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Flexible School Facilities
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Make a Mitten, Not a Glove
The long-term viability of facilities depends upon their ability to be reinterpreted, and adjusted with minimal disruption, cost, or compromise of educational programs. While a “glove fit” between programs and facilities is often a design goal, flexibility for the future is better served by the metaphor of a mitten.

The long-term test of our facilities planning process is this: did we meet the needs of the successors of everybody involved in the project today?

Planning to anticipate change in an unclear future is facilitated by several strategies. Some of these have been evident in schools for decades, but must be augmented. Others challenge the basics of how planners think about buildings.

Time-Share Spaces
For decades, this strategy has been routinely employed in school planning for programs such as after-school community use of gymnasiums. As we ask more of our schools, we need to apply the concept to more program areas and other times of day. Time-share allows different user-groups access to the same spaces. Today auditoriums can double as lecture halls, cafeterias have become conferencing centers, other cafeterias act as lobbies for events or as the place for the performance, and a distance learning lab can be a sophisticated conference room. Time-share concepts create greater utilization of spaces and bring more value to users and taxpayers.

west linn highMulti-Functioning Spaces
User groups often need functions for only a portion of the day or week, or have needs that change over time, or run simultaneously. Creation of multi-functioning spaces often serves these needs most economically and efficiently. The West Linn High School, West Lin, Oregon, designed by Dull Olsen Weeks Architects, expresses this concept eloquently. Clusters of six classrooms are arranged around “porches” that overlook a large, open Media Center. The “porches,” titled specifically to embrace multiple functions, can be used as computer labs, breakout spaces, presentation spaces, tutorial areas, student work display areas, and for small gatherings.

steelcaseFurnishings enhance multi-functioning spaces. Manufacturers are only just beginning to explore the possibilities. New products from Steelcase allow for clustering of tables around computer towers and depend on the mobility of wheels.

alphaaMoveable Components
An even greater level of flexibility can be created by movable components. The movable wall is probably the most ubiquitous example. New planning concepts have expanded the potential of this and other movable components. Alpha High School, Gresham, Oregon, by Dull Olson Weekes Architects, exhibits two creative concepts. This small, alternative school utilizes the same space for science and auto technology. Students make the conversion by rotating large sections of stainless steel casework on wheels. A unique variation on the movable wall (known as the DOWall) allows a single space to act as a classroom, multiple conference rooms, or a large meeting space.

alphacElements Reasonably Changed
At times, the degree of change exhibited by Alpha isn’t necessary, but reasonable change on a seasonal, annual, or evolutionary basis is. The integrated classrooms at Oxford Hills Comprehensive High School, South Paris, ME, designed by PDT Architects, have office technology demountable partitions to create subdivisions within the team teaching classrooms. The concept easily allows a conference room/classroom/breakout space plan to be converted to an open space or two classrooms by a janitor over a school break to facilitate scheduling or program changes.

ipswich hsmsRenovation
This flexibility concept costs the most and requires considerable local reinvestment to accomplish. Nevertheless, it is often the only appropriate solution to change. Planners would do well to create capability for renovation through selection of materials and systems. Concrete block has long been the material of choice for schools, but is the most difficult partitioning system to remodel. Gypsum board is more “renovatable,” and if protected from abuse, can be more appealing. as Ipswich Middle/High School, designed by Flansburgh Associates, illustrates. Unit ventilators are more problematic than central systems. Potential for change should be a consideration in all school material and system selections.

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March 2nd, 2006

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