From the Outside Looking In

Aug. 11, 2017
Before taking action, architects should weigh recommendations, explanations, and decisions with an eye on possible political ramifications.

Architects are frequently exposed to politics in the education business, usually from the outside looking in. Issues may become hot buttons for architects and schools. Before taking action, they should weigh recommendations, explanations, and decisions with an eye on possible political ramifications.

Planning/design factors

When planning a bond referendum, educators should strive to win unanimous board approval. When presenting plans to the public, they should emphasize features favorable to key consituents. Accentuating needs (e.g., improving learning, extending building life, improving safety) rather than wants will strengthen support. Proposals such as allowing personal devices for students may generate controversy. Proposing to vacate a building also has the potential to divide a community; public input is essential.

When choosing a site for a new school in a larger school district, administrators should carefully consider attendance boundaries and bus routes. Understand the political implications of certain sites. Explain the rationale for a site and prepare selection criteria checklists that objectively justify decisions. 

When designing a school, include parents, students, and staff in decision-making. Administrators can’t be expected to make all decisions; architects should obtain user input to foster buy-in.

Competing with school choice (charter and private schools, voucher programs, home-schooling) affects public schools politically. A school’s branding becomes a key strategy in addressing these challenges. Frequently, an architect’s performance is judged on how well the project conveys this branding.

Delivering “bad news”

In addressing safety concerns (e.g., building odor hazards or structural settlement) that necessitate evacuation, architects may be called upon as specialists to investigate and keep it from becoming a public-relations problem. A school must communicate with parents and respond to media inquiries; architects must provide accurate information and respond to the media as guided by the school. Delivering bad news should involve 

  1. A brief background of the issue
  2. What led to the issue
  3. What is being done
  4. Solutions within a given timeframe
  5. How to prevent recurrence

Another potential source of drama is construction scheduling. A school must give architects a set of absolute completion dates and indicate whether construction liquidated damages are necessary. In short: What happens if the building doesn’t open on time?

To maintain school operations during construction, organize sequences and “student moves” that ensure safe egress routes, adequate air and noise barrier separations, and protected access to occupied areas. 

Regulatory mandates

Architects specializing in schools are immersed in state and federal mandates such as the Americans with Disabilities Act. Adhering to indoor-air-quality mandates prevents “sick building syndrome.” Wage requirements for construction must be followed to avoid legal trouble and project delays. Projects requiring public approval must follow notification and publication mandates. Any misstep in navigating these mandates may result in political and public-relations problems.

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