School House of the Future

While school budgets are being taxed by declining revenue, escalating construction costs and skyrocketing transportation expenses, our need to provide high performance, forward thinking educational environments for our children and communities remains a constant.

Over the past few decades, our aspirations to provide these state-of-the-art schools were often met by replacing existing school buildings and sites with new facilities on “green field” sites. In many cases, new buildings on these sites may now be out of reach. However, our educational goals may still be attainable if we look toward our existing assets. With over 125,000 existing school buildings across the country, we can identify ways that you can foster education, community, sustainability and citizenship by creatively engaging the buildings and sites that are already part of your community.

Recognizing the Value of Existing School Buildings and Sites
One of the metrics that is often used to assess educational adequacy of a school district’s building stock is the average age of its facilities. The higher the average age, the less supportive the architecture is assumed to be of the educational program. With deferred maintenance and limited capital funds available for periodic upgrades this may be, in fact, a fair assessment. Among their failings, older school buildings may not: be accessible, have adequate HVAC systems, have sufficient power for contemporary educational technology or provide the right space for a 21st century curriculum.

The daily experience of these conditions may make it difficult to look past current problems to truly assess the potential of these buildings and their sites. In many cases, with the proper investment older school buildings are capable of meeting contemporary educational needs and when considered within a broader context of educational and societal goals, they may even exceed the performance of a new green field school.

For example, many existing school buildings were designed to optimize natural light and ventilation. Accordingly, they have tall ceilings and expansive windows – assets for meeting sustainable design criteria. Many were built in architectural traditions that have for generations asserted the importance of the school as the “center of community” – a tenet of 21st Century educational facility planning. Many are centrally sited within their communities, making multiple modes of transportation – walking, biking, mass transit and cars – equally viable ways to arrive on campus – an opportunity to address both the health of our children, our communities and our ecosystems.

Imagining the Future Through Existing Buildings
When evaluating existing school buildings and their sites the foremost concern is whether they can provide appropriate settings for contemporary learning. It is important that these evaluations do not begin with a preconceived notion that new is always better. There are many examples of historic buildings – on downtown streets, college campuses and even housing our “halls” of government – capably housing modern programs and technology.

As in any other school building project, determining an existing building and site’s “educational adequacy” should begin with a discussion of the desired outcomes and performance of the environment that will support the school’s culture, curriculum and pedagogy. As a prelude to the creative analysis of an existing building’s potential, this initial discussion will determine desired organization principles, space needs and performance criteria beginning with questions about how teaching and learning will be supported, for example:

  • In each setting, what modes of learning will be used (seminar, lecture, collaborative learning, project-based learning, etc.)?
  • How should we organize the learning community (by grade, by academies, etc.)?
  • How should teachers collaborate and communicate?
  • How will parents and the community engage the school and use the facilities?
  • What outdoor program is needed (recreation and athletic areas, parking, service)?
  • How should we foster a safe and secure environment?

The answers to these and other questions will provide a series of “filters” to evaluate an existing building and site’s ability to accommodate these needs. As the evaluation of a specific site begins, questions to answer will include:

  • Is the building too small or too large?
  • What kinds and how large are the existing spaces? How do they compare to what is needed?
  • How are they organized? Can the desired overall organization and localized adjacencies be created?
  • Are room sizes and proportions right for the modes of learning anticipated?
  • Is natural light available to the right places?
  • Is the footprint and volume to integrate new infrastructure available?
  • How flexible/adaptable is the building structurally if changes are needed?
  • Are there opportunities within the school’s context (neighborhoods, parks, complementary programs) for joint-programming and joint-use?

In many cases, with an appropriate modernization effort, an existing building can continue to effectively satisfy all of the school’s needs. For example, with new HVAC, lighting, educational technology, millwork, furniture, finishes and a few new bathrooms and walls installed over a summer, all of the classrooms in Tubman Elementary School’s 1960-era building were renewed. However, what do you do if the existing facilities can’t accommodate your needs?

Existing school buildings from the early to mid 20th Century often are best suited to housing classrooms. Many are simply comprised of a repeated classroom module of somewhere around 700 to 900 square feet. Spaces such as science labs, art rooms, music rooms and media centers may not readily fit within these repeated modules. Within often limited floor plates, they not readily accommodate the addition of smaller spaces such as administrative offices, resource rooms, bathrooms and elevators either. If this is the case, the evaluation should consider whether an addition can complement the existing building and house the resources that the existing may not be able to cost effectively accommodate.

Originally built in 1926, Brightwood Elementary School’s building was a perfect example of a good classroom building with many positive attributes including “civic presence.” Internally, with some adjustment, the existing classrooms were large enough, they were reasonably well proportioned and had access to plentiful natural light. However, the building only had bathrooms on the ground floor, it did not provide the diversity of spaces – large and small – necessary for a modern program, its infrastructure was obsolete and it was inaccessible.

Our evaluation concluded that these shortcomings could be resolved through two additions that would, in conjunction with the existing building, provide the variety and types of spaces, services, infrastructure and organization necessary for a contemporary elementary school curriculum. The first addition created a “commons building” providing school-wide shared resources that would not easily fit within the existing building – administration, gym, cafeteria, art, music and media center. Collected together with an accessible new front door, an elevator and a central mechanical room, these programmatic elements created a community center shared by the school and the neighborhood.

A second smaller classroom addition replaced the multipurpose room and complemented the classrooms in the existing building creating a central gathering space and helping to reorganize all of the classrooms into child-scaled “neighborhoods.”

Similarly, for the School Without Walls Senior High School, a small, residentially scaled urban schoolhouse dating to 1882 was renewed through an addition that enabled the 19th Century building to do what it does best, provide large, flexible classrooms with a distinctive “learning ambiance.” Like Brightwood, the new addition made the existing building accessible and provided large and small spaces ranging from bathrooms to science and art labs, a media center, a roof terrace and a commons.

Even if the existing building is significantly undersized, with the right site, it can become the core of a 21st Century school. At 17,000 square feet the 1932 vintage Stoddert Elementary School building was less than a third of the size that the program warranted and as an old prototypical classroom building, the building did not offer any common spaces where the school could gather. With a 48,000 square foot addition, the revitalized campus will feature renewed and additional classrooms and shared resources to be jointly used by the school and the Department of Parks and Recreation. With the addition and a ground source heat pump system (geothermal) this little, old, school building will achieve LEED Gold.

In each of these case studies, the additions enabled the existing buildings to remain more than viable in the 21st Century. The combination of new and existing buildings enabled reprogramming, reorganization and the provision of new learning resources and sustainable infrastructure, while celebrating the continued vitality and sustainability of these essential and long-serving community assets.

Imagining the Future through Existing Sites
Sometimes, the building is not the issue, it’s the site. Desires for increased parking and athletic fields may challenge the capacity of an existing site. The acquisition of an adjacent site may be one approach to solve these needs but if acquisition is not an available option, a policy-driven solution might be in order. The small neighborhood-oriented sites typically associated with existing schools where parking concerns are raised often provide the resources of a walkable, transit-oriented location. Parking pressures might be met through innovative Transportation Demand Management (TDM) measures where incentives are provided to encourage more walking, biking, use of mass transit and car-pooling.

Similarly, when athletic field demands exceed a site’s capacity, several strategies can be explored, including joint-use of a nearby park or the creation of a district-wide athletics plan that might create centrally located shared practice fields and stadia. Arlington, Virginia’s Yorktown High School, located on an 11.5 acre site, illustrates both the implementation of innovative TDM measures and the joint use of an adjacent park. The Yorktown TDM plan provides incentives for students and faculty to leave their cars at home and the building’s entry emphases the Metro and school bus drop-offs. The adjacent park provides all of the school’s athletic fields. Together, these two strategies enable the high school to remain integrated with the neighborhood it serves.

A Different Process for a Different Result
As the case studies suggest, the environment that results from a modernization project is different than new construction. When an existing school is currently in use, the process of modernization is also different. Part of the evaluation process must include an assessment of how a modernization project can be implemented. As in other aspects of the work, there are several options for maintaining the operation of a school during construction.

These options are illustrated by the projects discussed above, including:

  • Perform the work when school is closed (Tubman Elementary)
  • Move the school to off-site “swing space” (School Without Walls)
  • Move the school to temporary “swing space” on-site (Stoddert Elementary)
  • Build and renovate the building in phases (Brightwood Elementary and Yorktown High)

Each of the options has specific scheduling, budgetary and logistical implications that will need to be assessed against on and off-site opportunities and constraints. In every option, the first priority must be the safety of the students, staff and general public. This is accomplished largely by establishing a clear separation between school and contractor operations. This separation can be established in time (summer-time or before or after-hours work) and/or space through careful delineation of the site. As the projects discussed in this article demonstrate, with an experienced design and construction team, each approach can be successfully implemented.

Regulatory Challenges
The continued use of existing school buildings and sites are not only challenged by existing physical conditions or operational issues. Often decisions to abandon valuable buildings and their sites are driven by standards and policies that are biased toward new construction. Among these are minimum acreage standards and 60% or “two-thirds rules.” While intended to protect the public investment in quality educational facilities, these policies have had unforeseen educational, social and financial impacts.

According to the US Environmental Protection Agency (US EPA), 27 states have established standards for the minimum size of a school site. Many existing sites that have performed well for generations may not comply with these standards, so referencing these criteria may lead to negative assessments. However, as many of these existing schools demonstrate, large sites do not necessarily correlate with school success and in fact, these standards may work against many of our educational values and unintentionally result in the suburban sprawl.

For example, minimum acreage standards often require sites that are larger than may be available within the “fabric” of our existing communities, encouraging the consideration of more remote, exurban sites. However, as the available sites become more remote, the total cost to taxpayers may extend beyond the hard cost and the boundaries of the school to off-site expenditures for new utilities and roadways.

There are social and environmental costs too. The more remote a site is, the more reliant we become on car and bus transportation. Already approximately 30% of early morning traffic during an average weekday within the academic year is attributed to travel to and from schools. With many districts considering reductions in school bus service to balance declining budgets – the Washington Post (November 19, 2009) recently quoted a school transportation official as stating that the expenditure on a single bus route was equal to the salary of one teacher – cars become only viable means of accessing these remote sites, exacerbating concerns about congestion, greenhouse gas emissions and traffic safety.

Because they are more compact and integrated into the community, many of our existing school sites are more accessible to the entire community including people that may not have a car such as the young and the elderly. With growing concern about sedentary lifestyles and childhood obesity, a site that encourages more walking or biking can provide life long benefits. Inviting active use by neighbors of all ages throughout the week, the physical convenience of many of our existing school sites supports the idea that our schools are the “center of community”.

Like minimum acreage standards, “two-thirds rules” were implemented to protect public investments but they have served to codify the preconceptions about the performance of existing versus new buildings. These rules provide financial incentives to build new when the cost of renovating and existing facility exceeds two-thirds of the cost of building new, even if the modernization costs less in total and meets other important community goals as discussed above.

A 2004 study by the Michigan Land Institute entitled Michigan’s School Construction Boom: The Real Cost of New Public Schools, concluded that, “in every case we studied, building a new school cost more than renovating an older one.” In an era of declining revenues and limited bonding capacity, the return on the investment associated with new construction may not warrant the hard cost premium over the continued use of viable, long serving neighborhood school buildings.

Where these standards are recommendations, every school and school board should critically assess the underlying assumptions that they bring to the process in light of larger school and community goals. Where these standards are policy, it will take advocacy to ensure that they do not predetermine the appropriate solution for a community’s schools. Information is available from the many groups already engaging these issues including the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the US EPA’s smart growth program.

Why Renew an Existing School Campus
Vincent Scully, a widely revered architectural historian, once said that architecture is a conversation between the generations, carried out across time. The continued contribution of our existing school buildings to the education of our families, is not only practical, cost effective and sustainable, the act of revitalizing these campuses reinforces the fabric and heritage of our communities, conveying our core values to the next generation.

By Sean O’Donnell, AIA, LEED AP
Principal, Ehrenkrantz Eckstut & Kuhn Architects

Schoolhouse of the Future by Sean O’Donnell, as published by Learning By Design Spring 2010