Dealing with the diverse and complex issues inherent in the planning and design of a high school is easier when schools, at the outset, establish a committee of knowledgeable decision makers that represent all parts of the school.

The leader of this committee — an architect, school principal or other administrator — will play a crucial role in getting staff members to focus their thinking on what they want from a new school facility. Often, teachers find it difficult to visualize more than their own classroom or department.

By meeting frequently with the chairs and staff members of every department, the committee leader can help everyone involved begin envisioning the new school.

Using a visual approach in these meetings can be highly effective. Three-dimensional drawings help the groups visualize the issues. Planners need to put the relevant issues on paper so that all group members can visualize the issues and begin to make decisions about them.

When staff members have been adequately prepared, tours of other school facilities become more relevant. The architect can arrange to have groups of staff members visit different buildings. Groups as large as 60 to 90 can be organized to tour nearby facilities; smaller groups can go to out-of-state sites if funds are available. These visits provide examples of concepts and improvements that may be desirable in the new school.

Meet, and meet again

Because many ideas emerge from these building tours, the architect should begin organizing the ideas immediately. A proven method is to set up workshops with different departments, including leaders and all staff members. These groups should meet once a week.

As departmental programming meetings are held weekly to identify critical issues, a smaller group of decisionmakers should be reviewing information that emerges from these meetings. The smaller group should include the key architects, superintendent, business manager, facilities director, school principal, general contractor and the local government's head of planning. Meeting one full day a month, this committee can examine the design and planning, construction, educational specifications, and other issues, big and small, related to the project.

In addition to departmental meetings, public presentations also can introduce new objectives for the school. Programmers need to be flexible in adapting to the desires expressed by the community. For example, at 2,400-student Fond du Lac High School, Wis., a local theater group proposed that the planned auditorium be expanded into a performing-arts center.

The theater group raised $2 million to enhance the facility. Consequently, the space was expanded, seating increased from 750 to 1,000, and more sophisticated stage controls were installed. The revised design also included a separate vestibule that provided the performing-arts center with its own entryway and identity. This allowed the rest of the school to be closed off during evening activities and performances.

Other multifaceted issues are involved in planning today's high schools. Objectives can include addressing academy-approach educational specifications, supporting programs integrating multilevel curricula, incorporating closed-campus food-court cafeterias, balancing physical-education needs between programs, and enhancing technology departments.

Small sacrifices

At Fond du Lac High School in Wisconsin, members of the science department emphasized that they wanted sustainable-design features included in the new facility. They wanted to use the building systems as teaching tools.

The design team researched a geothermal system for heating and cooling the school and visited an Iowa hospital with a traditional geothermal system. However, the cost and time required to dig a series of underground wells required for the system was beyond the school project's budget and schedule.

The team considered a water-coil system, in which coils are sunk into ponds, and pumps heat or cool the fluid passing through the coils. However, the initial design didn't have enough space for the 155 pumps that would be needed. After careful discussion with all departments, the school's teachers decided collectively to give up nine square feet from each 900-square-foot classroom to build a 3-foot by-3-foot closet for each pump. Doors to the closets open onto the corridors, allowing filters to be changed without disturbing classes.

Natural daylighting also was an important aspect of the school's design. The building's wings allow for greater incoming light. Corridors were placed on the building's interior, with classrooms on the outside of the floor plan. Artificial lighting in the classrooms is sensor-controlled, and high-performance, slightly tinted glass installed throughout the building eliminated the need for blinds.

Fond du Lac High School also had to address many other complex issues. The school was doing away with its open-campus lunch policy. It needed a closed-campus cafeteria that offered a variety of food options that appealed to students accustomed to leaving school for lunch. A retail-style food court gives students many choices.

Security concerns gradually influenced the school's design toward the development of zones. Those allow academic areas to be locked off and protected from the more public areas such as a performing-arts center, a two-story commons and a community room with seating for 150.

To design the school's new fieldhouse, the committee met initially with two groups — physical-education teachers and athletic coaches. To resolve the conflicts between those two groups, the groups were combined and reached consensus about the size of the fieldhouse, the number of teaching stations and the running track surface. The result was a four-station fieldhouse and two separate gyms — one small and one large with the ability to be divided — and a wood-surface running track.

Technology educators wanted a fresh approach to their spaces, which typically have been placed in the back of a school and attended mostly by male students. The group's objective was to be situated closer to the school's mainstream and to attract more female students to technology courses. As a result, computer classes, avionics, hydroponics and structural engineering were placed in classrooms at the center of the school. Glass fronts allow all students to view activities.

Because of the level of detail reached through these meetings in the first three months, the relatively simple bubble diagrams typical of the programming stage advanced quickly into more detailed schematic drawings. The project was able to move rapidly after these intense discussions with the school's users.

Bray and Kuhnen are principals of Bray Associates Architects, Sheboygan, Wis. The firm was architect for the Fond du Lac High School project.