Modern school design began in 1940 with the Crow Island School, Winnetka, Ill.

“By designing a building that responds to an innovative educational program, that works on a child's scale and establishes a close relationship between indoors and outdoors, the architects pioneered a new direction,” says Ben Graves in School Ways.

That new direction was not a standardized design, but one that responded to the needs of the children.

In the 1960s, the School Construction Systems Development project (SCSD) in California focused on the efficiency of mass production, while avoiding standardized plans or monotonous repetition of rooms and general appearance. Designs varied, but all were built with identical systems or components such as structures, ceilings, lighting, air conditioning, partitions, cabinets and lockers. Architects were not limited in plan layout and had choices of systems and components.

From 1966 to 1971, SCSD components spread into more than 1,300 U.S. schools. One of SCSD's successes was the use of affordable relocatable partitions to create space flexibility.

Rapid growth may dictate repeating a design in a district. One district repeated an elementary design six times from 1965 to 1972 with minor modifications. And one high school design was repeated in 1970, but the floor plan was flipped 180 degrees, creating problems with construction documents and saving no time for the architect. Two technical colleges designed in 1968 appeared identical from the exterior, but interior long-span structural systems provided flexibility to modify spaces for changing programs.

The design for an elementary school in one district has been reused periodically seven times since 1985. This design provides flexibility for expanding from four to six sections per grade level. Modifications have been made for administration, music, science, art, kindergarten, special education and core facilities. Two other districts repeated a modified version four times.

After completing a 350,000-square-foot, 2,000-student high school, a district in a Midwestern state wanted to use the same design metaphor, but expand the building for 3,000 students. Major interior redesign occurred, and the building grew to 465,000 square feet. The exterior aesthetics, departmental relationships, interior circulation and student commons remained similar to the original design.

Some issues to consider when determining whether a prototype will work:

  • Site dictates changes.

  • Identical repeats are rare unless schools are built at the same time.

  • Elementary schools are easier to repeat because of size and programs.

  • Flexibility is essential in floor plan, structural, mechanical and electrical systems.

  • Components can be standardized in different designs.

  • Standardizing components is cost-effective for multiple buildings bid together, and for long-term operations and maintenance.

Educators and designers must stay flexible. Standardizing some systems and components may make sense, but compromising design or forcing standardized design in an attempt to save an insignificant amount of time and cost may significantly impair long-term use.


Rydeen, FAIA, is an architect/facility planning specialist and former president of Armstrong, Torseth, Skold & Rydeen, Inc. (ATS&R), Minneapolis. He can be reached at Jrydeen@atsr.com.