Paul Erickson

Designing a new school? Plan accordingly

Oct. 11, 2023

Designing a new school means incorporating forward-thinking future-ready learning space. Because schools also serve as community centers, spaces to support this function must be considered as well. Using the following planning tools ensures that all program area square footage is included.

Begin planning by understanding the educational curriculum. For an educational entity with a strategic plan, the curriculum is likely in place. If a new learning focus is the objective, develop the vision and curriculum fundamentals – the school design evolves from these parameters. An educational facility planner or architect is entrusted to engage with stakeholders to translate concepts, ideas, and dreams into reality.

Space needs

The planner develops a space-needs program with stakeholders. Planning criteria such as grade levels or student ages served, class-size guidelines, sections per grade, student capacity, quantities of spaces, and special programs are used for generating the program. For example, a plan may call for a preK-5 school with a STEAM curriculum and class sizes for preK-1 at 20 students and for grades 2-5 at 25, for 700 students. Or the school could be a comprehensive grade 9-12 facility with emphasis in career technical education, performing/visual arts, and athletics. With this information, a draft plan is generated, and a working spreadsheet created.

The planner determines square footage areas according to best practices, government guidelines, practical experience, and the educational entity’s standards. Frequently at this stage there are unknowns to account for. For instance, there may be a grade-level “bubble” that affects the number of teaching stations. A remedy may be to provide flexible spaces that easily convert to class learning. Also, allow for office space changes during design to include flexible spaces.

Consider community spaces for public meetings, various sports events, and other venues. Planning may include meeting rooms, enlarged performance space, additional gym space, and support areas.

Net/Gross Area

The total net area of a building includes teaching and learning spaces that support the curriculum. Support spaces include the offices, locker rooms, learning commons, auditoriums, storage, foodservice and dining space, custodial space, and toilet facilities. For mechanical/electrical space, calculate it as a percentage of total net area. Mechanical spaces include the air handling equipment rooms, boiler room, and plumbing chases. Electrical spaces include the main switchgear room, electrical closets, generator room, and technology head-end/hubs.

Space for circulation and structure are calculated as percentages of total net area and included in the total gross area of a building. Circulation space includes horizontal and vertical pathway routes within the facility to access program areas. Structural space includes interior/exterior wall thicknesses, shaft walls, exterior overhangs, and structural columns. Outdoor buildings are accounted for separately. Outdoor learning space, playgrounds, and athletic fields are excluded from a facility’s total gross area.


Include future-ready spaces as part of the total net area or through increased circulation percentage. Future-ready spaces are flexible and provide for configuring space to accommodate changes in curricula, educational delivery models, and enrollment. For example, a flexible learning area may support various functions including class instruction, small-group work, and selective STEAM activities. Future-ready furniture supports quick, easy, and flexible reconfiguration of activities.

Educational specifications

Educational specifications are typically developed in tandem with the space-needs program spreadsheet. They include descriptions of courses taught in spaces, square footages and space adjacencies, listings of support spaces, and descriptions of finishes and equipment needs.

Layouts are prepared illustrating electrical items, mechanical items, and technology components. They show preferred locations and types of windows, doors, casework, outlets and furniture.

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

About the Author

Paul W. Erickson | President

Paul Erickson, AIA/NCARB/REFP, is president of ATS&R Planners/Architects/Engineers, Minneapolis, a multi-disciplined firm specializing in pre-K to 12 and post-secondary school planning and design. 

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