Flexible School Facilities
By Frank M. Locker PhD, AIA, REFP with Steven Olson, AIA

School facilities have always had changing needs. Enrollments fluctuate. New program initiatives are regularly conceived. The relationship between schools and their communities is constantly evolving. Technology has altered the potential and, in some cases, the delivery of education. It would be difficult to find any school building over five years old with every space utilized as originally intended. For buildings over forty years old, it would be impossible.

The challenge to educators and educational planners is simply this: facilities are expected to last forty years without major retrofit, but the programs they serve may change several times in that time period. Once a new building is built, nobody (not the taxpayers, not the politicians) wants to hear about revised facility needs for the life of the building. We must create school buildings poised for change.

Unfortunately, we tend to think of educational needs as cast in a single slice of time. Most taxpaying adults are "experts" on schools because they attended school once; their thoughts of school facilities are highly conditioned by their experiences as students. Most teachers, when interviewed about their vision of ideal school needs, create lists of all the things they haven't had for the last twenty years. Most architects, and even educational planners, focus attention in their planning processes on current practices and needs. All of this is historic thinking. We need futurist thinking. The biggest challenge is to anticipate needs of the future.

Planning for the long-term success of a new building requires a certain faith that current trends will endure. While we cannot believe absolutely in current trends, there are two truths that we must accept:

  • The long-term future will not be like it is today. Education will continue to evolve and may make facilities as we know them obsolete.
  • Schools will continue to be under-resourced.

The first point may be debatable, but the second is a truism in education. The combination of the two demands a search for legitimate flexibility.

The future of education will be defined by the interaction of the following factors. A well-planned building will anticipate these factors and facilitate them.

Educational Delivery
The last fifteen years have been exciting times in education and educational planning, as the traditional industrial model of education has been challenged by numerous restructuring concepts. Many of these initiatives are very provocative: small schools, schools within schools, team teaching, teacher-as-guide. They show great promise through outcomes such as increased graduation rates, greater student participation, increased staff satisfaction, more meaningful connections between staff and students, stronger relationships to neighborhoods and business communities, and more relevant modeling of the world outside school.

Yet these restructuring initiatives, as provocative and promising as they are, currently represent only a tiny percentage of our K-12 schools. If their impact lives up to their initial promise, these concepts will pervade existing school curriculums over the next several decades, placing significant stress on our stock of older, industrial-model school facilities. This stress will also apply to many buildings designed today but not yet built since many are tailor-made to serve practices that may soon change.

School buildings generally outlast enrollment cycles. After two decades of slow growth to an all-time high, national pre-high school enrollments will drop slowly over the next decade. High school enrollments will follow this same pattern, trailing by several years. Planning buildings to anticipate enrollment drops may create new opportunities to meet school program or community needs. Not planning for enrollment drops may simply result in underutilized buildings.

Numbers above in millions

Planning for a long-term, and somewhat unknown future, requires an adjustment in thinking. Schools planned today nationally exhibit a progression of school development. This progression may be used to characterize degrees of change from traditional practices. The progression identifies five stages of restructuring, from the most traditional (#1) to the most radical (#5), which may result in no need for a building at all. The sequential diagram below expresses the way that any school can be seen as a point on a continuum, and that, over time, it may evolve from one point to another. Some aspects of the progression may be highly controversial (virtual learning), but others, such as project learning and teacher planning centers, are likely for most schools at some future point. Even if these were not imbedded in the teaching practices today, the prudent planner would do well to anticipate their integration in the near future. Preparing for such a possibility requires "futurist thinking."

Traditional School
Repeated Classrooms
Schools Within a School
Project Learning
Teacher Planning Centers
Virtual School
Service Learning
Home schooling
School to Work
School is not
a Building

Generic Functions
School planning practice has identified needs in terms of isolated functions, which we then seek to optimize in facility design. This approach tends to identify differences among functions rather than similarities, and can result in buildings that become resistant to change.

Old Thinking

A futurist-oriented planning approach would identify similarities of size, location, and environmental conditioning, and seek to make them as interchangeable and reinterpretable as possible. Generic spaces would be sought rather than highly specific spaces. While a "state of the art" Home Economics lab may be needed now, the bigger issue is " Will Home Economics be taught in thirty years, and if so, how?" The space may have more prospects for the future if it can become a science lab or art lab, as program needs change.

Strategic Locations
In new schools, planning must be based on communication and flow among functions. The strategic positioning of functions enhances student identity, sharing of limited supplies and resources, teacher communication, team teaching, community use, and orderliness within the building. The correct location of a function can position it for a viable long-term future as part of a constellation of spaces serving changing needs.

New Thinking

Technology integration in school buildings has only been an issue for fifteen to twenty years. It has evolved from isolated desktops, to networked desktops, and finally to wireless laptops. The future will include tablets, personal digital assistants, and digital phones as technology evolves from a limited resource to a pervasive communications and analysis tool. Just as we would never think of putting all the pencils in one room, we will no longer think of building computer labs. The nature of libraries will change. Educational delivery methods and the basics of student-teacher contact may change as well.

School-Community Relations
Connection and relevancy to the community it serves is the heart and soul of any school. Community use of isolated building functions such as gymnasiums has been a standard in school planning since World War II, but in recent years expectations, programs, and access have increased significantly. Schools now need spaces for parent volunteers, mentors and tutors. Schools now view student placements in community service and job-oriented, hands-on learning initiatives as critical to their curriculums. The potential of new and educationally sound school-community relations is now clearly understood. Each step of enhancement results in new facility needs.

Image Credits:
1 & 2. K-8, K-12 Enrollment Charts:
     US Dept Education
2. Progression diagram: DeJong & Associates
3. Old & New Thinking: PDT Architects


DesignShare.com | September 2003 | continue to section 2 >