Asumag 584 Rydeen 2013

Facility Planning: Name Your Price

Sept. 1, 2008
Do schools really cost too much?

The charge that “schools cost too much” is a constant. I discovered a speech delivered to the School Board Association in 1965 by my mentor, G. Clair Armstrong. His comments are appropriate today.

Armstrong said that every building represents a sizable financial investment, and nearly all buildings are expected to justify themselves economically. Some are built to be:

  • Rented. Their cost must be in a range that the rent can be competitive with similar buildings, and still provide a fair return on investment.

  • Occupied for business purposes. The cost of these buildings must reflect a reasonable proportion of the occupants' operating budget.

  • Used for recreational purposes. Their cost must be reasonable in comparison with their use.

  • Viewed as monumental, and justified only by the effect that they create.

A school must be a combination of all of these. It is monumental in that it represents a special place in the community. It is owned by community members and used by them for functions throughout the building's life.

Because the cost of building a school is shared by the community, everyone feels a sense of ownership. Some consider the building too expensive and others may say it's not expensive enough. Issues to consider:

  • A cheap school building is not a good buy if long-term operations and maintenance costs are included.

  • A school building is subjected to more abuse during its lifetime than other types of buildings. For this reason, schools should use better materials and systems than a commercial building, which are higher in cost.

  • There is no magic number to the cost of a school building. There sometimes are uncontrollable factors, but as with most buildings, you get what you pay for.

The underlying question: Are we building facilities that are better than children need or deserve?

Any discussion eventually leads to some kind of comparison, which can be misleading. Architects who have designed a number of schools are likely to be identified by their “square-foot cost,” but this is akin to a bowling average or golf handicap.

In my mentor's time of 1965, schools had better lighting, heating, ventilating and materials, and used space more efficiently to provide a better value for their communities. The same can be said of schools being built today. We are building better schools, starting with the design, quality and use of materials, and systems based on value engineering, life-cycle costing, and long-term operations and maintenance.

We are leaving the community a legacy as we forge ahead with sustainably designed buildings. So, do schools cost too much? The answer is “no” if the dollars are spent to:

  • Provide a fair return on investment by providing facilities needed for long-term use.

  • Reflect a reasonable proportion of the district's operating budget.

  • Create facilities that are operated and maintained economically.

  • Design functional facilities.

  • Create a welcoming visual image.

  • Enhance the educational process.

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

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