I was recently asked to comment on what the keys to a successful school building project are, by Educational Directions Incorporated. EDI is an international independent school consultant, and they published my comments in their newsletter, The Trustee’s Letter.  I chose to focus on three key issues that we have found of paramount importance in our institutional projects:

MASTER PLAN: The biggest architectural challenge with school design projects is figuring out not only what is needed for the specific building / addition, but to think beyond that important but incomplete functional agenda, and to consider the campus as a whole as it relates to the school’s mission. What does it say about our school that we are building a fancy new gym when our classrooms or dorms are falling apart? How can we site a new structure so that it not only accommodates a specific function but also makes the campus as a whole more cohesive? As an example, we designed six new faculty / staff houses at St. Mark’s School in Southborough, MA, that not only housed faculty and staff and their families, but through our overall design strategy – both building and landscape – created a system that will guide the school’s planning for future new structures and also integrated a portion of the campus that had previously been disconnected from the main campus. It is critical that the school have a comprehensive master plan before embarking on additions / renovations / new construction, and this should be a live document that is updated regularly.

SUSTAINABILITY: All architectural projects must be sustainable regardless of scale or budget, not because it is “trendy” but because it is critical for the long term health and well-being of our schools and the students we teach. Designing and building sustainably can save money for a school both short term and long term.  And it’s also the right thing to do! One really important consideration is to make sure that prior to adding a new building, to make sure the school’s existing buildings are as efficient and functional as absolutely possible. For example, don’t build a new dorm until all existing dorms are made as energy efficient, livable / comfortable, and fully utilized as possible.

MULTI-FUNCTIONALITY:  In this day and age, when all schools are recovering from the Great Recession, I think it behooves all architects working with schools – as well as their clients, including not only school administrators but also Board committees – to plan for multi-functionality for all new spaces and buildings; flexibility must be designed into all projects. What other functions can this new building or addition accommodate besides what you are asking your architect to design?

- Will Ruhl