Late last year, I was interviewed by Construction News Magazine to express my views on changes in the construction industry over the years. During that interview, I was asked about emerging trends in architecture. As I reflected on that question, I thought about all the projects we have completed and how they have evolved over the years. Across Texas, public schools have requested more adaptable and flexible spaces for instructional programming as well as for community use. The school is no longer just a place for students to learn from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. It has evolved into much, much more. In a sense, many communities have endorsed the development of schools as community hubs focusing on social services, health and well-being outcomes for students, as well as benefits to their families and the public.
We have significant experience working with small and medium community schools desiring to use their buildings during and after school for the students and the community. This process involves much thought and planning around safety and security, adaptable spaces and efficiencies and automation (I may expound more on those in a later blog based on the interest). These experiences have enabled us to seize opportunities to better utilize and enhance school buildings by designing facilities offering a range of services to meet changing needs.
Use of collaborative planning, surveys, community forums and facility tours to build consensus were strategies we used in a small Southeast Texas district. Our approach is inclusive of many stakeholders from various facets of the community. We have an open discussion to understand the needs, what is desired to meet those needs and understand any obstacles and barriers preventing the district from moving forward. In a series of face-to-face meetings, we develop consensus with stakeholders to ensure the pathway moving forward is thoroughly understood and agreed on.
This approach was used in a small district in south Texas who wanted a multi-functional space for the school and the community. The district desired to have a multi-media center that could work for the students as well as the community for adult literacy and GED classes, health and nutrition classes, social service meetings and even boy and girl’s scout meetings. District officials needed a building that would be the hub for many social service agencies because they recognized that health and welfare of their students and parents had a significant influence over students’ academic outcomes and that academic outcomes influenced the economic and social health of their community. As a result, we designed a facility where the school’s multi-media facility was able to wrap their arms around multi-faceted solutions to help solve some of the issues they faced. The design included a facility with ample community space, a separate computer lab, office space so that confidential files could be locked away, ample parking, easy access for students and teachers on the campus, as well as easy access to the community and parents accessing the building after hours.
At the same time we began planning with this district, I was fortunate to be invited to enroll in a Master’s level program that was a joint partnership between San Diego State University and A4LE to earn the designation of an Accredited Learning Environment Professional. This program built on my existing knowledge and equipped me with ideas enhancing my approach to space planning and creating flexible spaces. Because many school districts have underutilized facilities, the A4LE experience was invaluable in providing a framework to develop a process to really get to the heart…the nitty gritty of concepts that are sometimes hard to put in words for clients. Through this process, we ask probing and reflective questions, listen intently, offer ideas, and continue this collaborative process until we arrive at a viable solution that fits their needs and budget. The project received a “Process of Design” award and was showcased in the TASA/TASB Exhibit of School Architecture.
One may think it’s all in the design…but even before design begins a lot of collaboration has to occur with school, community and business leaders. We have seen much success with this integrated strategic approach to address challenges unique to the districts and communities we serve.
Future Growth and Goals: Importance of “What If” instead of “What Is”
Another strategy we use to make sure designs are future forward is to begin with the future in mind and plan backwards. When communities and districts desire more from the school after hours, on the weekends and during the summer when it’s not being used, we can meet their needs with collaborative planning.
To do this successfully, the architect and stakeholders have to consider the “what if” and plan for future growth, program changes, adaptable use space and varying audiences. We draw on our collective experiences in multiple industries and our knowledge of healthcare and industrial technologies to create learning spaces, STEM labs, STEAM labs, multi-use spaces… all with a focus on flexibility, transparency, interconnectivity and ownership to foster holistic student development.
Flexibility Accommodates Inevitable Change
Why is it important for us to design flexible spaces for our clients? It is important to us because it is important for our clients and their changing needs. Design flexibility can allow a facility to evolve over time as the needs and demands of the users change. Flexibility can include movable partitions, the ability of the room to expand and even using a range of different energy sources. Really, we plan around the client’s needs. We do our best to honor the values of our district and community and make every effort to help them realize the space they have envisioned. Another strategy we employ is to, “walk in the shoes” and “live in the skin” of the people who will occupy the buildings on a daily basis. We develop surveys to determine what is important to district stakeholders, have community forums, have extensive meetings with all stakeholders to determine the needs and build consensus on how to proceed with the final plan.
Our process helps us ensure that the school’s design will incorporate the necessary physical conditions for students while honoring the cultural value to the community. We engage in extensive transparency, collaboration and listening to build a facility that blurs the boundaries between teachers, students, school and community. Ultimately, the school and community have a multi-functional space that satisfies all their unique needs.
A few years ago, we worked with another district in South Texas to build a gym that would serve as a community shelter in severe weather, office space for coaches, a competition gym, a space for physical education and a space that could be used for community events like receptions, church services and a host of other community activities for citizens without means to travel to nearby cities. We were also asked to design the outdoor spaces so that the community could use it after hours to walk for exercise, community festivals, and other events. In this facility, we designed two pavilions the district and community use for bake sales, auctions, out door parties, shelter during track meets and football games and many other uses. They also wanted an area to use for festivals, outdoor eating and community and district fundraisers. After we completed our collaborative process, we designed a courtyard plaza with easy access to the campus and the community.
The Rewards of Mastering a Challenge
Delivering on a challenge for our clients is extremely rewarding. Collaborating so that clients can realize their dream and vision within their budget is also great. It may seem at times we are underappreciated, but I would challenge my peers to revisit a finished building a year later. Just go back, stand around and observe the occupants using the spaces. It is a very rewarding experience.
To do this job well, to be an outstanding architect, we must love people, have a passion for problem-solving and be astute listeners to discern subtleties to actually understand the hearts and values of our clients. Those are key ingredients to what we chose to do and what we love to do.
If you have a facility challenge or desire to rework or rebuild an existing structure or even build from new, call us to help you realize your vision for your students and community.