Close and constant communication helps keep project budgets from spiraling out of control.

    “You want to be working so closely with an architect so that no number is a surprise,” says Koster.

  • Education institutions try to make sure facilities throughout the system are comparable. Having a new school with the latest features might not be palatable if other facilities in the system don't measure up.

    “We are real careful about equity,” says Richard Wilkinson, assistant superintendent for facilities and finance in the Frisco (Texas) Independent School District. “We try to upgrade other schools at the same time. We may hold off if we can't do it at all schools.”

    In the Clark County district, when a new school includes improvements that would be beneficial for existing facilities — technology upgrades, synthetic tracks, theaters, auxiliary gyms — the district makes a concerted effort to retrofit the older facilities.

    “We put it in at the new schools, then go back to the older schools,” says Scheideman.

  • Education institutions and their constituents often are competitive with neighboring systems. Education institutions have to be concerned not just with their own facilities; they have to keep an eye on what nearby institutions are doing.

    “They compete not just academically, but with facilities and amenities,” says Maroney.

    What was an acceptable facility when it was built might be perceived as inadequate after the institution down the road unveils a new high school loaded with the latest bells and whistles.

    “It's human nature to always look at what your neighbor is doing,” says Wilkinson.

  • The facility being built may be an education institution's only major construction project for a long time. Architects who work in education will complete a school project and move on to the next job. But for some communities, a school project may be the only chance they have to create a special space that will give the institution and the community it serves a sense of identity and pride.

    “For many districts who are planning a high school, it will be the only new high school they are going to see in their lifetime,” says Maroney.

    Keep adds, “They really see this as an opportunity to do something special.”

  • Administrators want building designs to take into account the different ways students learn. Teaching strategies have evolved over the years to acknowledge the diverse ways students learn — some are visual learners, and others respond better to auditory or kinetic stimuli. Education spaces need to be welcoming environments for teacher lectures, small-group sessions, multimedia presentations and other ways of delivering knowledge to students.

    “It's critical for architects to understand the different manners in which children learn,” says Koster. “You need an environment designed to accommodate those needs. The environment for learning is totally different than when I was in school.”

  • Education institutions want facilities that will last a long time. “If a building is going to be around for 50 to 100 years, and (for a high school) cost 70 to 80 to 90 million dollars, it needs to fit and last,” says Keep.

    Accomplishing that goal means laying a strong foundation at the outset of the design process, so that an institution's vision of what it wants and needs is reflected in the structure that is erected.

    “You start with the intent, and you build the building around that intent,” says Koster.

  • Education institutions want facilities that are flexible enough to adapt to changes in teaching and learning. Many of the strategies, techniques and resources commonly used in today's classrooms weren't available a few years ago, and many of them may be outdated when the next generation of education facilities is built.

“One of the things we want is to incorporate flexibility into the buildings,” says Scheideman. “Nobody can tell us what's going to be happening in that classroom five years from now.”

What administrators should know about architects

  • Architects want to understand an education institution's vision. Architects see their roles as more than just making drawings for a new facility. That means gathering all the information needed to understand what an institution is trying to accomplish.

    “We really need to know what their vision is,” says Keep. “The building needs to fit what a school district is trying to do. We want to understand every program and how it might change. The building needs to accommodate what they're doing today and when change comes in the future.”

  • Architects want to be partners with an institution.To provide education institutions with the facilities they want and need, architects strive to develop a relationship of trust with school administrators. When both the architects and administrators collaborate and reach consensus on the direction of the institution and the specific construction project, the facility that results is more likely to fit the vision.

    “Architects like being on a team,” says Michael Hall, an architect and chief marketing officer for Fanning/Howey Associates. “We need to be able to work as a team, not as adversaries.”

    That doesn't necessarily mean that the architect is calling the shots to a passive school administrator.

    “It's a lot more work when you have an engaged client,” says David M. Maroney, an architect at ATS&R, “but I love a knowledgeable client. We are always learning.”

  • Architects want to design buildings that a community will be proud of for generations. Many school facilities built in the 1960s and 1970s have not stood the test of time.

    “School districts and architects threw up a lot of schools without a lot of thought — ‘flat-roof boxes’ — facilities that they are not very proud of,” says Hall.

    As they design new facilities today, they want this era of school construction to be remembered more fondly.

  • Architects want to get involved early. To be an integral part of the team planning a facility, an architectural firm wants to be there at the beginning. Architects see themselves as facilitators to the design process, and they can't do that effectively if they are brought in too late.

    “We want to get an early understanding of the project so that it results in a school that the community can be appreciative and proud of,” says Maroney. “Advanced preparation reduces anxiety.”

  • Architects want to get everyone involved. The more constituents that get involved, the better an architect can form a complete picture of where a community is and what it expects from a new school facility.

    “It used to be pretty top down — boy, has that changed,” says Keep. “It's a real participatory process. Everybody wants to be a part of the process — and they should be.”

    That includes those who might be opposed to a project.

    “Believe it or not, the smartest thing to do is to (include) a few community members who are not supportive of schools,” says Bill DeJong, chief executive officer of DeJong, an educational planning firm in Dublin, Ohio. “Once they contribute input and eventually support a project, they serve as spokespeople to fellow citizens. The worst thing a district can do is evade the community.”

  • Architects want to design facilities that enhance student learning. As educators and planners learn more about how facilities can affect student learning, they want to incorporate that knowledge into the designs of new facilities. Facilities that have the right amounts of natural light, good acoustics, enough space to avoid congested hallways, and a variety of space for studying and socializing can provide environments that help boost student performance.

    “In some districts, there is a view that a building is just something that keeps the rain out,” says Keep. “We aren't given access to the curriculum folks. Some schools might say, ‘A good teacher can teach anywhere,’ but a good teacher will do a better job in a good facility. I wish every district felt strongly that design makes a difference in how students learn.”

  • Architects need time to design a project. Defining and understanding an institution's vision takes time. Going forward with a project without putting in the time to form strong partnerships and good working relationships can result in a building that satisfies no one.

    “The process works best if the architect is able to engage the client and draw out all the important parameters in terms of cost and design,” says Maroney.

    In some cases, quickly growing institutions that have to tackle many construction projects simultaneously may not have the resources or personnel to devote the time to each project that architects desire.

    “When you're growing that fast, it is a strain on time and resources, and the temptation exists not to devote the time,” says Keep.

    In the Frisco (Texas) district, one of the fastest-growing school systems in the nation, assistant superintendent Richard Wilkinson acknowledges that “when you're building four to six schools a year, it's difficult to catch someone up … but we collaborate with our architects on everything. We make the time.”

  • Architects want plans documented in writing. From the time a school design process begins until the day the first student walks through the doors, several years can go by. With frequent turnover among superintendents and board members, an architectural firm may be working with a totally different cast of characters by the time a facility opens.

    “In some cases, we are the only ones left that know where we started,” says Hall. “Nobody that helped make the decisions was there anymore. When someone comes in and says, ‘Who chose this stuff?’ we want to be able to say, ‘I've got it documented.’”

  • Architects are usually working hard on a project, even if school officials aren't in close contact. A design team may work intensely with school officials and other stakeholders as they lay the groundwork for a construction project. Usually that is followed by a period in which the architects head to the drawing board and try to transform the vision of the institution into plans for a building.

    “Months may go by when we don't have much contact, and it seems we aren't as intensely involved with the district,” says Maroney. “Just because it's quiet doesn't mean we're not doing anything.”

  • Architects make mistakes. “It's unrealistic to expect perfect drawings,” says Hall. “Perfect drawings have never been drawn. Errors and omissions will occur.”

That's why it's important to determine at the beginning of a design process how subsequent errors will be handled — especially if the administrators and board members who initiated the project are no longer with the institution.

“If these questions are not resolved ahead of time, everybody will be negotiating from a position of anger,” says Hall.

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