When should an architect ask for staff or users to get involved in school facility planning? When is the proper time for an architect to lead the planning and specifications process by challenging, educating, sharing and informing users about the variety of design options available? Once a school district hires an educational planner or architect to begin the planning process for new school construction or a districtwide facilities study, what really happens? Which process ensures total involvement, but also ensures creative participation? What will provide the school district with facilities that meet its needs, yet are adaptable to ever-changing educational philosophies and delivery methodologies?

All too frequently, an educational planner or architect is directed to begin the process by meeting with staff members to find out “what they want.” Talking with staff members too soon may result in reactions based only on what they know at that time. What they want may not be the best for the long term, because by the time a new building is ready for occupancy at least three years later, only two things are likely to be permanent — the architect and the building. Board members, administrators and staff may have moved on to other situations.

Meeting with staff should come later — when the process of developing the educational specifications begins or even after some preliminary design sketches have been developed. More often than not, staff members are unprepared for the task of spelling out what they want because they have a limited perspective. They may not be aware of new directions in facility design, curriculum, scheduling, instructional process and delivery methodology.

The staff and other user groups need to be informed of these developments before they can offer design ideas; otherwise, the district is likely to build a facility with a contemporary appearance but with familiar, possibly outmoded design concepts. Unfortunately, time and funds often are not available for the staff to receive the information needed to broaden their horizons, and the final design result reflects educational facility designs of the past.

First, consider what planners and architects need. A publication from the American Institute of Architects' Committee of Architecture for Education identifies questions that need to be answered as building requirements are compiled for a construction project or long-range plan:

  • Why is a building program being considered?

  • Who will use the facility?

  • Which subjects will be taught, and how often will classes meet?

  • When will the space be used?

  • Where will the building be?

  • How is education to be delivered?

Who should answer these six questions? What is the process for seeking correct answers? Questions such as “What subjects will be taught?” and “How often will classes meet each week?” seem benign at first, but in fact they relate to in-depth issues regarding future directions: departmental vs. interdisciplinary; integrated thematic curriculum; grade-level house or family concepts; educational delivery methodology; educational technology; block scheduling; alternative scheduling; and curriculum for “at-risk” students and teen parents.

When to lead

Much has changed in participatory planning over the last 40 years. A comprehensive planning process that builds consensus includes many steps. Although an architect must demonstrate leadership throughout the entire process, that trait is especially important during these major steps to ensure a successful project:

  • Convene an initial strategy session, facilitated by an architect, with school board members and administrators. The group should develop guidelines, a schedule, planning criteria, goals, communication formats, an input and decision process, and in-service workshops.

  • Create a steering committee with representation from the school board, district administration, principals, teachers, community, user groups and students. Refine the planning criteria, goals, workshops and the decisionmaking process.

  • Develop planning teams that represent the administration, staff, students, community, and specific user groups such as seniors, teen parents and alternative learning.

  • Conduct a “school facility planning directions” workshop. Urge participants to “look out the window instead of in the mirror” to identify key educational and planning questions that facilitate thought-provoking dialogue.

  • Hold workshops to update participants on new directions regarding curriculum, scheduling, delivery, technology, community use and facilities design.

  • Develop a planning questionnaire with open-ended questions to solicit responses regarding the new facilities, such as educational programs, community use and building design.

  • Conduct partnering sessions with planning teams regarding the planning questionnaire, the input process, educational specifications and consensus-building strategies.

  • Create an educational specifications writing team with district representatives.

  • When existing facilities are involved, conduct an individual building analysis to assess a building's educational adequacy, physical adequacy, security, and compliance with the ADA and other codes.

  • Explore and explain the options for the best long-term building solution.

When to ask

An architect also has to know when to ask questions to solicit critical information:

  • During meetings with the steering committee to further pursue the correct direction in study, analysis and options.

  • During focus sessions with planning teams using the planning questionnaire and the educational specifications.

  • During forum sessions or town hall meetings with the community. Use the planning questionnaire to solicit their concerns.

  • As educational specifications and conceptual floor plans with cost projections are reviewed. This will help to achieve consensus and endorsement from the steering committee, planning teams and other stakeholders.

In order to arrive at a consensus, an architect should be prepared to review many issues with stakeholders: organizational structure; instructional program; educational delivery; educational adequacy; demographics; individual building analysis; educational technology; site evaluation; life-cycle costing; operations and maintenance; security; design goals; and options.

Make sure all users are participating in the process and are committed to any new educational directions being adopted. To create effective long-term solutions, educational planners and architects must become an integral partner in the steering committee and with all user groups to lead, guide and challenge current systems and approaches.

Remember: planners need to educate their clients. Don't just ask “what do you want?” The result may be a building that is outdated on opening day. Reach consensus among all stakeholders to achieve the most effective and satisfying solutions. Professional planners and architects should be challenged to create the best education environment. Build for the future, because a building hopefully will be around for 50 to 100 years.

Rydeen, FAIA, an architect and facility planning specialist, is past president of Armstrong, Torseth, Skold & Rydeen, Inc., Minneapolis. Erickson, AIA, is the firm's president.