Planning for Flexibility, Not Obsolescence
By Ezra Ehrenkrantz, Ehrenkrantz Eckstut & Kuhn Architects

Ezra Ehrenkrantz is an American Institute of Architects Medal of Honor Award Winner, and a pioneer in the development of building systems that can readily adapt to organizational and technological change. The material in this article was first presented as the keynote address at the UEF-21 Conference at the New Jersey Institute of Technology in September, 1999. Urban Educational Facilities for the 21st Century (UEF-21) is a chapter of the Council of Educational Facility Planners International. 

Ezra EhrenkrantzI began practicing architecture forty years ago and one observation that I have is that over these past forty years, in architecture, it seems that we have to learn things over and over again.  We learn things once but then somehow they slip away and then we come into a new era where the lessons need to be learned all over again. 
       When I started working on school buildings some forty years ago, we were still feeling the impacts of World War II.  Like today, there was a tremendous population explosion and people were looking to provide schools within limited budgets.  They wanted these schools to be better than the schools that were constructed in the 1950’s that were often on the borderline of being substandard.  For example, in the typical 1950’s school the space allocated to the classrooms, the floor-to-ceiling heights, the type of building services provided, there were no provisions for air-conditioning, for example, were all reduced to a minimum and the educational environment suffered.
      By the time I began to practice in 1959 and started to work in schools in 1960, pressure was building to provide more appropriate schools.  The typical schools, where classrooms were strung along double loaded corridors, were failing the students and people had become concerned with today’s equivalent of the core curriculum.   The focus had moved toward providing “individualized learning” and people desired to break down the “box” to enable students to learn to their capability and ability. 
      There were a variety of leading educators, J. Lloyd Trump, James McConnell and Howard Gores who in conjunction with the architects, Caudill Rowlett Scott and John Lyon Reed, began to be concerned with providing schools that could relate to the needs of individual students.  Individualized scheduling was talked about, but without today’s computers it was difficult to achieve.  So while individualized scheduling was talked about, it was not realized anymore than, in certain way, we are realizing the completely integrated use of information technology within a classroom today.  Teachers were not fully capable of optimally utilizing the tools to available to them as in the present time. 
      There were also discussions of larger goals which were not being met at that time.  The proposed framework for meeting these goals was Team Teaching.  Instead of having  thirty students working lock-step in a classroom, the proposal was to provide a mix of small group instruction, regular class size instruction, and larger lecture groups. 

" ... one of the things that school boards and architects didn’t recognize was that for teachers to work as a team, they needed time to plan together."

       This would provide teachers with the time to work with small groups, and to orchestrate a certain amount of individualized, or really small group activities.  Very quickly, school boards across the country began to opt for the construction of schools that would support a team teaching program focused on small group or “individualized instruction.”  However, one of the things that school boards and architects didn’t recognize was that for teachers to work as a team, they needed time to plan together. 
       Many of the new facilities had open classrooms.  For example, where there had been four separate classrooms each housing up to 30 students there were now one hundred and twenty kids in a large space, roughly sixty by sixty feet.  In working with this larger group, the four teachers were supposed to break down the class and orchestrate the educational program.  Unfortunately, in many cases they had to do this without being given the time to coordinate and plan to work together. 
      The lack of proper support for the new modes of teaching resulted in failures throughout the country.  These failures created a schism between educators and architects.  Architects liked the big open spaces, and educators went along because the conventional wisdom of the time suggested that this was the appropriate strategy.   But because they didn’t understand the costs and that this mode of teaching required extra staff to provide the time for each of the teachers to plan, the programs really broke down. 
      However, there were a few places around the country where the open classroom was made to work.  There were people who understood it in these places and since these few examples of success indicated that it could be made to work, they just kept the broader application of the program going that much longer.  In the end, the open classroom was clearly an example where a design solution was being put into place without an agreed upon funding base. 
       Over time, the open classroom schools have been removed and remodeled, and the concept of team teaching and the open classroom went into decline in many parts of the country because the criteria that would make it work were not recognized. 
       Today we are confronted with a whole new set of requirements through which society wants to provide for an appropriate education.    We are emphasizing getting back to basics in terms of core curriculum and standards because there is dissatisfaction with the output of our educational system. 
       As well, we are currently working at a point in time where it is extremely difficult to get funds to meet today’s educational requirements.  These requirements take into account not only the more conventional types of education, but we are also looking to integrate information technology.  Taking full advantage of information technology calls for new kinds of curriculum and these have new costs associated with them with regard to the technology itself and the necessary support. 
       There are also major changes taking place within our society.  E-Commerce, for example, is emerging.  It’s currently comprising one percent of retail sales which effects local sales tax revenues.  As E-Commerce expands it will mean that local sales taxes will be disappearing from communities.  

"Because it was expensive to remodel classrooms, information technology was introduced into many schools by being concentrated in computer labs.  The computer labs acted as old-style typewriter rooms and the work done with the computers was not integrated into the learning process ..."


       In the New York metropolitan area, for example, we are already finding that some districts are already in great financial difficulty.   These districts are having difficulty obtaining funds to maintain their current levels of expenditures.  Meanwhile, the retail industry, in order to respond to E-Commerce, is developing Super Regional Recreation/Retail Centers that draw, not from the local community, but from a larger regional area. 
       So, instead of having a number of school districts, let’s say twelve for example, that each have their own local shopping center, now there is only one Super Regional Center that is serving all of the people living within these twelve districts and beyond.
      The tax revenues from this Super Regional Center are only going to one school district in the twelve, however.  Each year more and more businesses and revenues are being lost to E-Commerce and the Super Regional Centers and this creates greater challenges for all districts and fewer and fewer school districts are doing well.  We will soon have to look at the establishment of budgetary patterns for school districts that are going into decline. 
      As noted before, we are facing a situation where there is an increase in the population of school-age children.  At the same time, two parent households are now working twenty percent more hours than they did twenty years ago just trying to stay in place. 
      With less time, the activities that parents did to prepare their children for education are becoming harder to do for the parent, so they depend more on the school.  However, these new demands are arising in a context where the budget framework for the schools is being undermined by forces that go outside the educational field in terms of the provision of revenues. 
      Within this kind of framework, the ability to provide schools that are going to meet, not only today’s requirements, but future requirements as well, becomes much more difficult to achieve.  So, we have a situation analogous to that created by the federal highway programs in the 1960’s when bypasses were put around the cities.  Wherever the ring road cut a radial, we had a place for a new shopping center, a new office park, and new suburban housing, drawing considerable revenue out of the inner cities to those addresses that were created by the bypasses. 
      Now we have a situation where instead of a “hard bypasses,” we have “virtual bypasses” being created that will take revenues from communities.  In this situation, the communities that will lose are not limited to a few major cities as in the 1960’s.   We’re now talking about the suburbs and the major cities. 
      Everyone is affected by E-Commerce simultaneously.  It’s a universal bypass system that is making things more difficult for school administrators and designers.  We have to take a look at the way we utilize the resources that we have and target what is specifically needed for our educational program. 
       As we look at the changes that had taken place in education in the 1970’s and 1980’s, there was a disconnect, as mentioned before, where leading educators no longer trusted architects.   Seizer, Slaven, Smith and other educational leaders were really not concerned with space. 
      As the Coalition of Essential Schools began to get going and get school districts to join the program, Seizer essentially said, that it doesn’t matter what the architecture is.  This notion emerged from a lack of trust based on the belief that in the previous era, the design professions were pushing for forms of education that required levels of resource allocation that was not being made available by local school boards. 
       With this disconnect, the educational leaders went through a long period of time without considering the role of the physical environment.  Now, information technology has brought them back.  They found that they needed to redefine what went into the schools in order to facilitate the use of information technology.  These new tools required the involvement of the design professional again. 
       A variety of approaches were developed to try and use information technology with its attendant requirements for space, power, HVAC, etc.  In the process of doing that work, the professions again reunited.   But they reunited to address a specific set of requirements at a given point in time. 
       Because it was expensive to remodel classrooms, information technology was introduced into many schools by being concentrated in computer labs.  The computer labs acted as old-style typewriter rooms and the work done with the computers was not integrated into the learning process taking place outside of the labs.  After a few years, students, and their parents, gained some currency with information technology. 
      Pedagogical SystemIn response to the lack of integration of the information technology into the learning process, technology migrated from the computer lab to the classrooms.  One, two, maybe up to six computers were put into a classroom.  However, the teachers had absolutely no idea about how to incorporate two computers within a classroom curriculum or how to utilize them in an effective way on a variety of educational modules. 
       But the number of computers provided was predetermined by the number of computers that were already owned and by the power capacity that would permit only one or two computers to be put in a classroom in lieu of different audiovisual aids or other kinds of tools.  While this approach helped to minimize the cost, it didn’t work either.  Over time, the number of computers in the classroom has increased and each increase has resulted in different designs being developed. 
      However, what has not happened in this process is to take a look generally at what the basic task is in terms of learning.  As Figure 1 indicates: there is a pedagogical system, space and appropriate environment and the technology and tools that will be used. Those three elements working together as a triad provide a system or a framework to underlie the learning process.
         And if those three elements work together in an effective way, you then have the ability to create the curriculum, the basic program of instruction, to facilitate a learning process.  Now, if the limitation on what can be achieved is based on technology and not the learning system -- that is, if the limitation is how many computers are going to work off the school’s existing power system -- the ability to optimize the whole system is going to be limited.
       With these limitations, the results are going to be poor.  Little by little, some more money has been found and we’ve begun to go in and remodel but the costs are extremely high. 
And if those three elements work together in an effective way, you then have the ability to create the curriculum, the basic program of instruction, to facilitate a learning process.  Now, if the limitation on what can be achieved is based on technology and not the learning system -- that is, if the limitation is how many computers are going to work off the school’s existing power system -- the ability to optimize the whole system is going to be limited.
       With these limitations, the results are going to be poor.  Little by little, some more money has been found and we’ve begun to go in and remodel but the costs are extremely high. 
       As mentioned before, initially there was the computer lab; everybody has seen them.  Computer labs alone within a school serve no useful purpose.   As technology migrated into the classrooms, often four computers were put in a classroom and the original power system couldn’t support them.  Besides, spatially, the classrooms won’t support putting in more than four, five or six desktop computers at a maximum because the computers take up desks permanently. 

designshare.com |  January, 2000  |  next section >