Paul Erickson

Creating Design Standards

April 5, 2022
“…A pathway for equity, consistency and quality…”

Establishing facilities standards creates a pathway for equity, consistency and quality in school design projects. The standards represent an education institution’s intent for project programming, design and construction. Standards are established at national, state, or local (school district) levels. A standards document becomes the primary reference for design professionals to develop designs and contract documents, with periodic updates to keep the document current. Every written word and drawn line should be purposeful and succinct; less is more will keep the document simplified and user-friendly.

For user ease and quick reference access, a standards document contains design descriptions supported by tables, graphics, drawings, and photos. A good format for the document introduces concepts and progresses toward specifics. Facilities standards should not prevent the use of alternative systems or materials.

For the document, a detailed table of contents with clear topic headings and page numbers, along with appendices, is essential for quick reference access. Here are tips for organizing sections and chapters in the document.


Creating the document involves input from numerous sources; providing “acknowledgements” helps a user understand the comprehensive nature of the information and participants involved. A “Vision and Philosophy” chapter provides designers with a foundation from which to design a project. An “Objectives” chapter provides an understanding of the document’s purpose and the desired outcomes. “How to Use the Document” descriptions inform the user of subject topics, indices, and technical summaries, along with educational and architectural terms. A chapter on “School Organization” gives designers an understanding of the educational system, grade level configurations, and course requirements – essential in form-to-follow-function solutions.

Design Principles

Design Principles describe key objectives. Principles may include chapters in “Inclusive Design,” “Universal Design,” “Smart Schools,” “Master Planning,” “High-Performance Design,” ”Future-Ready Learning,” “Safety/Security,” and “Visual and Acoustic Comfort,” These provide direction and create expectations for design solutions.

Architectural Design

This section provides specific design requirements. Chapters frequently include “Architectural Design” (codes, layout, flexibility, modularity, building elements), “Green Design” (LEED requirements, passive/active energy efficiency, indoor air quality, indoor space comfort, water efficiency, sustainable materials, renewable energy), “Indoor Spaces” (function descriptions, square footages, layouts, finish/door schedules, quantities of educational, administrative, core and support spaces), “Outdoor Spaces” (climate considerations, accessibility, outdoor learning, entrances and exits), “Building Finishing” (exterior building envelope, interior materials), and ‘Furniture/Fixtures/Equipment’ (moveable furniture, moveable and fixed equipment, height standards, sizes).  

Structural Design

Chapters include relevant “Codes and Standards,” “Design Criteria,” and “Design Descriptions” regarding dead and live loads, foundations, slabs, and systems. Structural standards are guidelines with performance descriptions, placing responsibility of actual calculations and specifications with the engineer

Electrical Design

Electrical standards describe relevant “Codes and Standards,” “Electrical Systems” (power distribution, lighting, outlets, fire alarm, bonding and grounding), “Technology Systems” (voice, data, video, security, infrastructure, networks, wireless), and “Sound Systems” (public address, hearing augmentation, assembly systems). Performance specifications guide the engineer in product and system selections.

Mechanical Design

Recently, mechanical systems have received greater attention in standards documents; they provide guidance on indoor air quality design requirements. Chapters typically include “Heating-Ventilation-Air-Conditioning (HVAC) Systems” (codes, energy conservation, central plants, utility distribution, ducted air systems, acoustics, exhaust areas, testing and balancing), “Controls Systems” (energy management, software, access points), “Fire Suppression Systems” (codes, fire protection, water supply, fire pumps, distribution, extinguishing systems), “Plumbing Systems” (codes, sewers, drains, vent systems, domestic water, compressed air, laboratories, emergency equipment), and ”Commissioning” (scope, systems, team, submittals).   

CSI Format

When organizing products and systems in the document, the CSI (Construction Specifications Institute) format is frequently used. It organizes construction components into divisions (e.g., Division 3 – Concrete, Division 7 – Thermal and Moisture Protection, Division 12 – Furnishings, Division 23 – HVAC, Division 26 – Electrical).

Additional Sections

A facilities standards document also may include chapters on “Design Process,” “Project Phases” and “Front-End Project Manual” requirements. It also may include protocols on “Owner-Provided Information and Reviews,” “Construction Contracts,” “Quality Assurance,” “Hazardous Materials,” “Temporary Facilities,” and “Construction Cost Estimates.”

State-prepared design standards frequently include sections for managing projects, including requirements related to state and school district responsibilities, funding procedures, state reviews, referendum planning, planning processes, architect selection, facilities assessment, projecting educational space needs, renovating versus building new, site selection, and project financing.

Paul W. Erickson, AIA/NCARB/REFP, executive officer & partner, is past president of ATSR Planners/Architects/Engineers (, a firm specializing in school planning and design. He has 45 years of experience in school planning, design, and construction. Erickson can be reached at [email protected].

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